The Democratic Party spent enormous amounts of time and money recruiting and supporting moderate, centrist candidates as part of its strategy to take control of the House in last month’s midterm elections — and it worked. Now, these very lawmakers are organizing to assert their influence. If they succeed, they might just keep their jobs and save the Democratic majority in the process.
The Blue Dog Coalition began in 1995 after Democrats lost power in the most stunning electoral defeat of that era. Originally made up of mostly older, white, Southern men, their name was inspired by the iconic yellow-eyed blue dog painted by artist George Rodrigue. A post-Reconstruction adage had stated that Southerners would rather vote for a yellow dog than a Republican. But by the 1990s, Southern Democrats said that yellow dog was being “choked blue” by the extreme sides of both parties, hence the name Blue Dogs.
The forming principle of the group was that fiscally conservative, national-security-minded Democrats needed to stick together — and occasionally stick it to their own party’s leadership — to survive and get stuff done. But the Blue Dog Coalition will look a lot different in 2019 than it did in 1995: It now includes Northerners, young people and veterans. It is led by an Asian American woman who served in the Pentagon and just won her first reelection in a purple Florida district that supports both gun control and gay rights.
“The makeup of our coalition has changed,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) told me. “It’s not your Southern Democratic Blue Dog Coalition anymore.”
Murphy and her co-chairs, Rep. J. Luis Correa (Calif.) and Rep. Tom O’Halleran (Ariz.), are growing their coalition by recruiting from the incoming freshman class. It is no accident they’ve signed up Afghanistan war veteran Max Rose (N.Y.), former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger (Va.) and former Salt Lake County, Utah, mayor Ben McAdams. Their theory of the case is that competence, pragmatism and experience in public service are attributes voters crave in the age of President Trump.
Republicans have ceded huge territory in the center, Murphy said, by abandoning fiscal responsibility on debt and deficits while following Trump as he takes the GOP toward a nationalist trade and foreign policy.
“We have a unique opportunity,” she said. “It is a moment when the Blue Dogs have an opportunity to be a strong, reasonable voice. . . . In contrast to some of the reckless policies we are seeing.”
They know the progressive far-left Democrats entering Congress are getting the lion’s share of media attention. For example, Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) has a district just miles from Rose’s but gets drastically more coverage, in part because of her willingness to oppose party leadership and advocate economic and foreign policy ideas that are outside the mainstream.
The question for likely speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) will be how she balances the wants of the progressive side of her caucus with the needs of the members from red and purple districts who actually gave Democrats the majority.
Sixty-four percent of the 42 seats Democrats flipped in the 2018 midterms will be held by members of the Blue Dogs or the moderate New Democratic Coalition; only 27 percent of those seats will be held by members of the Progressive Caucus. Of the 20 congressional districts now held by Democrats but that favored Trump in 2016, 11 are Blue Dog or New Dem members; only three are in the Progressive Caucus.
Ocasio-Cortez won with 78 percent of the vote. Rose won with less than 53 percent. If Pelosi still wants to be speaker after two years, Democrats must convince constituents in districts such as Rose’s that their party represents them.
“Our districts have a different look to them and a different face to them, and we have to recognize that and the caucus has to recognize that,” O’Halleran told me.
The risk for Democrats is that the squeaky wheels will wind up getting the grease — and the loudest voices will become the voice of the party.
“Pragmatism never has been and never will be a sexy message, but these members were elected in part because of their pragmatism,” said Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau, a partner at ROKK Solutions, a Washington consultancy. “The priority is maintaining and expanding the majority. As a bloc, there’s a lot of strength in the Blue Dog Coalition.”
The Blue Dogs’ challenge is not just about marketing. They are preaching moderation, compromise and bipartisanship in an environment characterized by divided government, intense partisanship, the prospect of two years of investigations into the administration and potential impeachment proceedings. Also, another presidential election campaign is right around the corner.
Even if the Democratic leadership gives its centrist and moderate members the opportunities and cover they need to be independent and focus on their districts, greater forces may continue to push both parties to their extremes. Democrats must decide whether they want to assuage their angriest elements or govern from the middle and keep their power.