Deputy editor, national politics

Pity the poor Blue Dog. The ranks of self-proclaimed conservative Democrats have been decimated in recent years, victims of increasing polarization in Washington and the sweeping Republican takeover of the House in 2010.

But a new advocacy group has popped up this year with hopes of bolstering the remaining Blue Dogs and perhaps even helping a few new centrist lawmakers win election to Congress.

The nonprofit group, called Center Forward, has poured nearly $4 million into broadcast commercials aimed at helping conservative House Democrats keep their seats. Unlike previous groups that have focused solely on Democrats, Center Forward has also given a boost to several Republican moderates in its ad buys as well.

Cori Smith, a former longtime Capitol Hill aide who serves as the group’s executive director, said Center Forward is aimed at supporting lawmakers who “work together in a commonsense and bipartisan fashion to get things done.”

“Looking around Washington, the only voices that have been heard recently are those on the extremes of both parties,” said Smith, who has served as chief of staff for Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) and former representative Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.). “Center Forward is looking to boost the voices of those who believe in the goals of compromise and moderate ideals.”

As recently as two years ago, Blue Dog Democrats in the House were arguably among the most influential voting blocs on Capitol Hill, bending major legislation such as President Obama’s stimulus package and the health-care reform law to their wills.

But the coalition, numbering 54 members in 2010, has shrunk to about two dozen and exercises little power in a House firmly controlled by conservative Republicans.

Formed this year, Center Forward is essentially a rebranding of a group called the Blue Dog Research Group, which dates to the heyday of conservative Democratic influence. The reorganized nonprofit organization does not disclose its donors, but it has received financial support from other political organizations such as the Blue Dog PAC, which funnels money to candidates.

Center Forward’s first big splash came in March with a $1 million national ad urging Congress to “put partisan politics aside” and reach a deficit-reduction deal without “radical schemes that gamble with America’s future.”

The group has since rolled out a steady wave of ads aimed at helping specific lawmakers. Last month, Center Forward aired $1.35 million in ads to aid Reps. John Barrow (D-Ga.), Ben Chandler (D-Ky.) and Jim Matheson (D-Utah). The group added another $500,000 to help Barrow and Matheson this month, and it has also waded into the U.S. Senate race to help Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) in his race against Republican tea party favorite Richard E. Mourdock.

The organization has also sought to help Republicans, running ads over the summer to assist Reps. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), David B. McKinley (R-W.Va.) and Todd Russell Platts (R-Pa.). The commercial, which also ran in five Democratic districts, was aimed at helping lawmakers “willing to work across party lines to cut the deficit in a responsible manner,” Center Forward said.

The three Republicans were among a group of 10 GOP lawmakers who voted against the sweeping budget-cutting plan proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), now the party’s candidate for vice president.

“The focus is really not about party affiliation,” Smith said. “It’s an interest in supporting centrist members on both sides of the aisle.”

Given their dwindling ranks and a polarized electorate, it’s not clear how much impact Center Forward will have in the near term.

Two prominent Blue Dogs from Pennsylvania, Reps. Jason Altmire and Tim Holden, lost primary battles this year to opponents from their left who painted them as traitors to core Democratic values. Nearly 10 others have retired or announced their intention to do so at the end of their terms.

The rise of Blue Dog Democrats in Republican-leaning districts was key to the Democratic takeover of the House in 2006, and their depleted numbers makes it harder for the party to win the 25 seats in November that it would need to retake control. Still, Smith said, Center Forward hopes to effect change.

“We’re going to continue to spend as much as we can,” she said. “I think folks will eventually realize that nothing will get done without compromise on both sides.”