Choking The Blue Dogs

Blue Dog Democrat Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) discusses Health Care on Face The Nation.
Gary Andres is vice chairman of research at Dutko Worldwide in Washington, D.C., and a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard.

The political collars continue to tighten around Blue Dogs and other Democrats representing Republican-leaning congressional districts. Recent election results in Virginia and New Jersey, as well as a bevy of new polls, all suggest these vulnerable lawmakers face an increasingly hostile environment entering the 2010 election year.

At-risk Democrats are experimenting with different voting strategies to achieve political survival. Some support the White House, calculating that cozying up to the president and liberal interests groups will yield electoral dividends. Others are distancing themselves from a president rapidly losing altitude with swing voters. Time will tell which strategy works better. Yet a return to normal voting patterns--after GOP under performance in 2006 and 2008 in some of these districts--could swamp many Democrats next year, no matter how they posture themselves in Washington.
Moderate-to-conservative Democrats in Congress always confront a tough balancing act. Many of their constituents oppose their party leadership's agenda. So they take their lumps--either from their own caucus or from the folks back home. Blue Dogs wrestle with this form of political schizophrenia daily.

It used to be easier.

Bill Clinton, for example, intuitively understood the vulnerable Democrats' plight. He spoke of finding a "third way" and "triangulated" between Republicans and the most liberal elements of his own party. His rhetoric gave Blue Dogs a comfortable home.

During George W. Bush's presidency, these vulnerable Democrats regularly found solace in opposing the White House with conservative panache. Mr. Bush's tax cuts "ran up the debt," he didn't "pay for" the Medicare prescription drug benefit and the war in Iraq was too costly. Blue Dogs opposed the president without losing their conservative credentials.

Today it's more complicated. This White House does not proffer "third way" rhetoric. Obama also yields policy details to a congressional leadership more beholden to liberals. Progressive groups and bloggers also make a lot of noise about Blue Dogs that oppose a "progressive" agenda. Vulnerable Democrats must now embrace policies often unpopular in their districts, like health care legislation, cap and trade and even a big spending stimulus proposal or appear like traitors in their caucus and face the wrath of liberal interest groups.

Veteran political analyst Jim Ellis, who writes a newsletter called PRIsm, notes that Blue Dogs split on the health care and cap and trade votes - 17 supported both bills, while 18 opposed the two measures (the balance of the 52 Blue Dogs divided their votes for and against the measures).

Consider lawmakers like Reps. Gabrielle Giffords (AZ), Zack Space (OH), or Baron Hill (IN). President Obama received less than 50% in their districts, yet all three supported both controversial measures. They hope these votes translate into heightened enthusiasm among Democratic activists in their districts.

Some think it might work. "These lawmakers should be able to survive those votes if they do all the right blocking and tackling back home," a former Republican congressional chief of staff who worked for several vulnerable members told me. And the resources provided by a supportive White House and Democratic base would help these lawmakers do that. "The power of incumbency is a powerful force," a former Democratic chief of staff added. "If these people are perceived to be hard working, honest and trying to do something for their districts, they can usually hold on."

Others make a different calculation. Some, like Reps. Bobby Bright and Parker Griffin of Alabama and Walt Minnick of Idaho--whose districts gave Obama less than 40% of the vote in 2008--told their leadership "no way." But can their opposition save them?

"It could if this is not a 'wave' election," the Republican chief of staff told me. "But those districts that lean the other way are never safe from a national wave. In that scenario, it will be the letter next to their name [R or D], that will dictate their fate, rather than a single vote."

Ellis agrees. He told me 15-20 seats could swing back Republican assuming 2010 just returns to normal electoral patterns. Some of these Democrats were elected in 2006 and 2008--years when the landscape tilted unusually against Republicans.

In the end, how these lawmakers vote in Washington may matter less than who turns out on Election Day. The Obama-Pelosi agenda is not doing these vulnerable Democrats any favors. Continuing to promote a host of controversial and divisive measures could create a dangerous wave, drowning these vulnerable lawmakers' reelection chances--irrespective of their voting records.

By Gary Andres:
Reprinted with permission from The Weekly Standard