How would you like to see more Joe Manchins, Henry Cuellars, Josh Gottheimers and Kyrsten Sinemas among congressional Democrats? The string that binds them all together is their conservatism and their eagerness to cross the aisle and vote with the GOP. Sinema has already left the Democratic Party and calls herself an independent. She was once the head of the Blue Dogs and had the worst voting record of any Democrat in the House— exactly why Schumer recruited her to run for the Senate. It’s not uncommon for Blue Dogs to skip out on the Democratic Party after they're elected. In fact, among the 1995 founders of the Blue Dogs, 7 eventually switched to the GOP: Billy Tauzin (LA), Nathan Deal (GA), Gene Taylor (MS), Jimmy Hayes (LA), Ralph Hall (TX), Michael Parker (MS), Greg Laughlin (TX). And Pete Geren (TX), who came up with the name, never officially switched parties but he was conservative enough for George W. Bush to appoint him Secretary of the Army. Since the founding members left the Democratic Party, many other Blue Dogs have as well. People expect it from them, like 3 conservative Alabamans: Bobby Bright, Parker Griffith and Artur Davis, Rodney Alexander (LA), Virgil Goode (VA), Joe Baca (CA)… Recently Jefferson Van Drew (NJ) pledged his allegiance to Trump and jumped the fence.
But even when they don’t officially join the Republican Party, they spend their time in Congress voting with them and— worse in some ways— pushing the Democrats further and further right on policy. Reporting yesterday for the Washington Post, Marianna Sotomayor covered the newest bunch of Blue Dogs to take the stage in the shriveled up caucus with next two no influence.
She began with Maine opportunist Jared Golden, who got elected by claiming he was a progressive and quickly came out as one of the most conservative Democrats in the House. Currently he has the 5th worst voting record of any Democrat in the House. Sotomayor wrote that “following a pair of shocking wins last year in reliably conservative districts often ignored by Democrats, freshmen Reps. Mary Peltola (D-AK) and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (D-WA) have joined forces with Golden in taking over the once-powerful Blue Dog Coalition.” Neither won by running as a Blue Dog. Both won because they were up against crackpot extremists who won the GOP primaries, in Washington neo-fascist Joe Kent (who’s running again this cycle) and in Alaska the inimitable Sarah Palin. I wouldn’t bet on either Peltola or Gluesenkamp Perez winning again next year without a blue wave.
“The Blue Dog Coalition,” recounted Sotomayor, “at its peak boasted 70 members, made up of more moderate Democrats who focused on fiscal stability, national security and working across the aisle to reach common goals— ideals that often led them to spar with the majority of their colleagues who have slowly inched further to the political left. Now, the three young leaders are hoping they can recruit more like-minded candidates, reestablish the power of the group now made up of just 10 lawmakers and challenge the idea that Democrats’ fundamental values can attract only a particular set of voters. ‘I think it’s about creating a caucus where you’re free to represent your district and still be a Democrat because of the shared values that we still have with everyone else in our caucus, despite our differences,’ Golden said during a joint interview with Gluesenkamp Perez and Peltola in his office last month… The trio argues that their wins should be seen less as an affront to the party, but instead as an example of how Democrats can expand the electoral map and regain their reputation as a ‘big tent party.’ They all bring the perspective of having won in districts carried by President Donald Trump in 2020. (Peltola even hails from a district Trump won by double digits.)”
What good does it do the Democratic Party to elect conservatives who fight against Democratic values, ruin the party brand and discourage the Democratic base nationally when they succeed in having the party give up on important goals?
Trying to maintain a robust membership has been an ongoing problem for the Blue Dog Coalition.
Democrats representing conservative-leaning districts established the group in 1995 in response to Republicans regaining the House majority for the first time in roughly 40 years. It reached peak membership during the 2008 election with roughly 70 members, but it saw its numbers slashed by more than half during the 2010 midterms after vulnerable incumbents who voted for the Affordable Care Act— even though they knew it would be politically perilous— lost their seats.
The more nuanced way the co-chairs have been talking about their vision for the party and their roles in representing that constituency has begun to resonate with a handful of first- and second-term lawmakers— most of whom also reside in swing districts— who are considering becoming a Blue Dog this year, they said.
“There are people that are coming to us and I would warn, I guess, that we’re going to be bigger before the next election,” Golden said.
Potential growth among the Blue Dogs is not something that Democrats thought would necessarily happen after six lawmakers left the group earlier this year. The group was fractured by a desire among some to change their name to the Common Sense Caucus, which members argued would help recruitment. By shedding the Blue Dog name, and its reputation that alludes to its founding days as an old school, largely Southern boys club, the concerned lawmakers argued they would attract more interest.
The effort failed and the departure of those six lawmakers left just seven members, including Golden, who were all men. Golden then started reaching out to new Democratic lawmakers who he knew represented districts similar to his and were okay with breaking with party leadership at times. In joining the group, Peltola, Gluesenkamp Perez, and Rep. Wiley Nickel (D-NC) boosted its membership to 10.
“We want to be the caucus that gets stuff done, and that’s what I associate with. It doesn’t do me any good to be here to be an ideologue,” Peltola said.
Though they had less than 20 lawmakers in the group last term, they proved they could not be ignored as House Democrats had only a five-seat majority.
Blue Dog members often were at odds with the almost 100 lawmakers in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, in particular casting doubt on whether the $3.5 trillion social spending package, known as Build Back Better, would become law. The Blue Dogs played an instrumental role in decoupling the large package from passing alongside the infrastructure bill, which Golden said gave Republicans the green light to support the measure and make it a bipartisan accomplishment for the Biden administration. And as they predicted, the more targeted Inflation Reduction Act— instead of Build Back Better— later passed both chambers.
While being in the House minority gives them time to reassemble, the group has found itself playing a proactive role. Earlier this year, they called on the Biden administration to negotiate with Republicans on a debt ceiling deal before it dominated politics in Washington, and they have already begun to raise alarms on the possibility of a government shutdown in the fall.
Golden, Gluesenkamp Perez and Peltola have garnered a reputation as lawmakers most likely to vote with Republicans, which Democratic leaders recognize as necessary for the trio to maintain support in their districts. That has not stopped the liberal base from focusing their ire on the group, viewing them as Democrats in name only. The New York Times reported that Gluesenkamp Perez’s auto repair shop became the target of online attacks after she was one of two Democrats who voted against Biden’s student debt forgiveness initiative. The other Democrat was Golden.
“I think it’s also important, like, we are not trying to win a popularity contest. We are trying to represent our communities and our values,” Gluesenkamp Perez said.
The three have stayed away from partisan attacks and kept their focus on attracting more members to join their ranks. They have begun to speak more actively about what the group stands for, having conversations on the House floor or sitting down to breakfast with members interested in joining. While they are sticking to their fiscal stability and national security roots, they are working to define what those principles can mean in this modern political environment— arguing that tackling supply chain reforms, strengthening cybersecurity and addressing the growing housing issue all fall under those two categories.
…The trio also has issue with legislation that boasts huge price tags, promising funds for localities and states but tying those funds to very specific rules, like aspects of Democrats’ Build Back Better and coronavirus relief bills. They believe that approach could actually alienate working-class communities who want to implement change in the way that works best for their area.
“The Democratic Party, I think, increasingly is just about federalizing most of that stuff and dictating terms to localities about what they must do in order to receive, and almost deserve, access to this money,” Golden said. “My perspective is, I want to empower my local communities to make these decisions. They’re smart enough to do it themselves. They’re capable to do it themselves.”
While the Blue Dog co-chairs are looking to influence policy debates by expanding their ranks in the short term, they know that their broader goal of changing how the party defines base politics requires two things: Recruiting more candidates like them and helping them get elected.
“Trying to change culture with legislation is sort of like trying to push with a rope,” Gluesenkamp Perez said. “I think that part of what we’re doing here is to change the culture of Congress, to challenge the narrative of what it means to be a qualified candidate or legislator.”
Unlike previous years, the Blue Dog Coalition and its political arm are looking to play a proactive role in recruiting candidates rather than just supporting politicians once they’ve announced their campaigns. And they have a triad of characteristics for candidates they deem worth investing in: a Democrat working in a rural or working-class district that leans conservative; someone who is willing to challenge rather than walk the party line; and someone who will likely face a Trump-loyalist Republican.
While there are a limited number of races that would hit all three categories, the co-chairs are looking at districts across the country. So far they said they have been in touch with prospective candidates in Colorado, Wisconsin, Florida and Pennsylvania.
All three are familiar with the herculean task of running as a Democrat in a reliably conservative district, as unknown politicians are usually not given financial backing by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which remains focused on helping candidates who are challenging Republican incumbents representing districts Joe Biden won in 2020.
Gluesenkamp Perez recalled visiting the DCCC offices in Washington shortly after she beat far-right candidate Joe Kent, flipping a GOP-held seat for the first time in over a decade. She noticed that her face was missing on a map of the country that showed competitive races. She ribbed staff, telling them, “Oh, you spent more money on printing that damn map than you did on my race.” The small-business owner said she was largely able to sustain a campaign because of small-dollar donations and a law change that allowed child care to be included as a campaign expense.
Peltola was largely considered an afterthought when she ran to represent Alaska’s at-large congressional district, which Trump won by 10 points in 2020. She joked that she accepted one of her kid’s requests to help babysit in Oregon because she had “a one in 3 million chance” to win the race after raising only $400,000 in her special election against three millionaires.
But she said she believes she overperformed in her races because “people are tired of hearing the bumper sticker rhetoric. People are tired of this kind of garbage that most candidates feel like they have to say.” Peltola said she’s now “begging the Democrats” not to give her money because they didn’t before and she doesn’t want it now.
While they see candidates like themselves being successful in swing districts, their own wins have emboldened the Blue Dogs to make plays at reliable Republican districts. They would also rather oust GOP extremists in conservative-leaning districts than target moderate and pragmatic Republicans who value finding bipartisan solutions to some issues.
“That’s why the [National Republican Congressional Committee] wants our head on a platter because we break the map. I don’t want to reduce it to partisan football, but I, at my core, believe that communities like ours are best served by normal people with Democratic values,” Gluesenkamp Perez said. “We lose the soul of the Democratic Party, when we say, ‘You know what, we’re gonna go after college-educated Republicans instead of blue-collar union members.’ … We lose the values that hold us together.”
While DCCC staff often meets with all three Democratic ideological caucuses— the Congressional Progressive Caucus, New Democrat Coalition and Blue Dog Coalition— on recruitment, the trio believes that the national campaign arm and the new generation of House Democratic leadership have a choice to support candidates not typically out of central casting this cycle and in the future.
“I really believe that we can [take the House back] at a time when a lot of the party is, at times openly, throwing out the idea that we should forget about [candidates like us],” Golden said. “It should be looking for the most qualified person to represent the community who is a Democrat … and bring the resources to them.”
Funny they don’t name their recruits. Are the candidates ashamed to admit they’re working with the Blue Dogs? I wonder why. Don't they want their names in the Washington Post? The only way Blue Dogs can ever get into Congress is by tricking Democratic base voters into believing that they’re real Democrats and pretending to back the progressive agenda and not coming out as full-fledged conservatives until after they’re in office. The other day we saw how conservative former state Senator Jim Gaughran is taking on Republican freshman Nick LaLota in a red-leaning district in eastern Long Island. Gaughran is probably best known by voters for tanking a single-payer healthcare system in New York when he was in the state Senate even though he ran specifically promising to vote for the New York Health Act. It was part of why he was elected but he was one of just 2 Democrats who had run on it to then oppose it. Who wants to vote for someone who’s a proven liar?