Smaller Blue Dog Pack Will Need New Leaders

Posted October 8, 2010 at 5:14pm

The fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition is headed for a major transition after the November elections, with the retirement of key founding member Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.) and many of the group’s remaining members under siege.

‘We don’t know what the leadership positions will be like, because we don’t know the outcome of the election,’ said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), a senior Blue Dog who said the group could conceivably lose half of its 54 members in a Republican wave.

With Tanner’s absence, the role of elder statesman appears likely to fall to Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), who is respected for his political, policy and fundraising chops among the Blue Dog rank and file. Boyd is also close to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who has long courted the group, formed by centrist Democrats in the aftermath of the 1994 Republican takeover.

Senior Democratic aides also point to Rep. Jim Matheson (Utah), the lead spokesman for the group and someone expected to win re-election, as a rising star, along with Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.), the Blue Dog whip, and Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (S.D.), the co-chairwoman for administration who faces a stiff challenge this cycle.

‘I think Boyd and Tanner are already co-senior statesmen, and then there is everyone else,’ one senior aide said.

The aide predicted that Matheson, who led an effort before the break to extend the Bush-era tax cuts, will join Boyd at the head of the pack if he wants it.

‘He is head and shoulders above anyone else in political skill and intellect,’ the aide said. ‘Matheson just needs to decide if he wants to put his focus into doing it.’

While Boyd has been quietly notifying Members of his desire to lead the group next year, he already has the support of Blue Dog alumni such as former Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas).

‘Certainly Allen’s been a leader for years, a very strong leader in that group,’ said Turner, a co-founder of the caucus.

With his departure, Tanner is vacating his post as chief deputy whip of the Democratic Caucus, and Boyd may be angling for that spot in the 112th Congress, assuming he is re-elected.

‘I know the Blue Dogs will lay a claim to that spot,’ said a lobbyist with ties to the group.

But the lobbyist said many prominent Blue Dogs, including Boyd and Shuler, are preoccupied with their races rather than climbing the ladder.

‘A lot of the people who are rising leaders in the caucus are really having to focus on their re-elections,’ the lobbyist said.

‘There is some pre-baked bread already when it comes to the vision of who the leadership ought to be,’ a second lobbyist with Blue Dog ties said. ‘There are a variation of slates … but depending on who wins and loses, the bigger question there is, does the establishment within the Blue Dogs prevail in putting forth their chosen leaders, or does somebody like Jim Cooper or [Rep.] Lincoln Davis [D-Tenn.] rise up?’

Cooper, who often pushes his own policy agenda, said he’s content to stay focused on policy rather than politics and fundraising.

Davis has sought to move into Blue Dog leadership in the past but been rebuffed. Democratic aides say he has been trying to position himself as a leader, although some question whether he is taken seriously.

In addition to filling out their leadership team, the Blue Dogs will also have to revitalize their fundraising arm ‘ another area where Tanner, who is also a subcommittee chairman on the Ways and Means panel, will be missed.

‘He’ll leave a big void,’ Turner said. ‘[Tanner] and Allen Boyd for a number of years led the Blue Dog [Political Action Committee] and raised a lot of money for Blue Dogs and their re-elections.’

Matheson, who sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee, could step up and fill that void, a senior aide said.

There also should be room for some fresh faces in the leadership ranks.

The Blue Dogs have rotated their formal leadership every Congress in an effort to help train new blood, and Cooper predicted that would continue. He added that there are any number of younger Members who could vie for a post if they survive the November elections.

Meanwhile, deep losses for the Democratic Party could have a silver lining for the coalition’s clout. In a narrow Democratic majority, leadership will have to pay far more attention to Blue Dog concerns than it did in this Congress.

‘Even if there is a Republican majority, they are going to be hurting for votes, and depending on the issue, Blue Dogs can be providing key votes,’ Cooper said. ‘The role that Blue Dogs can play is honest broker.’

There are other advantages to a smaller pack, Cooper said. ‘We probably will be more disciplined and more cohesive in the next Congress. With a smaller group, that’s easier to achieve.’

Rep. Dennis Cardoza, who is the Blue Dog liaison to leadership, also predicted the group’s influence will rise.

‘America is craving an honest middle ground with folks who fight for America above everything else, and that’s what the Blue Dogs stand for,’ the California Democrat said.

The Blue Dogs worked with the Republican majority on a number of issues in the 1990s, including plans to balance the budget.

Republicans may be eyeing Blue Dogs to switch parties, but Cooper said he thinks that is unlikely.

‘You usually get the worst of both worlds with party switchers, and Parker Griffith is the best example of that,’ he said, referring to the Alabama Republican who lost his primary this year after he switched parties. ‘The new party doesn’t trust you, and the old party is particularly angry.’

Kathleen Hunter contributed to this report.