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Shows and Melancon: Don’t Write Off the Blue Dog Caucus

Since election night, many political pundits have written about the demise of the conservative Democratic Blue Dog Caucus in Congress. What is most distressing to us is not the pontifications of the political punditry (many of whom picked Mitt Romney to win in a landslide) but, rather, the acceptance by many Democrats that the South is a lost cause.

What is so puzzling about Democrats writing off certain congressional districts, like those in our home states of Mississippi and Louisiana, is that they fail to either see or accept the correlation between winning those highly competitive House seats below the Mason-Dixon line and taking control of Congress. It is not a coincidence that the reduction of Blue Dogs on Capitol Hill coincides with Republican control of the House of Representatives.

Just a few years ago, in 2006, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel, working with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, led Democrats to take back the House of Representatives from Republicans and J. Dennis Hastert, the longest-serving Republican speaker in history.

Hardly ancient history. Democrats picked up 31 seats, and a quick look at this map demonstrates just how much blue there was in the South. Those same voters live there today, and the world hasn’t changed all that much in six years.

While redistricting has made things harder for Democrats in some of those congressional districts, it doesn’t change the fact that they must have those seats to wrestle back control of the House.

Emanuel has left Washington to be mayor of Chicago, but that doesn’t mean a concerted effort to take back those congressional seats in the South is an impossibility. It just means Democrats need to do two things:

First, recruit candidates with political viewpoints that are in line with people in those regions — and who have the ability to raise money.

And second, the party needs to lead from the middle to convince Southerners that a vote for a Democrat is not a vote for far-left policies in Washington that are out of step with the more moderate views in rural America.

We are not suggesting that Democrats abandon their principles. Rather, instead of always starting political debates on the far left, and only moving to the middle during negotiations, Democrats should begin in the middle and challenge Republicans to come to us. Always beginning negotiations from extreme positions doesn’t help achieve the legislative compromise our nation so desperately needs. It also doesn’t assure the moderate voters who decide elections in swing districts that the Democratic Party is moderate.

The importance of Blue Dogs for Democrats to control Congress isn’t critical just in the House. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., a member of the Blue Dogs, won a hotly contested Senate fight. Admittedly, his opponent did real damage to his own campaign with highly controversial comments about abortion. But Donnelly ran a strong campaign and was ahead in some polls even before that happened.

No doubt, if Donnelly had been too liberal for Indiana’s moderate voters (both registered Democrats and independents), that Senate seat could have ended up in the hands of Republicans.

Just a few years ago, Democrats had seats in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia that are now controlled by Republicans. In the most recent presidential election, President Barack Obama won Virginia and almost won North Carolina. So the South is hardly a lost cause for Democrats.

This is why Democrats need to shrug off the assertions that the Blue Dogs are over and again make real efforts to take back those seats — and with them, control of the House of Representatives.

After all, ranking member and minority leader are pretty good titles to have, but chairman and speaker of the House sound a heck of a lot better.

Former Reps. Ronnie Shows, D-Miss., and Charlie Melancon, D-La., were part of the Blue Dog Caucus during their tenures on Capitol Hill.

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