In 1994, when Republicans won the House for the first time in four decades, a band of fiscally conservative Democrats had a simple explanation: Their party had moved too far to the left.
In 2014, when Republicans shrunk Democratic numbers to their lowest since the end of World War II, a similar faction of fiscally conservative House Democrats came to a similar conclusion: The party’s progressives weren’t speaking to moderate voters.
The current political environment, with its ongoing debate over how Democrats can win elections and ugly fights over the “soul” of the party, makes for interesting parallels to what was going on 20 years ago, when the Blue Dog Coalition was born.
“We’ve learned the same lesson — at least some of us have learned the same lesson,” said Blue Dog Chairman Kurt Schrader, D-Ore. “You can’t continue to ignore big chunks of the American voter because you have certain ideological ideas.”
After 20 years, the Blue Dogs insist their mission is the same — they’re just trying to save the Democratic Party from itself.
Blue Dogs knew from the beginning they were doing something their leadership probably wouldn’t appreciate.
Rep. Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota, a founding member who’s also the longtime top Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, said the group started meeting secretly in 1994.
“We could see the party was gonna drive us into a ditch,” Peterson recalled.
Fiercely protective of its ideological purity and committed to preserving trust within the ranks, the Blue Dogs enforced a strict quota for membership and specific guidelines for admittance, even after going public in 1995.
Members were predominantly from the South — so much so that aspiring Blue Dogs from elsewhere seemed circumspect.
“It was the Southerners, they thought anybody from Minnesota had to be a raving liberal. I had a couple buddies who helped get me in,” Peterson said. “The way the rules worked, people were invited one at a time. But any member could blackball you.”
Fifteen years later, Schrader faced similar skepticism. The Oregonian applied for membership in 2010, at the plateau of Blue Dog prominence, and struggled to make his case at a time when, according to rules, the group couldn’t exceed a quarter of the caucus.
Schrader said he finally earned a spot when he revealed his nickname as Budget chairman in the Oregon Legislature: “Darth Schrader.”
In 1995, the Blue Dogs started with 23 members and quickly established themselves as players, putting forth welfare overhaul legislation and a budget resolution that won plaudits from Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo.
In 2006, Democrats won back the House; two years later, President Barack Obama won by a landslide. Democrats felt invincible, and in early 2010, Blue Dog membership topped 50 — a formidable bloc. Members were courted heavily to shore up votes for then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s big-ticket items, most significantly the Affordable Care Act.
That support would prove costly: In 2010, 26 Blue Dogs lost seats as Republicans reclaimed the House.
“We thought we were all about the right message, we had a mandate, the Republicans are gonna be irrelevant again,” Schrader said. “Only to find out the vote [that put Democrats back in power] was mostly against George [W.] Bush, not for Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi.”
Every Democrat was demoralized after 2010, but Blue Dogs were incensed.
Along with other moderates in the caucus, remaining coalition members led a revolt. Forty-three Democrats voted against Pelosi for leader in a closed-door meeting that fall; the following January, 19 Democrats voted for someone other than the progressive California lawmaker, many for Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C.
After the unsuccessful insurrection, the coalition’s clout faded. Between 2010 and 2014, the Blue Dog ranks slimmed further as members retired. By 2013, membership had dropped below 20.
With smaller numbers, they endured greater criticism from progressives for frequently voting with Republicans.
“My biggest frustration … was pure lack of understanding and appreciation for what it’s like to run as a Democrat in some of these districts,” said Jennifer Walsh, now the director of public affairs at Foley and Lardner who was a longtime chief of staff for Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., a Blue Dog who retired in 2012.
In the last Congress, Blue Dogs stopped paying dues to fund a designated staff member and relaxed the application process. That attracted new members such as then-Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, D-W.Va., who faced a tough re-election bid.
“He really joined … I think for political reasons,” recalled Blue Dog Co-Chairman Jim Costa, D-Calif. “But after six months, he saw he had more in common here. I don’t know if he expected it, but he truly enjoyed it.”
Rahall lost anyway, as did a Blue Dog stalwart, Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga.
“The last white Southern Blue Dog,” said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., another current co-chairman. “It means the Democratic Party has a lot of work today in the South to reclaim our traditional territory.”
Blue Dogs Today
One criticism of House Democratic leadership after last year’s losses was a lack of self-reflection about what went wrong. But if anything was a warning sign for the party, Blue Dogs and moderates say it was Barrow’s defeat.
“When Democrats do well and pick up seats it’s because they’re winning in these moderate, Blue Dog districts,” said Walsh, who still has connections with the group across town. “When we lose seats, it’s because they’re losing in those moderate Blue Dog districts. You can trace the size of the caucus with the size of the coalition.”
Schrader said there’s growing recognition that Blue Dogs need to have a greater presence in campaigns.
“We’re recruiting some candidates, we’ve gone out of our way … to reach out to the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee], play a role a little bit in the recruitment, and play a little role — I don’t think they’re paying attention, to be dead honest — in the messaging,” said Schrader, though a Blue Dog member.
“I get a sense from Ben Ray [Luján] … they know the difficult seats that are out there and the best kind of candidate for those swing seats, those difficult seats, are folks that would align themselves more as Blue Dogs,” Costa said of the New Mexico Democrat who is the DCCC chairman.
Anxiety over what went wrong in 2014 has led to a more vocal moderate presence in the House Democratic Caucus overall. In addition to the Blue Dogs, the more mainstream New Democrat Coalition has been more aggressive.
There are a number of Blue Dogs who also count themselves as New Democrats, a sign the group once dominated by white male Southerners is becoming, like the larger caucus itself, more diverse.
Of the 15 current Blue Dogs, four are women, three are Latino and two are African-American. Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema is bisexual.
The group has resumed funding a designated staffer and revived the tradition of bringing speakers to weekly meetings.
There are still grumblings. Schrader said he has told Democratic leaders, “I’m going to encourage my members, unless I see some changes in the Democrat message, to vote against Democrats as often as we can to show not all Democrats are one big monolithic group.”
And Cooper still believes Blue Dog numbers would be greater if moderates weren’t afraid of retribution: “Committee assignments, permissions to do lots of things that are in the discretion of party leadership … fundraising ability, lots of things are withheld from members who are not perfectly loyal.”
Schrader, however, holds out hope for change.
“This is [the] beginning of a second chapter in Blue Dog history,” he said.