Blue Dogs are at risk of becoming an endangered species on Capitol Hill.
Squeezed by an increasingly progressive party base, redistricting and a difficult election cycle, the moderate wing of the Democratic Party in the House could fall to its smallest number since its inception in the mid-1990s.
The fiscally conservative, pro-national security caucus within the Democratic Party boasted 54 members after the 2008 elections. Depending how some key races break this November, there could be as few as eight Blue Dogs in the next Congress.
Among the 19 Blue Dog Democrats on Capitol Hill now, two are not seeking reelection, one is running for governor, two were defeated in primaries, and six are vulnerable in the general election.
Blue Dog Democrats often hold the most competitive districts, so their struggle to win is a sign that the Democratic majority is in peril.
“Blue Dogs are the cusp of the majority. They’re always the canary in the coal mine,” said Brad Howard, former chief of staff for Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida, the Blue Dogs’ co-chairman for communications.
With President Joe Biden’s slumping job rating, House Democrats are decidedly on the defensive in the 2022 midterm elections. But it won’t be the first time Blue Dog Democrats faced a difficult cycle.
I vividly recall speaking to the Blue Dogs on a panel in 2010 with my friends Chris Cillizza, then of The Washington Post, and analyst Amy Walter, who now leads The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter. It was in one of the side rooms off the cafeteria on the top floor of the Madison Library of Congress building.
I remember where Betsy Markey of Colorado was standing, off to the left. Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania was sitting to our right with his feet propped up on the table. The health care overhaul dubbed the Affordable Care Act was galvanizing the electorate against the Democratic Party, and the mood in the room was tense.
Travis Childers sat almost directly in front of us. “How bad’s it gonna be?” the mustachioed Mississippi lawmaker asked in his southern drawl. Walter predicted that half of the lawmakers in the room would lose. And that’s exactly what happened. Blue Dogs went from 54 to 26 after the 2010 cycle, when Republicans gained 63 seats overall, en route to regaining the House majority.
History could repeat itself, except there now are fewer Blue Dogs to begin with.
Stephanie Murphy is not running for reelection, and neither is Jim Cooper of Tennessee. Republicans redrew both of their districts to favor the GOP, Cooper’s dramatically so. Florida Rep. Charlie Crist is running for governor, so he won’t be in Congress next year either.
In a wave election, six Blue Dogs could lose in November.
Democratic Rep. Tom O’Halleran of Arizona (who is Blue Dog co-chairman for administration) is arguably the most vulnerable incumbent in the country. Georgia Rep. Sanford Bishop is in a competitive race for the first time in years. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine is in a toss-up rematch against former Rep. Bruce Poliquin. Rep. Abigail Spanberger has a serious challenge in a Virginia district that Republican Glenn Youngkin won in the 2021 race for governor.
Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas narrowly won his primary but is now in a competitive general election race while being under federal investigation. And Rep. Vicente Gonzalez of Texas thought he had an easier path to reelection in a neighboring district but now must face GOP Rep. Mayra Flores, who just won a special election. Both men have to wrestle with Republicans quickly gaining ground with Hispanic voters in South Texas.
“In 2010, I had to do everything I could to separate myself from the national party, which was very unpopular in my district,” said former Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania. “The key for candidates in that position is to show how they are different, how they represent their district and not the party.”
That’s often easier said than done in an era where voters have less of an appetite for split-ticket voting.
In a wipeout scenario, just eight Blue Dogs could be left in the conference. Reps. Lou Correa, Jim Costa and Mike Thompson of California, David Scott of Georgia, Ed Case of Hawaii, Brad Schneider of Illinois, and Mikie Sherrill and Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey are all heavy favorites to win reelection.
With friends like these
Not only do Blue Dogs often face difficult reelection races, but they also simultaneously face pressure from within the party for not being progressive enough.
Both Blue Dog PAC Chairman Kurt Schrader of Oregon and Carolyn Bourdeaux of Georgia lost primaries this year. That was partly because they were viewed as too moderate, but they also faced the challenge of running in redrawn districts with new constituencies. Cuellar also nearly lost in the primary to a more progressive challenger.
While Bourdeaux’s district will stay in Democratic hands with Rep. Lucy McBath, Democrats are at risk of losing Schrader’s redrawn 5th District, even according to the congressman himself.
“I think the Democratic Party has moved quite a bit to the left, moving out from underneath me,” Schrader told local KATU after his loss. “The socialist wing of the party is taking over, and that’s their opportunity to elect somebody different.”
Spanberger has gone toe-to-toe with progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, saying liberals don't understand the challenge moderate incumbents face running in competitive districts compared to Democrats who get to run in solidly Democratic seats.
“Rather than be celebrated as majority makers, Blue Dogs are viewed as disloyal to the cause, failing the purity test,” explained Altmire, who survived reelection in 2010 but lost two years later when Republicans made his district more Republican. “That’s how majorities are lost.”
Looking to the future
"We're losing some institutional knowledge in Congress, but we've got some incredible building blocks for the future," said Blue Dog Coalition Executive Director Andy LaVigne.
There are a handful of Blue Dog PAC-endorsed candidates running in competitive races. Adam Gray is running against Republican John Duarte in the competitive open seat race in California’s 13th District. Rudy Salas is taking on GOP Rep. David Valadao in California’s 22nd District. And North Carolina Democrats Don Davis and Wiley Nickel are running in the 1st and 13th Districts, respectively. (Blue Dog PAC also endorsed Texas Democrat Ruben Ramirez, but he lost narrowly in the primary runoff in the 15th District.)
Even if some of those new candidates win in a challenging environment, the Blue Dog ranks will be significantly diminished. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be influential in the next Congress.
"We may not be in an era where Blue Dogs are 55 members strong — but there will always be a need for a moderate wing of the Democratic Party, particularly one that wants to govern, and is willing to reach across the aisle to get things done," added LaVigne.
As the country becomes more polarized along partisan lines, there are fewer opportunities for moderate Democrats to get elected. For example, it’s almost unthinkable that Democrats used to hold three of four seats in Arkansas, but they did it because they were all Blue Dogs.
But even in a new Republican majority, a small group of Blue Dogs could be influential. If a new GOP speaker of the House experiences too many defections on their right flank, Blue Dogs may be necessary to get key legislation through the House, including any bills preferred by Biden in what could be the final years of his administration.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.