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Waning Blue Dogs eschew branding in favor of taking down ‘weirdos’

New leaders say the group is important as a bipartisan dealmaker and foil to Trump-backed candidates

From left, Reps. Wiley Nickel, D-N.C., Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez, D-Wash., and Jared Golden, D-Maine, discuss the Blue Dog Coalition in Golden’s office in the Longworth House Office Building on Thursday.
From left, Reps. Wiley Nickel, D-N.C., Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez, D-Wash., and Jared Golden, D-Maine, discuss the Blue Dog Coalition in Golden’s office in the Longworth House Office Building on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Corrected 2:09 p.m. | The Blue Dog Coalition doesn’t have a branding issue, its new leaders say. They aren’t concerned with its dwindling numbers. Nor are they preoccupied with the political labels others place upon them.

“I hate to even have to address that stuff you’re trying to bring up. I really do, because I never thought about that stuff when I chose to join the Blue Dogs,” said Rep. Jared Golden, the third-term Maine representative who last month was named one of three co-chairs of the centrist caucus of House Democrats. 

The former Marine sat in his office on a recent Thursday in the midst of the House Freedom Caucus’ vote-stopping debt ceiling protest. Beside him were fellow Blue Dog co-chair Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez of Washington and the group’s newest member, Wiley Nickel of North Carolina. Rep. Mary Peltola of Alaska rounds out the caucus’ new leadership.

“I feel like there’s a lot of focus on messaging and a lot of people in D.C. need to touch some grass,” said Gluesenkamp Pérez.

Yet it was an internal rift over branding earlier this year that led to the Blue Dogs, once an influential caucus, to be cut nearly in half. According to reporting at the time, a faction of Blue Dogs wanted to shed the reputation of being too conservative on social issues and too much of an “old boys’ club.” They proposed a new name — the Common Sense Caucus — and left en masse when that effort failed. 

“I’d say it’s BS politics. It’s a sideshow,” Golden said. “[They were] people who maybe were in the Blue Dogs for the wrong reason.”

The skirmish left the Blue Dogs with just seven members — and zero women —  in the early months of the 118th Congress, down from 19 in the previous Congress and a high of 54 in the 111th Congress.  Their power waned steadily as rural Democrats vanished, and other caucuses, like the moderate New Democrat Coalition, gained influence.

The Blue Dogs have rebounded slightly, adding Gluesenkamp Pérez, Peltola and Nickel in the last several months, bringing their roster up to 10.

While still small compared to past numbers, in a chaotic Congress in which Republicans hold a narrow majority, a few unified lawmakers can have a big impact. 

The new crop of Blue Dogs believes they serve an important role within the Democratic Party, both as bipartisan dealmakers and foils to the Donald Trump-backed candidates that many of them knocked off.

“We defeated some pretty weird extremists to be here,” said Gluesenkamp Pérez, an auto body shop owner who upset a pro-Trump Republican in a red district to win her first term. “I don’t know that much about the Blue Dogs’ history. I like who’s in it now, and I like the work we’re doing keeping weirdos out of Congress and trying to fix the things that keep people up at night.”

For Nickel, a criminal defense attorney who worked for Vice President Al Gore and on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, joining the Blue Dogs was a homecoming of sorts.

Born in Fresno, Calif., to a farming family, he was a staffer for former Blue Dog Dennis Cardoza, a California moderate, at the beginning of his long career in Democratic politics.

During his campaign for North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District, comprising the suburbs and exurbs south of Raleigh, Nickel struck a moderate tone and was endorsed by the Blue Dog PAC. He signaled his intent to join the caucus, along with the New Democrats, but until early June hadn’t officially signed on. The delay, he said, had nothing to do with any reluctance about the Blue Dogs.

“When you get here, you just want to try to figure out the best places to be and spend your time. And [based on] the policy focus in my office, this was definitely the right group of folks who were committed to working toward the center to get things done,” Nickel said.

That willingness to work toward the center has been part of the Blue Dog mission since the group was founded in 1994, in the wake of the “Republican Revolution,” which resulted in a 54-seat swing in the House and an eight-seat net gain in the Senate for the GOP. It was the first Republican House majority since the 1950s.

The Blue Dogs’ founders viewed the Republican rout as a sign that the Democratic Party had moved too far left. They endeavored to form a group based around financial stability and national security, with members willing to put aside partisanship and politics to do what’s right for the country.

“I love that about the Blue Dogs, and I think that’s the thing that connects past to present and future and where we want to go,” said Golden.

‘Normal people’ appeal

In addition to its new co-chairs and Nickel, the new makeup includes Democrats from California, Georgia, New Jersey and Texas. Many were elected in districts that voted for Trump, by constituents whom the Democratic Party has largely forgotten.

As recently as the late ’90s, Democrats still had strong support in rural parts of the country. Bill Clinton won roughly half the nation’s rural counties — more than 1,100 — to win a second presidential term in 1996. In 2020, Joe Biden won just 194. Trump, meanwhile, won 59 percent of rural voters in 2016 and 65 percent of rural voters in 2020, according to Pew Research.

The appeal of the Blue Dogs has historically been that they’re “pretty normal people,” according to Golden. They’re the kind of politicians who are in Washington, but not of Washington. Golden and Gluesenkamp Pérez curse liberally and are quick to call their Trump-supporting colleagues crazy. 

They’re also unafraid of bucking their own party. According to a CQ Roll Call analysis, Golden has the lowest “party unity” score in the House. Gluesenkamp Pérez is not far behind, at fourth-lowest, and Peltola is seventh.

“It is uncomfortable, setting aside partisanship to do what’s right. It sounds like a politician’s talking point,” Golden said. “Taking tough votes, fighting for compromise, which is messy and not often the most popular thing, making progress for people — that’s what makes a Blue Dog.”

In terms of policy, group members support fiscal responsibility and national security. But they’re also pursuing more specific policies that would directly benefit their blue-collar constituents. 

Golden joined the rest of Maine’s congressional delegation in March to introduce a bill that would allow small logging businesses to safely train 16- and 17-year-old family members for future careers in the forest products industry. It’s an effort that’s been panned by “elitist folks in The Washington Post,” Golden said. But it could ease the generational transfer of small businesses in his home state, he said.

Gluesenkamp Pérez, meanwhile, is focused on “right to repair” laws, which give consumers and independent repair shops access to the parts, tools and data needed to repair cars at lower costs. And she’s interested in taking on large corporations that “are choking out our farms and our small businesses and our economies,” she said.

Nickel, for his part, is interested in strengthening the country’s borders, which he said could get bipartisan support in Congress and would benefit the communities he represents.

And for now, the Blue Dogs’ new leaders aren’t sweating the size of the caucus.

“This is a selective group. Some people can look at it and say it’s small,” Golden said. “But we don’t want just anybody. We don’t want to be the biggest game in town just because it’s not a numbers game for us. It’s about quality and about the individuals.”

“We are interested in building a Congress that looks more like America,” Gluesenkamp Pérez added. “I would say quality is more important than quantity.”

This report has been corrected to reflect that Rep. Wiley Nickel ran in North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District.

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