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Will the Blue Dogs go extinct in 2012?

Despite all the attention on the presidential race in November, the battle for control of Capitol Hill should not be forgotten. EPA/Michael Reynolds

With all eyes on the ever-tightening presidential race, state and local races have begun to fade into the background. But a handful of congressional contests will determine the fate of an important faction within one party: the Blue Dog Democrats.

The Blue Dogs are the conservative coalition within the Democratic Party. (There is no real corollary for Republicans, who have a nearly-decimated moderate wing but no liberal wing to speak of.) Providing a bridge between the two parties, they have traditionally played a key role in brokering bipartisan deals. But the days of bipartisanship are on the wane, and since 2010 the Blue Dogs have found themselves on the verge of extinction.

This was not always the case. Sweeping victories for the Democrats in 2006 and 2008 breathed life into the Blue Dog coalition. Running moderate and conservative candidates in traditionally Republican districts, Democrats were able to extend their coattails into districts that had turned red decades before. By 2009, there were 54 Blue Dogs in the House of Representatives, a full 20% of the Democrats in the House.

The coalition grew not by accident but by design. While the Republican Party tacked further right, mounting primary challenges against moderates, the Democrats solicited more ideologically diverse members.

While the strategy allowed the party to (theoretically) expand its base and its appeal, it came at the cost of party unity. The GOP could get its members to fall in line through a combination of philosophical agreement and primary threats against moderates. The Democratic leadership lacked that sort of power. So when President Obama’s agenda items came up for a vote, the party ended up negotiating more with its Blue Dog members than with the unmovable Republicans.

It was Blue Dogs, not Republicans, who pushed the party to the right on climate change. Who demanded a pay-as-you-go rule for the stimulus package. Who blocked the so-called Card Check legislation, which would have made it easier for unions to organise.

And it was the Blue Dogs who had more of a hand in shaping Obama’s health care reforms than almost any other group. Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln led the charge against the public option, which would have provided a government-run alternative for Americans seeking insurance. Meanwhile Bart Stupak, a Democratic representative from Michigan, nearly scotched the whole bill with his amendment banning federal funds for any health plan that included abortion coverage.

But if the 2009 health care debate signalled the apex of Blue Dog power, 2010 would prove its undoing. Republicans targeted Blue Dogs for defeat in that year’s election, and the GOP’s sweeping victory decimated the conservative group’s ranks. When Congress convened in 2011, only 24 Blue Dogs remained in the House.

Thus the significance of the 2012 elections for the coalition. Republican redistricting and targeting, along with one or two primary challenges, have the Blue Dogs bracing for another hit. Roll Call, the leading newspaper on Capitol Hill, predicts the number of Blue Dogs will shrink to somewhere between 14 and 19 seats. If Democrats hold onto roughly the same number of seats in the House, that means the Blue Dogs coalition will make up just 10% of the party’s representatives.

Does it matter? It depends on what the goals of the party are. If the Democratic Party wants its elected officials to match its base, then it should be worried that the number of Blue Dogs are dwindling. Twenty percent of Democrats identify as conservative (compared to 4% of Republicans who identify as liberals). If the party wants to hold onto those voters, it may need to find more conservatives to beef up the Blue Dogs.

But if the Democrats determine that they should, like the Republicans, focus instead on ideological unity, collapsing the big tent and erecting an unabashedly liberal one in its place, then the Blue Dog demise is no problem at all. Yes, the parties will be more polarised, but the party would have a greater chance of passing its agenda the next time the Democrats control both houses.

So on election night, while waiting for the big race to be called, check in on the Blue Dog Democrats and how they’re faring. Their fates will tell us as much as the top-of-the-ticket results about the direction of American politics after 2012.

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