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The House Blue Dog Coalition, still reeling from 2010 elections that cut its ranks in half, looks likely to sustain additional losses this year that would cast doubt on the group’s influence in the 113th Congress.
The number of Blue Dogs grew steadily beginning in 1997, peaking at 54 members in the 111th Congress, when the fiscally conservative Democrats reached the pinnacle of their influence during the health care debate. That may have also been the coalition’s undoing: The unforgiving tea party wave of 2010 and opposition to President Barack Obama’s health care law decimated the ranks.
Now, the coalition faces the prospect of membership falling to its lowest ever, less than the 21 lawmakers it counted at the start of the 105th Congress. It ended that term with 25; currently there are 24 members of the group.
An unsympathetic look at the numbers shows the Blue Dogs could suffer further losses. If Roll Call’s race ratings bear out — that is, if all races leaning Democratic swing that way and vice versa — the group is looking at a ceiling of 19 members.
That is only true if the party wins all of its Tossup races. If it loses those, membership could dwindle to as few as 14 members to start the 113th Congress.
Blue Dog Co-Chairman for Communications Mike Ross (Ark.) said not to count out his candidates.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of surprises,” said the six-term lawmaker who will retire at the end of the year, almost certainly leaving his district in Republican hands. “2010 was the worst year for Democrats in 70 years, and we lost a lot of Members. But anyone that could survive 2010 certainly will not have a problem surviving 2012.”
Indeed, 11 Blue Dogs are in safe seats, and Reps. Ben Chandler (Ky.), Jim Costa (Calif.) and Mike Michaud (Maine) are favored to win their contests. Reps. John Barrow (Ga.), Jim Matheson (Utah) and Mike McIntyre (N.C.) are in more competitive races. Some battle-tested Blue Dogs, however, have had it with the constant onslaught.
“We’re the ones where literally millions of dollars are being spent against us every two years,” Ross said.
High-profile retirements such as Ross’, paired with redistricting, are a big reason for the shrinking coalition. Reps. Heath Shuler (N.C.) and Dan Boren (Okla.), also leaders in the group, are calling it quits, and Rep. Joe Donnelly (Ind.) is running for the Senate. Democrats have slim chances of retaining their districts.
While Blue Dog PAC-endorsed candidates Gary McDowell in Michigan and Sal Pace in Colorado are running in tossup races, the group’s other endorsed candidates are running in districts where the Republican is favored.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been pulling funding from North Carolina Rep. Larry Kissell’s race, just miles from where the Democratic National Convention took place.
The National Republican Congressional Committee is taking a merciless tack, spending big money to knock off more members of the group.
“The decimation of the Blue Dogs is entirely of their own making,” NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay said. “They completely sacrificed their principles in order to support their party, and their party, despite that fact, has completely ignored them and shunned them.”
The losses hit close to home for former Rep. Billy Tauzin (La.). He co-founded the group and hosted its meetings in his office after the Republican wave election of 1994. The coalition owes its name to a painting of a blue dog he had in his office. Though he is now a Republican — he switched parties in 1995 — he still counsels members of the group.
He said that despite coming losses, the Blue Dogs can still be influential next year.
“We chat about this often,” said Tauzin, who is now a lobbyist. “They are going to shrink in size dramatically, but so will the margin of the majority. So proportionately they can and should remain important.”
That is a familiar refrain for many Members and aides tied to the group. If House Republicans remain in the majority but their margin slims, they say, it will be Blue Dogs who help Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) push compromise legislation out of the House.
The same goes for committees. The farm bill, for instance, would not have gotten out of the House Agriculture Committee without ranking member Collin Peterson (Minn.) and a cast of Blue Dogs on the panel.
“Given that Speaker Boehner has a large number of newly elected Republicans in the 2010 election that are very difficult for him to control ... there’s going to be a role for us to play in trying to work with Democrats and Republicans to get about the business of governing,” Ross said.