Possible Turnover Doesn’t Faze Blue Dog Caucus

Posted October 27, 2004 at 6:33pm

The conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition is perhaps facing the greatest hit to the organization’s numbers since its inception, with one-fourth of the group’s members retiring or in serious trouble on Nov. 2.

Of the 38 Blue Dogs, three are retiring, two are running for the Senate and another six are facing major re-election struggles. Of these Democrats, three are longtime leaders of the Blue Dogs: Reps. Chris John (La.), Charlie Stenholm (Texas) and Jim Turner (Texas).

John is running for the Senate, Turner is retiring and Stenholm, a Blue Dog founder, is in facing the toughest re-election of his career.

Even so, the Blue Dogs themselves insist they aren’t worried that Nov. 2 could be a death knell for the group, which pushes fiscal responsibility, deficit reduction and balanced budgets. Instead, they contend that the organization will hold its own, and perhaps even see its membership and influence grow in the 109th Congress.

Rep. John Tanner (Tenn.), a longtime Blue Dog leader, said this week that while he recognizes the scope of the group’s potential losses, he isn’t concerned. He said the strength of the conservative coalition is in its message, rather than in the individual members who comprise it.

“One of the things we’ve tried to do with the Blue Dogs — unlike other groups — is we’ve tried to create a movement,” Tanner said. “We’ve created a philosophy. That’s why we rotate the co-chairs so it doesn’t become anyone individual’s group.”

Tanner added that even if the Blue Dogs’ numbers drop after the election — and he doesn’t believe that will happen — the group’s focus will remain the same and that “20 members can voice that as well as 38 members.”

“It’s not about numbers or individuals,” he said. “It is a philosophy that will survive no matter what happens in this election.”

The Blue Dogs have traditionally been careful about whom they endorse. This cycle, the group endorsed 11 candidates, including Dan Boren in Oklahoma, Jim Costa in California and John Salazar in Colorado.

Blue Dog spokesman Eric Wortman said the group does not believe its numbers will dwindle on Nov. 2, given the potential new Members and the strength of its incumbents.

“We are confident we will grow from where we’re at,” Wortman said. “Everyone is confident we will be larger. Whether that’s one or five, I don’t know. But we are confident we will not take a hit on our influence.”

In addition to John, Turner and possibly Stenholm, several other Blue Dogs may not return for the next Congress. Reps. Max Sandlin (Texas), Dennis Moore (Kan.), Jim Matheson (Utah), Baron Hill (Ind.) and freshman Stephanie Herseth (S.D.) are all considered vulnerable this cycle. Both Hill and Moore are leaders in the group.

The confidence among Blue Dog leaders comes as the group boasts a record-high membership and, by many accounts, greater power with its agenda in the otherwise liberal Democratic Caucus. The group formed in 1995 with 15 members.

Democrats, both in the House and nationally, have since incorporated many of the Blue Dogs’ core issues into their larger economic message, including fiscal responsibility, pay-as-you-go budgets and deficit reduction.

In addition, Turner is the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, while Stenholm is the ranking member on the Agriculture Committee. John sits on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee.

“It doesn’t help for people of that stature, that dedication, to be lost,” Tanner said. “It’s not just for the Blue Dogs, but for the Congress.”