New Democrats Take Center Stage

Posted March 16, 2010 at 6:40pm

If Blue Dog Democrats represent the type of districts Republicans must win to get closer to the majority in 2010, then New Democrats personify the seats the GOP needs to win to actually regain the majority.

The business-friendly New Democrat Coalition doesn’t have the same public profile as the smaller and more cohesive Blue Dogs, who have become a symbol of House Democrats’ challenges in maintaining unity in their fractious Caucus, not to mention holding their 75-seat edge in the chamber.

But in many ways, it is the members of the New Democrat Coalition — home to a large number of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) “Majority Makers” who won pivotal suburban swing districts in 2006 and 2008 — who are truly on the front lines of Democrats’ fight to pass their ambitious legislative agenda and maintain their majority.

“A lot of the places where Democrats made gains between 2006 and 2008 were in some of these districts,” said a chief of staff for a New Democrat Member. He said the coalition embodies the gains the party has made in moderate suburban areas and in moving “past the culture wars of the ’90s and into middle-class issues,” which proved successful in recent elections.

This is the same battleground where Democrats will have to fight in 2010 and where they are already fighting to persuade voters to support their policy priorities.

At the beginning of the month, the White House invited the coalition’s leadership to its own one-on-one meeting to discuss health care. The coalition’s chairman, Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), called it a “very honest discussion with the president” and said “it demonstrates the White House looks to the New Democrats as a sweet spot for this caucus.”

It is wavering first- and second-term New Democrats who are facing some of the fiercest arm twisting on the health care overhaul vote expected to take place this week, including Reps. Michael Arcuri (N.Y.), Scott Murphy (N.Y.), Michael McMahon (N.Y.), Jason Altmire (Pa.), Gabrielle Giffords (Ariz.) and Mark Schauer (Mich.). All face competitive re-election races this fall.

[IMGCAP(1)]The National Republican Congressional Committee is keeping a “target list” of swing health care votes that consists almost exclusively of New Democrats and Blue Dogs, including a number of Democrats who are members of both coalitions. With a few exceptions, those who have decided to vote “no” are Blue Dogs, while most of the New Democrats on the list either remain undecided or are leaning toward “yes.”

“More New Democrats will … vote for climate change and health care, which in this political climate, let’s be honest, will be interesting,” the chief of staff to a New Democrat said.

As the push and pull over the health care vote underscores, New Democrats are finding themselves caught in the crossfire of politically fraught legislative battles as much or more than the Blue Dogs, although the former have a lower profile as a bloc.

“The term ‘Blue Dog’ means something,” one Democratic aide observed. “It definitely carries weight, and it has a really particular meaning.”

The Blue Dogs “are very, very protective of the brand, as they call it,” said a chief of staff for a Blue Dog Member. It helps, the staffer said, that the Blue Dogs are “the only serious people” representing fiscally conservative Democrats. “They own that space right now. There’s no question.”

However, there is an alphabet soup of centrist, pro-business Democratic groups, including the Democratic Leadership Council, NDN (founded as the New Democrat Network) and Third Way, in addition to the New Democrat Coalition.

The Blue Dogs’ laser-like focus on the budget and the deficit puts them in conflict with Democratic leadership more often than the New Democrats’ broader policy portfolio, which includes issues such as financial regulation, trade and innovation.

“You’ve got a group that’s going to say, ‘Hell no, we won’t go,’ that’s better copy than a group sitting there working and trying to get to a ‘yes,'” said John Michael Gonzalez, a lobbyist and former chief of staff to Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.), referring to the copious press coverage the Blue Dogs attract.

Vulnerable New Democrats and Blue Dogs also have very different profiles.

Overall, about half of the 69 members of the New Democrat Coalition represent seats CQ-Roll Call rates as competitive this fall; the rate is around 60 percent for the 54 Blue Dogs.

The Blue Dogs facing tough races are, for the most part, veteran legislators in Republican-leaning districts in the rural South and Midwest. They have established independent identities over their careers that have insulated them politically, and they either appear even more prone to following that path now that they are facing tough races for the first time in years, or they have opted to retire at the end of the term, freeing themselves up to take controversial votes but also giving Republicans a handful of prime pickup opportunities.

The vulnerable New Democrats tend to be newer Members with less defined political identities. The coalition, in turn, has put an emphasis on helping freshman and sophomore Members engage in the key policy debates.

For example, Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) is one of the most junior members of the Financial Services Committee, but the former investment banker has taken a leadership role in the debate over the financial regulatory overhaul as co-chairman of the New Democrats’ financial services task force.

Himes’ district is home to many workers in the finance industry who commute from the Connecticut suburbs to Wall Street.

“They have really given me a platform to study and actually legislate,” Himes said. “In as much as I can show that I’ve really been working hard on things that are critical to restoring economic growth, I think that resonates” back home.

Himes established a relationship with the New Democrats’ leadership even before he came to Congress. “They were pretty aggressive in outreach, and they saw a kindred spirit in me because I spent many years in business,” the Congressmen recalled.

The coalition’s political action committee also played a role in the Democrats’ two special election wins in upstate New York in 2009, particularly Murphy’s victory in the 20th district. Murphy has since joined both the New Democrats and the Blue Dogs.

The New Democrats have made it a practice to be involved in competitive races, giving about $200,000 from its PAC to vetted 2008 challenger or open-seat candidates. So far this cycle, the PAC has contributed $350,000, mostly to incumbents.

The chief of staff for a New Democrat Member said the coalition has made strides in “going from an ideological force to a political force.”

“They find a Member who could really use a legislative victory and they hand it to that person,” the staffer noted.

In addition to direct contributions from its PAC, the group also helps targeted Members with fundraising through a combined network of donors.

“They do a great job of introducing Members to CEOs when they come into town,” the aide said.

It helps that Crowley, who ascended to chairman last year when Rep. Ellen Tauscher (Calif.) resigned to become under secretary of State for arms control, has a keen sense of the political landscape, given his role as finance vice chairman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Gonzalez said the coalition has also begun to develop a stronger political identity.

“Six or seven years ago, members of the New Democrat Coalition thought about their membership the same way you would think about being part of the Wine Caucus,” he said.

That changed with the infusion of new Members.

“Particularly the last two new classes, they love their membership in this group,” he said. That sense of identity is “what gives them their power now.”