GOP could take bite out of Blue Dogs

Half of conservative Democrats at risk

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Rep. Gene Taylor, a Blue Dog Democrat, promises voters in Mississippi that he will work with Republicans to repeal President Obama’s signature health care law.

In North Carolina, Rep. Heath Shuler — a Blue Dog who serves as whip for the influential centrist caucus — calls himself the “true conservative” in his tough re-election race with Republican businessman Jeff Miller. “I know you’re mad at Congress,” Mr. Shuler tells voters in one campaign ad as he leans on a pickup truck, “and so am I.”

Across the country, Blue Dog Democrats — whose 54 members represent more than one-fifth of their party’s 255-seat majority and many of the country’s most contested swing districts — find themselves squarely in the cross hairs.

Less than four weeks before the Nov. 2 elections, 26 Blue Dog lawmakers represent seats that pollsters and forecasters say are either leaning Republican or are considered tossups. A few races, including the one for the seat being vacated by Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Blue Dog Democrat from Louisiana, are almost universally conceded to be GOP pickups.

The Blue Dogs facing tough re-election fights include three of the coalition’s four-member leadership team: Mr. Shuler; Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota, who is co-chairman for administration; and Rep. Baron P. Hill of Indiana, co-chairman for policy.

The fiscal conservatives, many of whom voted against health care reform and Mr. Obama’s $814 billion stimulus program, are running ads distancing themselves from unpopular national party figures, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and the president.

Mr. Shuler has even talked about opposing Mrs. Pelosi for the speaker’s post.

One of Mr. Shuler’s colleagues on the Blue Dog leadership team, Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah, said he understands why conservative Democrats such as Mr. Shuler are running against the Democrat-dominated Congress and the Democratic president.

“I have never agreed with this idea that because you’re a Democrat or a Republican, that you’re automatically part of this monolithic voting bloc,” he told The Washington Times. “People need to be true to themselves and why they were elected. They need to stand with the people of their districts.”

Mr. Matheson said he also empathizes with Democrats who are frustrated with Mrs. Pelosi and that he, too, would consider supporting a bid to unseat her next year.

“If a member of the Democratic Caucus — someone closer to my beliefs — were to run, I’d have to consider that,” he said.

Blue Dog opposition to key parts of Mr. Obama’s health care overhaul plan led to some last-minute compromises with the more liberal wings of the party’s coalition in both chambers of Congress.

Many of the Blue Dogs were part of a moderate class of Democrats personally recruited by Rahm Emanuel, a congressman from Illinois and top adviser to Mrs. Pelosi before he was named Mr. Obama’s chief of staff in 2009. The Blue Dogs, formed in 1995, have increased their membership in the past two election cycles from 36 to 54.

But campaign dollars and aid by the national Democratic Party to help endangered Blue Dogs have sparked grumbling from some liberals, who fear large GOP gains at all levels in elections this year.

“If the Democratic Party wants their donors to stay engaged for the final month, they should be helping those who are not part of the problem,” San Francisco liberal activist Paul Hogarth wrote in the alternative online news service BeyondChron. “Coddling the Blue Dogs reeks of pandering and emboldens an abusive relationship where - at worst - they win with a right-wing mandate.”

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