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GOP could take bite out of Blue Dogs

Half of conservative Democrats at risk

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."

The debate over Mrs. Pelosi's leadership would become moot if the Democrats lose their majority, but some of the Blue Dogs argue that they stand to gain influence no matter which party rules the House.

"It's numbers, a simple matter of numbers," said Utah's Mr. Matheson. If the midterms create gridlock in Washington, he said, the Blue Dogs will again be in a position to break the logjam.

If Republicans capture the House, as many pollsters say they have a good chance of doing, they almost certainly will have a much smaller majority than the 78-seat majority Mrs. Pelosi had when the 111th Congress was sworn in two years ago. On close votes, centrist Democrats once again could hold the balance of power, even if the Blue Dogs' numbers fall sharply in 2011.

"Activists continue to push both parties to the extremes. But if you are going to get anything done, you are going to have to reach across the aisle," Mr. Matheson said. "The Blue Dogs are here to make progress."

The RealClearPolitics website classifies Mr. Matheson's bid for a sixth term as a notch below "safe," noting that the 2nd Congressional District, before Mr. Matheson, had a Republican history.

That's also the case for Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr., who came to Washington from Maryland as part of the Obama-fueled wave of 2008.

Mr. Kratovil is fighting to hold on to the traditionally Republican 1st Congressional District. Polls have the one-term congressman trailing in a rematch with state lawmaker Andy Harris.

Another top Blue Dog fighting for her job is South Dakota's Mrs. Herseth Sandlin, who clings to a slim polling edge over Republican state lawmaker Kristi Noem for the state's lone House seat after trailing all summer.

Mrs. Herseth Sandlin began pulling ahead of her Republican opponent after airing an ad touting her opposition to the health care legislation.

Ms. Noem does not even mention her opponent by name in many of her campaign spots but goes right after Mrs. Pelosi.

"Unlike my opponent," she promises voters, "my first vote won't be to make Nancy Pelosi speaker."

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