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In The Doghouse: The Crystal Ball Primer on Blue Dog Democrats

A Commentary by Isaac T. Wood

How does a group where the majority of members voted in favor of health care reform get in the liberals' doghouse? Just ask the Blue Dog Democrats. The Blue Dogs are a coalition of 52 fiscally conservative U.S. House members who have made headlines for their ardent negotiations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Although more than half of the Blue Dogs voted for the initial House health care bill, the coalition still provided 24 of the 39 Democratic "no" votes, cementing their place on the liberal naughty list.

The Blue Dogs moniker itself is a play on old Southern Democrats who called themselves "yellow dogs," since they would even vote for a yellow dog, so long as it was a Democrat. The Blue Dog Coalition, however, stresses ideology and policy over party label. They chose their name to emphasize their view that the moderate and conservative wings of the Democratic Party had been "choked blue" leading up to 1994, when they were founded.

In the media, there has been a lot of confusion and misinformation about these key players on Capitol Hill who have played a central role, and will continue to, in the health care reform debate. To better explain the Blue Dogs we answer five vital questions about them and gaze into our Crystal Ball with an eye towards health care and 2010.

1. Who are the Blue Dogs?

The roster below gives a complete look at exactly who belongs to the Blue Dog coalition. Note the geographic and ideological diversity of the membership, two traits that defy the frequent media simplifications.

Some people will be surprised by who isn't in this list. There are some Democrats who sit in very conservative districts, and even some conservative Democrats, who do not belong to the Blue Dog caucus. Among the more surprising omissions are Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ-1), Harry Teague (NM-2), Tom Perriello (VA-5), and Brian Baird (WA-3) who recently announced his retirement.

2. Where are the Blue Dogs from?

While the current roster stills bears the names of Southern representatives like those who started the group, today the title "Blue Dog" belongs to a diverse group of legislators.

Geographically, the current membership defies the Southern stereotype. More than half (28) of all states are represented by at least one Blue Dog in the House. Counting themselves among the Blue Dogs are one representative from Maine, one from Colorado, a New Yorker, and seven Californians! Just 20 of the 52 Blue Dogs are from states that seceded from the Union during the Civil War. The map shows the Blue Dog states and how many Blue Dogs hail from each state.

3. How conservative are the Blue Dogs?

The truth is that some Blue Dogs are bona fide conservatives, others are moderates, and a few are liberals who just want the label. The Blue Dogs describe themselves as a "moderate-conservative" group that tries to appeal to the mainstream, but its members are all over the ideological map.

The ten least-loyal Democrats, measured through party voting score, are Blue Dogs, however, which undergirds the narrative that the Blue Dogs are much less loyal to their party than man's best friend. In fact, sixteen of the twenty Democrats with party loyalty scores under 90 percent are Blue Dogs.

It is important to emphasize that there is not a pronounced socially-conservative bent to the Blue Dogs' stands. Instead, the Blue Dogs bark most when it comes to fiscal matters. They are generally budget hawks who lobby the Democratic leadership for concessions to lead to lower price tags for new policies. This was especially evident during the initial health care debate. As Blue Dog Chair Jim Matheson stated, "We are committed to ensuring that legislation in the House is not only deficit neutral, but contains costs and is fiscally responsible over the long term." In fact, the Blue Dogs website prominently displays a U.S. national debt counter, a clear reminder of the main priority of the Blue Dogs.

At the end of the day, contrary to the current media narrative, over two-thirds of Blue Dogs solidly support the Democratic agenda, with 36 of the 52 members voting the party line on over 90 percent of the time. In fact, only three Blue Dogs (Gene Taylor, with a 78 percent party voting score; Bobby Bright, AL-2, with 71 percent; and Walt Minnick, ID-1, with 68 percent) vote with the party on less than 80 percent of votes. On the vast majority of bills, most Blue Dogs vote just like their Democratic colleagues.

4. How did the Blue Dogs vote on health care?

Perhaps the more pressing question is, "How will the Blue Dogs vote on health care?" With key conference negotiations looming and the Senate still hammering out the last details of their bill, nobody can answer that question for sure, but we can glean some clues from the Blue Dogs' votes on the House bill that passed in November.

Just over half, 28 of 52, of the Blue Dogs voted in favor of the House health care bill, which contained a version of the government-run "public option." Looking ahead to the final vote on a reconciled bill following the conference between House and Senate negotiators, the more important vote may have been the one that took place earlier that same night. The so-called "Stupak Amendment" barred use of any federal money for elective abortions, even in subsidized private health insurance plans, a stipulation that was supported among Blue Dogs by a 36 to 16 margin.

With the Senate bill still in draft form, it is impossible to tell what the key stumbling blocks for Blue Dogs may be, but abortion is likely to dominate the conference debate. Currently, the Senate seems poised to exclude the abortion restrictions that were key to Blue Dog support in the November House vote. Several Blue Dogs have already made unequivocal statements to their constituents that they will not support a health care bill without those restrictions. Nancy Pelosi simply cannot afford any more defections after the November bill's slim five-vote margin, made possible by eight Blue Dogs who voted both for the Stupak amendment and the health care bill as a whole.

5. How endangered are the Blue Dogs in 2010?

Of the 52 Blue Dogs, less than half (21) are considered safe by the Crystal Ball in 2010. Some of these incumbents are veterans who are entrenched in their districts, like Earl Pomeroy (ND-AL) and Collin Peterson (MN-7). Others, like six of the seven Californian Blue Dogs, hail from districts with a strong Democratic base that should ensure their reelection.

In fact, over a third of Blue Dogs hail from districts Obama won last November. While the coalition is often portrayed as a group of Southern congressmen who must vote conservatively or risk losing reelection, nineteen members represent districts Obama carried, with seven representing districts in which Obama won over 60 percent of the vote.

While some Blue Dogs will be sailing through the 2010 campaign, a few of their colleagues will be combatants in some of the fiercest races of the year. Already four Blue Dogs, Bobby Bright (AL-2), Walt Minnick (ID-1), Frank Kratovil (MD-1), and Travis Childers (MS-1), are in "toss-up" races. With candidates still jumping in and dangerous votes lurking, several more could be added to that designation in the coming months.

Perhaps the greatest danger to the Blue Dogs, and to the Democratic Party as a whole, is retirement. So far four Democrats have announced they will retire and not run for reelection in 2010. Three of those four Democrats, Bart Gordon (TN-6), John Tanner (TN-8), and Dennis Moore (KS-3), are Blue Dogs. In addition, Charlie Melancon (LA-3) is running for governor instead of reelection and will reduce the Blue Dogs ranks by one. All four of those districts are now leaning towards a Republican pick-up.

The chart below outlines all the election prospects of all 52 Blue Dog districts:

Isaac T. Woods is the House Race Editor for Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia.

See Other Political Commentary

See Other Commentaries By Isaac T. Wood

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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