Tuesday's election was bad news for Blue Dogs

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 3, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Rep. Jim Marshall, a fiscally conservative Democrat from Macon, Ga., voted against his party's massive health care overhaul, vowed to help repeal it and refused to endorse President Barack Obama during the 2008 elections.

Still, like just about half of the nearly 50 fellow moderate to conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the House of Representatives, Marshall was a casualty of Tuesday's midterm elections. The Blue Dogs' broad losses in largely rural and conservative-leaning Southern districts broaden an ideological divide that may further stymie compromise in the wake of the Republican sweep of House seats.

"It's a shame for the country that it's the moderates that get swept out whenever there's one of these tides, so there's no seniority in the middle," Marshall said. "The middle is what America should want to protect and grow. America should want to get rid of the extremists on the left and the right. The way our system works, it's the folks in the middle working to an American solution, as opposed to a left or right solution."

Of the 23 Blue Dogs who voted against the health care overhaul, 10 lost their re-election bids. Twelve of the 25 Blue Dogs who voted against climate change legislation failed to retain their seats.

"A lot of Blue Dog Democrats served in districts that leaned Republican, and the GOP targeted those districts because they could pick up those seats," said Andra Gillespie, an assistant political science professor at Emory University. "The casualty of this is that people got upset at extremes, but they elected the extremes."

The losses include Blue Dog Coalition co-founder Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, whose Republican-dominated district includes large swaths of the state's Gulf Coast. He voted for Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain in the 2008 presidential election and was one of only two Democrats to vote in favor of the Iraq war troop buildup.

Idaho freshman Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick, whose conservative voting record seemed to track with his heavily Republican district, and Florida Panhandle Democratic Rep. Allen Boyd also fell victim to an overall electoral attitude of "why vote for a conservative Democrat when you can have a real Republican," Gillespie said.

Others, such as Democratic Reps. Sanford Bishop of Georgia, Ben Chandler of Kentucky and Jim Costa of California, found themselves fighting for their political lives against surprisingly effective challenges from well-funded Republican opponents.

"I think that the shellacking that Blue Dogs, especially, got in Tuesday's election was part of a national trend, but it wasn't entirely by accident," said Andy Sere, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "When we set out to take back the majority this cycle, we looked at some of the obvious places, and it was where McCain performed well in 2008, and those places are represented by Blue Dogs."

Republicans zeroed in on Blue Dogs' votes on such issues as the "cap and trade" climate change bill, the stimulus and the health care overhaul. They flooded their districts with cash and heavy media buys to highlight the differences between the candidates.

It wasn't all bad news for the Blue Dogs.

In North Carolina, two Blue Dog Democrats pulled out comfortable wins from opposite ends of the state. Both voted against the health care overhaul, eliminating a key weapon for their opponents.

In the mountains of eastern North Carolina, Rep. Heath Shuler, the Blue Dog whip, burnished his anti-abortion, pro-hunting credentials and worked to distance himself from Pelosi. He announced in a debate last week that should Democrats retain power in the House, he'd run for speaker himself before he supported Pelosi again.

In the state's southeast, Rep. Mike McIntyre fended off a stronger than expected challenger, Ilario Pantano. The race drew national attention because of Pantano's history: He was accused of war crimes after killing two unarmed Iraqis as a Marine lieutenant, but he was later cleared of the charges and went on to write a memoir.

The fallout from the Blue Dog losses doesn't bode well for compromise, political experts said.

"The House Democratic caucus has lost its moderate ballast, and it's now as liberal as it has been in modern times. That balances the GOP caucus," said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "With the infusion of several dozen tea party winners, congressional Republicans are now probably more conservative than they have been in modern times. That should give people a pretty good idea of what the odds are for compromise and major legislation. What the House passes, the Senate will likely kill and vice versa, at least on non-housekeeping bills."

(Barbara Barrett of the McClatchy Washington Bureau and Mike Stucka of The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., contributed to this article.)

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