North Carolina's Blue Dog Democrats won't play dead

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 16, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Republicans have listed North Carolina's Blue Dog Democrats as an endangered species, but Reps. Heath Shuler and Mike McIntyre say they have some bite left in them.

Under a Republican redistricting plan approved this month by the U.S. Justice Department, the two moderate Democrats are on the short list of the most vulnerable members of Congress in the 2012 elections. Republicans, who refer to the pair as "Obama's lapdogs," are investing heavily in the races and see North Carolina as ground zero in their efforts to increase their House of Representatives majority.

A loss by either man would further deteriorate the conservative Southern wing of the national Democratic Party, as moderates in both parties are being driven toward extinction. The once-powerful Blue Dog Coalition is down to 26 members and stands to be cut in half again in 2012. So far, four members have announced they will not run for re-election.

The moderates' demise comes at a time when Congress is plagued by historically low approval ratings and voters are calling for an end to partisan bickering.

Edwin Grant, a Republican who voted for Shuler, said he was frustrated with the vitriol in Washington.

"Everyone seems to be worried about their own agenda instead of doing the right thing," said Grant, 48, who lives in the mountain community of Franklin. "You got Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other. There is no common ground in the middle. It's always a battle to the last minute before they do the right thing."

The former game warden said he has voted for Republicans like John McCain for president and also Democrats like Gov. Bev Perdue. He said he'd like his leaders to do the same: be independent and not toe the party line.

It's a sentiment shared by some members of Congress as well.

"Compromise is not a dirty word," said Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., a fellow Blue Dog. "You diminish the Blue Dog members, and you let the crazies on the left and the right take over, and that's not good for anybody."

The Blue Dogs were formed in 1995 after sweeping Republican victories in Congress to give more-conservative members in the Democratic Party a unified voice. The name was chosen because members said they felt "choked blue" by the extremes in both parties.

Blue Dogs once made up almost 20 percent of the House Democratic caucus and had enough pull with Democratic leaders to shape legislation. They had a major impact on the health care debate. But Republicans have long criticized the Blue Dogs for talking a good game of fiscal conservatism but too often supporting the Democratic leadership's liberal policies.

When Republicans took back control of statehouses, many redrew political districts to favor Republican candidates.

But such gerrymandering is not completely to blame, some who follow politics argue.

In "The Big Sort," Bill Bishop, a former reporter, and Robert G. Cushing, a retired sociology professor, write that Americans have self-segregated themselves by increasingly moving into communities where people have similar lifestyles and beliefs.

Ferrel Guillory, a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill political analyst, agreed. Americans have created their own paradox, Guillory said.

"And while they yearn for their leaders to come together," he said, "these very same Americans have arranged themselves in a more divided fashion, a more politically divided fashion."

The new redistricting map created by the North Carolina General Assembly moves more Republicans into the vulnerable Democrats' districts while putting more Democratic voters in non-competitive districts.

McIntyre, who represents Wilmington and the southeast corner of North Carolina, charges that the map was drawn specifically for political purposes and tarnishes the integrity of a state with a history of moderation.

"What does downtown Wilmington have in common with the Outer Banks and counties near the Virginia border?" he said in statement. "What does rural Robeson County have in common with Charlotte?"

The proposed maps still face legal challenges. But if approved, McIntyre stands to lose voters in Fayetteville and much of Robeson County, where he was born.

But McIntyre is a strong campaigner and already has more than $555,000 in the bank for his re-election. Republicans see him as one of the more difficult moderates to defeat and have invested heavily in ads trying to link him to an unpopular president.

Shuler, co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition, represents mountain communities in western North Carolina. He stands to lose many Democratic voters in Asheville based on the new map. And he has struggled with financing. He has $233,108 in the bank, which is less than his Republican challengers have.

But Shuler said the onslaught of ads and messaging by Republicans trying to brand him as a liberal tied to President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is to his benefit.

"Obviously, it lessens the credibility of those ads when they say I'm a liberal Democrat or I'm a Nancy Pelosi Democrat," he said. "Everyone knows I ran against Nancy Pelosi."

The former NFL quarterback challenged Pelosi for the Democratic leadership post in 2010. Many Blue Dogs argued that Pelosi was partly responsible for the party's overwhelming defeat at the polls last year.

Most of the 34 Democrats who voted against the health care overhaul were Blue Dogs, including both Shuler and McIntyre. And Shuler was one of seven Democrats who voted against the economic stimulus bill. This year, McIntyre has voted with the Democratic Party 73 percent of the time; Shuler 68 percent.

Speculation is that Shuler also may retire as his fundraising efforts falter. But Shuler insists he's running in 2012. As for the diminishing Blue Dog Coalition, he said this isn't the first time its numbers have been down.

"I think it's a matter of time. We'll be back," he said. "We're always the most vulnerable because we're in the swing districts. In swing districts, you're going to have these waves that take good members of Congress. And that's what's happening."

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