WASHINGTON — As the 112th Congress dawns this week, North Carolina's trio of conservative Democrats find themselves not only a minority within the U.S. House of Representatives, but within their own party as well.
U.S. Reps. Heath Shuler, Larry Kissell and Mike McIntyre represent a breed of Democrat that got hurt badly in the November election. Conservative Southerners fell in droves, with the Blue Dog Caucus losing half its members.
Kissell, Shuler and McIntyre squeaked through, but the coming changes in both population patterns and re-districting by state legislatures with new Republican majorities mean they, and others like them, will likely have to fight harder than ever to keep their seats two years from now.
It's a scenario playing out across the South. U.S. Census numbers released in late December show that red states gained more congressional seats, and Republicans are expecting more clout in the U.S. House of Representatives.
That leaves North Carolina's conservatives struggling to bring their voices to the Democratic caucus and remain relevant in House votes even as they find themselves in the minority. In separate interviews, all three of North Carolina's blue dogs said there is a feeling that if the Democrats don't recruit more candidates like themselves, the future looks grim.
"There simply is not a voice being heard for moderates in this country," Shuler said. "You see the fringes, the outer edges of the political spectrum. We need a voice in the middle, where we think 80percent of Americans are."
Right now, Congress is made up of a liberal Democratic party and a conservative Republican party, said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. That doesn't work for the conservative Southern Democrats. "Their problem is that they're in between the two parties. They don't really fit into either one very well."
UNC-Asheville political scientist Bill Sabo thinks Shuler and his colleagues could have more influence in two years, if Democrats regain power by a slim margin.
"Their ideal is that Democrats win 220-225 seats in the House, which is a small majority," Sabo said. "Which means these three are needed onevery vote."
The three lawmakers have become friends and meet often to talk policy. Shuler is the new co-chairman of the Blue Dogs, and McIntyre also is a member. Although Kissell's political persuasion fits the caucus' philosophy, he has pledged not to join any political coalitions.
He stressed that the trio "share common views, but not exact views." But the lawmakers share other characteristics. From the flat coastal plains of Brunswick County to the mountainous Pisgah National Forest, their three districts hug most of the state's border with South Carolina but for a brief span around Mecklenburg County. Their constituents lean church-going, blue collar and Republican.
McIntyre noted that the lawmakers tend to be pro-business, pro-defense, pro-family and pro-agriculture. He called them "small-town values."
"We have the chance to epitomize those values in North Carolina, and in that sense our North Carolina delegation can be a positive role model for the national party to pay attention to because those are values our nation hearkens for," said McIntyre, of Lumberton.
All three also voted against the controversial health care overhaul bill, though they voted with the party on other legislation such as the 2009 stimulus bill.
"It is the swing districts that will need to be won in order for the Democratic party to even have a chance to returning to the majority party,"McIntyre said.
U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 member in the Democratic caucus, is often seen as more moderate than his former rival and colleague, incoming Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Hoyer is good friends with Shuler and said in an interview he thinks the N.C. lawmakers' moderate voices help the party.
"We've got to reach out to independents. We've got to reach out to moderates," Hoyer said. "North Carolina has always been a place that generated moderate leaders, members of Congress, state legislators and governors, who have had their eyes on the problems of real people, in education, in economics."
Kissell, of Biscoe, is realistic about how well efforts toward moderation might work within the caucus.
"I don't think you'll learn all the lessons the first week back," Kissell said. "Don't just say, 'We had a bad day.' "
Shuler made waves in Washington in November when he opposed Pelosi for the role of minority leader in the coming Congress. He compared the party's sweeping losses in the midterm election to his own troubled times as quarterback for the Washington Redskins in the 1990s.
"When you lose that significantly, it's time to make that change," Shuler said. Pelosi won, but Shuler garnered 43 votes.
Now, the group said, they want to find ways to work with the Republican Party on some issues.
Shuler expects to vote for policies that support the textile industry and other industries in rural North Carolina. He anticipates agreeing with Republicans on tax reform - "make the tax structure less cumbersome, lower taxes on small businesses."
All three indicated early on their willingness to support President Barack Obama's tax cut compromise with Republicans, a package that infuriated many of their liberal brethren.
Their conservative voting records and the leanings of their districts have led some peers to wonder why they don't switch parties.
"[Shuler] ought to make a bigger splash and come over to the Republican Party," said former U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes of Concord, who is running for GOP state chairman. "I have told him that more than once."
Shuler laughed at that.
"No. I'm a Democrat."
McIntyre and Kissell agreed.
"It's important for the Democratic Party to represent a broad range of views, and that includes the moderate-to-conservative viewpoint," McIntyre said.
The 2012 presidential election and its high turnout will bring additional votes to any House candidate, but in the conservative 7th, 8th and 11th districts, those could be Republican coattails, Sabato said.
"They could easily be next," he warned. "When politicians have a near-death experience, it tends to focus the mind."
Kissell, a former high school civics teacher, said he expects to be fine politically as long as he votes according to his constituents' concerns. The nation would be better off, he said, if more Republicans, Democrats and independents could find common ground.
"I put my district first," he said, "but I think that what's good for my district is good for the nation."