Since Republicans took control of the U.S. House seven years ago, Democratic campaign officials have shown little interest in working with a small group of fiscal conservatives in their party to gain more seats.
But with Democrats clawing to reclaim the majority, that’s starting to change. The party’s House campaign arm is now building close ties with the previously ignored Blue Dog Coalition — which boasts that it’s not afraid to buck Democratic leadership — to prepare for next year’s elections, when all 435 seats in the chamber are up for grabs.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and party leaders are coordinating candidate recruiting and mentoring with the Blue Dogs. Both sides say there is a shared understanding that winning as many seats as possible in 2018 is more important than any Democratic purity test for potential candidates.
“The DCCC has seen the light,” said Representative Kurt Schrader of Oregon, a Blue Dog coalition member.
Representative Ben Ray Lujan, a New Mexico Democrat and chairman of the Democrats’ campaign committee, said in a statement that the Blue Dogs have “been incredible partners,” helping develop a list of 79 Republican-held seats to target in the 2018 election.
At least 20 of those seats were previously held by Blue Dogs, according to the caucus. Democrats need to gain 24 seats to take control of the House.
Blue Dogs say the fate of House Democrats rises and falls on their success. The caucus grew to a high of 54 members in 2008 before they, and the Democratic majority, were wiped out two years later in a Republican wave. Of the 194 Democrats in the House, 18 are members of the Blue Dog group.
Some Democratic activists aren’t pleased the party is embracing the Blue Dogs. Liberals aren’t keen on promoting candidates who may oppose traditional Democratic views on abortion rights, gun control and many other policies, saying those candidates will lose to Republicans.
“The days of the Blue Dogs are over,” said Adam Green, the co-chairman of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a political action committee that works to elect liberal candidates. “The threat to progressives is a Democratic Party that rallies around people generally going in the right direction, but who think very small-bore and who are themselves milquetoast candidates who don’t inspire voters.”
The Blue Dogs were founded in 1995 when a faction of conservative Democrats formed a coalition in the House to focus on fiscal responsibility and national security. Its primary role has been to moderate more ambitious, liberal policies such as Obamacare from Democratic presidents. The caucus’s name was inspired in part by the idea that they were being “choked blue” by the left.
In the 2016 election, the Democrats picked up six House seats. Three of the incoming freshmen ran as Blue Dogs: Representatives Tom O’Halleran of Arizona, Stephanie Murphy of Florida and Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey. The DCCC is working with the Blue Dogs to replicate that success on a wider scale next year, said DCCC spokesman Tyler Law.
The DCCC has made a “robust and concerted” effort to include the Blue Dogs in recruiting candidates and let them take the lead in assisting potential candidates with messaging and finding consultants, said Representative Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the chairwoman of the Blue Dog PAC.
“In the past it would be DCCC staff who would kind of drive the process and what we’ve said is ‘Well, we think we’re better at this than you guys,’” she said.
In previous election cycles, there has been little to no coordination between the Blue Dog caucus and the DCCC, but now there are weekly meetings between staffers to discuss recruitment, said Molly Allen, director of the Blue Dog PAC.
She said they are playing a role in lining up candidates in 50 to 70 districts. The Blue Dogs are also working on pairing potential candidates with the pollsters, advertisers and consultants that its members have worked with for years.
There’s enthusiasm among the tight-knit group of Blue Dogs and their staff about their influence within the party, she said. Allen pointed to a meeting early this year when the DCCC’s recruitment chairman, Representative Denny Heck of Washington, said the party won’t have a majority unless more Blue Dogs are elected.
Some party leaders appear to agree. After Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez said in April that support for abortion rights is “not negotiable,” several Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, said there is room in the party for anti-abortion Democrats.
“She understands that in order to get the majority you’ve got to work with other folks,” said Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas, the Blue Dogs’ co-chairman for communications. Cuellar, who opposes abortion, said Pelosi’s office also reached out to him at the time.
Despite DCCC support, Blue Dogs will have to face opposition from Democrats’ newly ignited activist wing, which has rejected the idea of running from the center. While the caucus has “nowhere to go in 2018 but up,” its members risk losing primaries to more liberal candidates, said David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report.
Liberals say their key policy objectives, including a $15 an hour minimum wage and a single-payer health care system, poll well nationally. Conservative Democrats argue that progressives are trying to turn out Democratic voters who don’t exist instead of reflecting the priorities of the Republican-held districts they are trying to win.
“The Democrats have won every liberal seat in the country,” Sinema said. “What the Democrats haven’t done is won all of the swing seats in the country.”