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GOP Sets Sights On Conservative 'Blue Dog' Democrats

(L-R) Rep. John Fleming (R-LA), Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC), holding a copy of H.R. 3962 and Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) announce an ammendment to the House version of health reform legislation outside the U.S. Capitol November 4, 2009 in Washington, DC. The ammendment to the 'Affordable Health Care for America Act' would automatically enroll all members of Congress in the 'public option'.
Chip Somodevilla
(L-R) Rep. John Fleming (R-LA), Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC), holding a copy of H.R. 3962 and Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) announce an ammendment to the House version of health reform legislation outside the U.S. Capitol November 4, 2009 in Washington, DC. The ammendment to the 'Affordable Health Care for America Act' would automatically enroll all members of Congress in the 'public option'.

Now that the off-year elections are over, Democrats are bracing for losses in Congress next year — and history tells them they should.

A first-term president's party almost always loses seats during the midterm elections. And the Democrats' loss of governorships in Virginia and New Jersey in Tuesday's elections — which saw a migration of independent voters to GOP candidates — suggests something worrisome for Democrats who represent swing or Republican-leaning districts, says Bob Holsworth of the nonpartisan Virginia Tomorrow Web site.

"Moderate and conservative Democrats in traditionally Republican districts are going to look at the results in Virginia because it speaks to them," Holsworth said. "They can't look at those results and say that they have no implications for their re-election efforts."

Indeed, as Republicans look ahead to 2010, some of their top House targets are those Democrats with whom they actually have the most in common: so-called Blue Dogs, many of whom have pushed back on the Obama administration's top domestic initiatives, including, most prominently, the new president's health care overhaul effort.

The reason is simple math. Of the 18 conservative and moderate Blue Dog Democrats elected in 2006 and 2008, 17 won in strongly Republican or Republican-leaning districts. And 13 won in districts Obama lost — a handful by margins exceeding 20 percent.

"Right now, the size of the deficit, the growth of government and the perception of government meddling in the private sector are all things that resonate pretty broadly and especially in conservative areas," says Charles Franklin, co-founder of and a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

"I don't see how Blue Dog Democrats elected in conservative districts can be any stronger than they were in 2006 and 2008, when you had a bad economy and an unpopular president," Franklin says.

That and the president's softening approval ratings are what GOP strategists are banking on as they take aim at scores of Democrats. Republicans see some of their best chances against freshmen Blue Dogs like Bobby Bright, who eked out a tight victory last year in Alabama's conservative 2nd Congressional District, where Obama got walloped.

Not So Fast

Ken Walker took a break last week from his daily dominoes match at the Dale County, Ala., Democratic Club to politely denounce national prognosticators who put local freshman Bright on the list of most endangered House members in 2010.

"They're bad wrong," insisted Walker, 74, the party's county chairman. "Let's say down here, we don't agree."

Bright, a conservative Blue Dog Democrat, may have name recognition and local affection on his side. But he most likely won't enjoy the combination of a weak opponent, GOP turmoil and strong black voter turnout that helped make him the first Democrat — some would say in name only — to represent his district in more than four decades.

Republicans have recruited Montgomery City Councilwoman Martha Roby to challenge Bright, and the national party has pledged special attention — read: money — to the race.

So, despite local protestations, Bright — along with at least five other freshmen House Blue Dogs from heavily Republican to Republican-leaning districts — does, indeed, figure prominently on every political oddsmaker's list of Democrats most likely to be shown the door next year.

Says Bright: "I welcome the challenge. And if anyone can outwork me, can better represent my constituents, I will honorably step away."

Wide Margins

Blue Dogs like Bright, 57, who has voted against every major initiative that his party leadership has pursued this year, nonetheless helped Democrats pick up 21 House seats last year.

With two seats currently vacant, Democrats hold a 79-seat edge in the House. It's a majority that's not in danger of disappearing next year, experts say, but one that is expected to get a healthy trim when voters go to the polls in 12 months.

Moderate-to-conservative Blue Dogs count 53 members in their caucus, which has asserted its influence this year, pushing back on liberal initiatives ranging from stimulus spending to the health care overhaul.

But that doesn't mean Blue Dogs like Bright will be protected from growing national anxiety over congressional action that has caused federal deficits to soar.

In a typical midterm election, the majority party historically can expect to lose between 10 and 20 seats, Franklin says, adding: "That would be totally normal."

But despite polls showing the dismal state of their own brand, eager Republicans have been predicting that given the restive mood of the electorate, there exists the possibility of a 25-plus seat pickup — and 10 of them may be Blue Dogs.

Tough Numbers

Bright, an anti-abortion, pro-gun former mayor of Montgomery, Ala., was courted to run by both parties. He ended up winning on the Democratic line by 1 percentage point. Republican presidential candidate John McCain captured 63.42 percent of the vote in Bright's district; Obama got 36.05 percent.

A political partisanship rating by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report found that recent Republican candidates in Bright's district have received 16 percentage points more votes than the national average for GOP candidates. That makes it, according to Cook, the 41st most Republican district in the nation.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has targeted Bright's race, along with those of his fellow Blue Dog freshmen Parker Griffith, also of Alabama; Walt Minnick in Idaho, Travis Childers in Mississippi; Frank Kratovil Jr. in Maryland; and Glenn Nye in Virginia. All but Nye were elected in Republican-leaning districts that Obama lost.

They face, says Nathan Gonzales of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, significant risk next year because of the changing political climate and the makeup of their districts — even though Blue Dogs like Bright would be tough to peg as Democrats if they didn't have the "D" after their name.

"Bobby and I don't agree on a lot of issues," says Walker, the Dale County Democratic Chair. "I'm an ultraliberal myself, and on most national issue he's siding with the Blue Dogs or Republicans.

"It doesn't play well with me," says Walker, who supports and worked for Bright. "But it probably plays well with most voters."

Incumbents' Greatest Weapon: Incumbency

Bright describes himself as a conservative American; he has to be pressed to identify himself as a member of the Democratic Party.

"Party labels don't mean anything to me," says Bright, who opposes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's health care legislation and says he can recall just one leadership initiative he supported, something involving education. Pelosi, he says, has never pressed him for his vote.

What could help someone like Bright and other vulnerable freshman Blue Dogs?

The advantages of incumbency, says Franklin, the political scientist.

Here's how Franklin sees it: The advantages that flow from first-term incumbency —the staff, the money, the publicity — can translate into 5 or 6 percentage points come Election Day, he says.

"Recent research shows that newer House members are not dramatically easier to beat than older members because of what's called the "sophomore surge," he says.

Some new Democrats could have gotten as much as a 10 percentage-point boost in 2008 because of anti-Bush sentiment and the state of the economy. Their "sophomore surge" won't replicate that 10-point bump, but it could put them in striking distance of re-election, especially if there's improvement in the economy, which Franklin predicts will be the driving issue next year.

Back in Dale County, Walker says Bright's work and name recognition will serve him well — even as a Democrat in a district dominated by Republicans.

"He's visited every city in the district one time and is going around on the second time," Walker says. "He connects well with Republicans in the area."