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Blue Dogs Eye Comeback in 2018

Politico

The Blue Dog Coalition, a fading wing of the Democratic Caucus in recent years, is leaning on a controversial ally as it tries to regain a toehold on power in the House: President Donald Trump.

The group of moderate and conservative Democrats, which was all but wiped out when Republicans swept the House in 2010, has been slowly rebuilding its membership.

And with Democrats eager to woo the white working-class voters who flocked to Trump, the coalition is prodding party leaders to support Blue Dog-backed candidates, saying that’s the key to taking back the House in 2018. It’s a push that is quickly running into conflict with the party’s energized left flank.

“People want to purify,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), one of the Blue Dog’s three co-chairs, said about the Democratic base’s surge to the left. “[But] without Blue Dogs, we don’t have a majority. That’s the bottom line.”

The Blue Dogs are also meeting with top Trump officials on tax reform and other issues, causing heartburn with some colleagues who insist all-out resistance — not working with an administration they loathe — is the winning formula for next year. And they’re ready for ideological battle, determined to keep the Democratic Caucus rooted in what they say are its defining big-tent values, despite the rising progressive passion brought on by Trump’s election.

“The Democratic Caucus likes to talk about diversity, and we’re an important part of that diversity that too often gets overlooked,” Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.), a Blue Dog co-chair, said in an interview in his office.

The Blue Dogs, who assembled after the Republican takeover of Congress in the mid-1990s, once boasted more than 50 members. But in recent years they have been relegated to a marginal role in the Democratic Caucus as their numbers dwindled, particularly in the South, and as the party moved away from the group’s more fiscally and socially moderate stances.

With only 18 members, the coalition represents less than 10 percent of House Democrats. In recent years, it has been eclipsed in membership by a similar group, the centrist New Democrat Coalition, which boasts 61 members and is more socially liberal.

But the Blue Dogs added to their ranks in the last election — four of the six seats Democrats picked up in November are held by coalition members. And now they’re gearing up for an aggressive comeback they say will put the House back in Democratic hands.

The idea is already receiving pushback from prominent progressive Democrats, who argue that building on the liberal enthusiasm unleashed by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) heading into the midterms is how Democrats can succeed, particularly in tough districts that may have embraced Trump’s populist message.

“I don’t think Blue Dog politics are necessarily winning politics everywhere,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a leading progressive and deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “I just don’t buy the premise that being on the right side of the Democratic Party makes you more advantageous, more attractive to voters, than being on the left side of the Democratic Party.”

Some on the left are challenging Blue Dogs at the polls — Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), the third co-chair of the coalition, is already facing a progressive primary challenger.

Still, Costa, Cuellar and Lipinski argue putting up Blue Dog candidates in the moderate districts barely carried by Trump or Hillary Clinton in 2016 is the key to sweeping the House next year. And for the first time in a long time, they say, House Democrats’ campaign arm is starting to listen.

“We’ve got a seat at the table,” Costa said of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “They’re listening to us in a way that seems to at least make me believe they understand that what we’ve done in the past isn’t working.”

Blue Dog and DCCC staffers now meet on a weekly basis, and leaders of the centrist coalition say the campaign arm is working hand in hand with them on recruitment. It’s a remarkable turnaround for a group whose members have been known in the past to boast about not paying annual membership dues.

“The DCCC recognizes that the path to the majority is through the Blue Dogs,” said Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), chairwoman of the Blue Dog PAC. Sinema says she’s personally met with more than 20 candidates interested in running as Democrats on a Blue Dog platform, adding that several more are being vetted before she sits down with them.

Democrats need 24 seats to take back the majority in 2018 but are playing on a redistricting battlefield that bends toward Republicans.

“For the first time since I’ve been in Congress, the DCCC has partnered with the Blue Dog Coalition so that we’re recruiting candidates who fit districts that we need to win to take back the majority,” she added. “We are able to convince folks who normally wouldn’t vote for a Democrat to vote for this Democrat.”

Long-time Blue Dog lawmakers and staffers say they haven’t worked this closely with the caucus’ campaign arm since former Rep. Rahm Emanuel, now mayor of Chicago, ran the DCCC back in 2006 and led Democrats back to the House majority.

Emanuel has said his key to success was choosing candidates who “reflected the temperament, tenor and culture of their district,” not somebody that just fit his image of a good recruit, including tapping centrists for more conservative districts.

Blue Dog leaders say they’re doing the same thing now, looking for candidates who have lived in their prospective districts for years if not decades. They point to candidates like Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff, who came up short in the most expensive House election history in June, as the type they’d like to avoid.

Ossoff, sometimes compared to the Blue Dogs for his moderate stances on fiscal policy and national security, was never endorsed by the group. He also did not live in the district, a point Republicans raised repeatedly.

“If you’ve got a young, liberal filmmaker in a seat that [Tom] Price had, Newt Gingrich had, no matter how much money you spend, it’s going to be tough,” Cuellar said. “What happened if we would’ve had a different type of candidate? In my opinion, it would’ve been different.”

The Blue Dogs, who embrace a mix of fiscal responsibility, strong support for defense and some conservative social views shunned by the left wing of the caucus, say it’s not just their message they think will appeal to many Trump-aligned voters. They’re also trying to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to talking bipartisanship.

The coalition has met with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other top Trump aides on tax reform. Last week, the Blue Dogs sat down with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

They’re also holding meetings with red-state Democratic senators seen as top targets by Republicans in 2018, including Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.

The Blue Dogs plan to roll out their own tax reform principles after the August recess and say they hope their ideas will be incorporated into any final bill.

Other Democrats have privately dismissed the group’s bipartisan overtures, pointing out that Republicans plan to use fast-track budget tools that will allow the GOP to pass a tax overhaul along party lines and avoid Democratic filibusters in the Senate.

One senior Democrat derisively described the Blue Dogs as “window dressing” to which the Trump administration can point to say it pursued bipartisan avenues without really doing so.

But the Blue Dogs shrug off the intraparty criticism, saying they’ve heard it before.

“On the core issues that really reflect the Democratic Party, we have far, far more in common,” Costa said. “We are the bridge in trying to bring about bipartisan efforts and certainly the key, I think … if the Democrats are ever going to get into the majority again.”