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'Blue Dog' Democrats fighting to avoid extinction

Published May 19, 2012 9:11 pm

Matheson battling for his career and those of fellow moderate Dems.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • Rep. Jim Matheson is in the midst of two tough campaigns and the one outside of Utah may prove to be the most challenging.

He's trying to grow the once mighty Blue Dog Coalition, a group of centrist Democrats that was cut in half in the 2010 Republican landslide. To do this, Matheson hired the Blue Dogs' first campaign strategist and overhauled the coalition's recruitment effort, trying to get stronger candidates to run in districts he thinks Democrats can reclaim.

"In a world that is all the more competitive, I think it's important for Blue Dogs to take steps to compete," said Matheson, a co-chairman of the Blue Dog political action committee. "Expanding the scope and reach of the PAC is the smart thing to do."

But turning that outreach into election-night victories is far from guaranteed. Matheson has more than a few factors working against him starting with the attention-sucking presidential contest and the once-in-a-decade redistricting where Republicans targeted areas where moderate and conservative Democrats have had success.

So far the Blue Dogs have endorsed 11 candidates and all of them are underdogs, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which handicaps federal elections.

"It is possible that all of their endorsed candidates will come up short," said David Wasserman, who focuses on House races for Cook. "Today, none of them would win."

Wasserman said part of the problem is that President Barack Obama is vastly unpopular in many of the rural districts in places like Georgia and Arkansas that Blue Dogs are attempting to represent.

"The Obama years are dark times for Blue Dogs. It may take a different presence atop the ticket to revive their strength," said Wasserman.

Blue Dogs were some of the most powerful House members in the early years of the Obama administration, holding the swing votes on major legislation such as health care reform and a failed energy bill. But when Republicans won control of the House in 2010, Blue Dogs took a severe beating dropping from 54 members to just 25.

Then came redistricting, and Wasserman said not only will it be tough for Blue Dogs to add any members, it will be difficult for them to keep the seats they have now.

Seven current Blue Dogs will either retire or run for another office, and five, including Matheson, are in races that Wasserman considers 50-50 propositions.

He said it wouldn't surprise him if there were only 15 coalition survivors after the November election, despite the group's more organized campaign effort.

"You know Jim Matheson may be spearheading this drive, but he's a prime example of someone who is highly endangered in 2012," said Wasserman, noting that Matheson is running in a new district against an expected strong challenger — Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love. "If it were just one or the other, [new district or strong challenger] Matheson would have a small advantage. With both it is a total tossup."

Utah's 2nd Congressional District is the most Republican area nationwide now held by a Democrat and that has made Matheson one of the Republicans' perennial top targets. But the six-term congressman has decided to run in Utah's new 4th Congressional District, even though he doesn't live in the area, because his team calculated it is slightly more favorable to a conservative Democrat.

If he wins, he is likely to keep the mantle as the Democrat representing the most Republican area. His argument for another term is the same argument the Blue Dog PAC is encouraging its endorsed candidates to use, namely that he is not a reliable Democratic vote.

"I think Utahns know full well that I'm not the type of guy who just walks the party line," Matheson said. "I've certainly heard criticism from my own party over that. But at the end of the day, I think most people appreciate that I'm different."

Matheson doesn't share Wasserman's skepticism. He believes that the nation is yearning for more pragmatic lawmakers, willing to cut deals to get important legislation passed. And Matheson is optimistic that Blue Dog-endorsed candidates have crossover appeal that will draw in Republican and independent voters.

"I wouldn't put them in the category of long shots," Matheson said. "This is what Blue Dogs always face. Generally they come from the more competitive races and the tough districts."

Matheson won his second race, in 2002, by less than 1 percentage point after the last round of redistricting. In 2010 — before another redistricting — he won by less than five percentage points. He knows the atmosphere in 2012 will be a challenge and that's why he wanted to beef up the Blue Dog's political organization.

Matheson and his PAC co-chairman, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., who is retiring this year, hired Andrew Whalen, a political consultant out of North Carolina.

Whalen has a history with Blue Dogs, working for Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., who is also retiring this year.

Whalen's job has been to recruit potential Blue Dogs to run in attractive races, which so far have been seats coalition members lost in 2010 or new districts without an incumbent. He also has vetted candidates for a possible PAC endorsement, something Matheson takes quite seriously.

"I've taken a more active role in trying to make sure we are endorsing good quality candidates," Matheson said. "I think historically there have been times when the Blue Dogs have endorsed anybody in a close race and I don't think that is the right criteria. I think they ought to be a Blue Dog."

And when they found the right fiscally conservative Democrats, he wanted to do more than just send them a $10,000 contribution and hold a fundraiser or two. He asked Whalen to get involved in the day-to-day campaigns.

"It is easy for incumbent members to forget what it is like when you run the first time. It is nice to have some support and some strategic advice," Matheson said.

Whalen has provided significant help to Hayden Rogers, Shuler's former chief of staff, who is running in his home state of North Carolina, including setting up his campaign website. He is offered assistance to the candidates running in states from Florida to Ohio, though his involvement is tailored to each campaign.

"We don't want to be a hindrance to them or in any way overshadow what they are doing," Whalen said. "We want to be there for all of them in any role they need."

In Michigan, that has meant nothing more than providing an endorsement and campaign contribution to Gary McDowell. But in South Carolina, Whalen has been involved in many of the big decisions in Ted Vick's campaign, likewise for Pam Gulleson, who is running in North Dakota.

"The Blue Dogs have been a big help to us in many different ways. They are a valuable member of our team, and I'm proud to have their support," said Vick, a state representative running in a newly created district.

Matheson has also asked him to grow the Blue Dog brand nationwide. Until recently, the Blue Dog PAC had no online presence.

"It is a longer term effort to try to create a national dialogue about some more centrist principles," Matheson said. "In a world where both parties seem to be running off to their extremes, I thought it would be important to have another voice out there that reflected these principles."

mcanham@sltrib.comTwitter: @mattcanham Blue Dogs by the numbers

A look inside the political action committee of this group of moderate and conservative Democrats

$1.7 million • Amount of cash in the Blue Dog PAC as of April 30

$10,000 • Maximum contribution the Blue Dog PAC can give to a candidate

54 • Number of Blue Dogs before the 2010 election

25 • Number of current House members in the Blue Dog Coalition

11 • Number of candidates the Blue Dog PAC has endorsed.

0 • Number of endorsed candidates who are front-runners in their races.