Few Democrats have done more to immunize themselves from a Republican challenge than Rep. Bobby Bright of Alabama. The freshman congressman and former mayor of Montgomery has opposed every major Democratic measure, from the stimulus package to health care reform, and boasts the most conservative rating of any of the 255 Democratic House members.
Bright also has distanced himself from President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in seeking reelection in his state’s highly conservative second congressional district. Just before Labor Day, he joked that he hoped Pelosi got sick so he wouldn’t have to decide whether to support her for another term as the Democrats’ leader. And yet Bright still finds himself in the middle of a tight race for reelection — as are scores of other moderate to conservative Democrats.
With the tea party’s anti-incumbent drive dominating the headlines and polls showing a public increasingly agitated about federal spending and the deficit, many fiscally conservative House Democrats are finding that a record of fiscal rectitude may not be enough to save their political careers.
Bright is one of 54 members of the Blue Dog coalition, a band of moderate and conservative Democrats who have pressed an agenda of smaller government, deficit reduction, and “pay-as-you go” spending that should be in sync with voters in conservative or swing districts in the South, upper Midwest and the Southwest. Founded in 1995, the Blue Dogs — whose name is a play on the long-gone, ever loyal “Yellow Dog” Southern Democrats — have promoted a detailed “Blueprint for Fiscal Reform” that is as tough or tougher than the plan unveiled Thursday by House Republican leaders.
And yet political analysts and pollsters rate the races of at least 22 of the 54 Blue Dog incumbents as “toss-ups” or favoring the Republican challengers. Another dozen races have been deemed “competitive,” but in many cases the Democrats hold the upper hand.
Despite the Blue Dogs’ credo of budgetary discipline and their influence as a moderate swing bloc, their GOP opponents insist that they haven’t been fiscally conservative enough or that they have aided and abetted Pelosi’s spending and social policy agenda. It’s simply a bad year to be a Democratic incumbent.
“Bobby Bright is part of a majority Democratic Party that is mortgaging our future because of their fiscal policies,” said Mike Hamilton, a spokesman for Martha Roby, Bright’s Republican challenger. “Bright can claim he’s a fiscal conservative, but he voted for Nancy Pelosi as speaker, which has allowed her to advance her agenda.”
Likewise, freshman Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr. is fighting for survival in his conservative district in Maryland’s Eastern Shore. His Republican challenger, Andy Harris, mentions the House speaker so frequently that one might think the race was being conducted in Pelosi’s home town of San Francisco.
“The job-killing policies of Nancy Pelosi and congressional Democrats — like the so-called economic stimulus, the health care takeover, and the cap and trade energy tax — do nothing but place the debt of today onto the children of tomorrow,” Harris said.
“Frank Kratovil has a proven record of independent leadership," Jessica Klonsky, the congressman's campaign manager said. “He voted against health care and the $3 trillion budget, and Congressional Quarterly has ranked him as one of the 10 most independent members of Congress. His opponent is mischaracterizing his record.”
The plight of the Blue Dogs may be a bellwether of how House Democrats more generally are likely to fare in the upcoming election. The Blue Dogs constitute one of the largest caucuses among the House Democrats. After scoring gains in conservative districts in 2006 and 2008, many Blue Dogs are finding the political terrain much more hostile this year. If nearly half of the Blue Dogs are in political danger despite clear efforts to distance themselves from Obama and Pelosi, it helps to explain why the Democrats may well lose control of the House.
Liberal analysts such as Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee argue that the Blue Dogs’ conservatism has not helped them. “The big lesson of 2010 for Democrats will be that if you govern like a Blue Dog and put corporate contributors ahead of your constituents, you lose. If you listen to what progressives have been telling you all along and stand up to corporations on issues like the public option and Wall Street reform, you win — especially among Independent voters.”
However, a tidal wave of resentment against incumbents and the Republicans’ success at linking Blue Dogs to liberal Democratic policies are major factors in this turnabout, political experts agree.
Some freshman Blue Dogs, such as Betsy Markey of Colorado and Glenn Nye of Virginia, are trailing their challengers, but so too are a handful of long-serving members, including Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota, whose Republican challenger, Rick Berg, was ahead of the nine-term Congressman by nine percentage points in the latest poll.
Other prominent vulnerable Blue Dogs — such as Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota, a co-chair of the coalition — are emphasizing their differences with the Obama administration and the Democratic congressional leadership. In speeches and ads, they highlight their votes against this year’s health care bill. Herseth Sandlin notes that she was stressing fiscal discipline long before her challenger and other Republicans were making an issue of it.
Kristi Noem, Herseth Sandlin’s GOP challenger, is claiming to have more experience dealing with spending issues. “Kristi has experience balancing the books as a small businesswoman and in the state legislature, unlike the incumbent who voted for every new spending bill,” said Joshua Shields, Noem’s campaign manager. “South Dakotans have gained nothing from having a member who’s a Blue Dog. She had a chance to convince fellow Blue Dogs to vote against health care and she didn’t.”
An aide to Herseth Sandlin said in response that “They’re attempting to say she isn’t the fiscal conservative she claims to be, but she voted against the [Wall Street] bailout and the health care bill, and the facts don’t lie.”Only a few Blue Dogs, such as Rep. Zack Space, D-Ohio, are touting their support for Obama’s $814 billion stimulus package enacted last year, saying that it has brought desperately needed resources to their districts.
In a highly volatile mid-term election year, many of the Blue Dogs who are in trouble insist they can turn things around before Nov. 2. Declaring that he was “raised with solid Alabama values,” Bright has called for “belt-tightening” in Washington and repeatedly cites his record in Congress of “always asking first and foremost about the cost of a project and the source of revenue to fund it.” The hard work may be paying off.
Although he once trailed substantially in the polls, Bright has overtaken Roby and led in a late August poll, 52 percent to 43 percent. But the race is fluid and political experts continue to rate it a tossup.