Between now and 2018 or so, the Democratic Party is likely to engage in considerable soul searching or infighting regarding whether the party needs a tweaking or an overhaul before the next presidential election. Given Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s surges in popularity there is a considerable appetite for the party to veer in a more progressive direction. The enthusiasm Senator Sanders inspired over the past year is of course quite real making this shift a logical one. But Democrats would do well to remember a faction of their party who has long been in the doghouse: the moderate to conservative Blue Dogs.
In the progressive era of Sanders and Warren, the mere mention of this faction seems anachronistic. But since the decimation of their ranks in 2010 and 2012, they have been quietly racking up some victories. For those unfamiliar with the term, the “Blue Dog Coalition” emerged in the aftermath of the Gingrich Revolution of 1994 when Democrats lost the House for the first time in over forty years. The Blue Dogs were a group of mainly Southern Congressmen whose politics were moderate to center right. By openly forming their own faction of the party they were able to signal to their mostly rural and moderate to conservative voters that they were a different breed of Democrat from the national party.
In the late 2000s, DNC Chair Howard Dean’s fifty state solution of recruiting Democrats who could flip red districts led to the Blue Dogs becoming powerful players in Congress. Their increased ranks were short lived, however, with many being defeated in the Tea Party wave of 2010, or through retirement, leaving them on the verge of extinction.
Then a funny thing happened: Blue Dogs and like minded Democrats began winning elections once again. In 2014 the only congressional districts where Republican incumbents were defeated were won by Blue Dogs. In 2015 John Bel Edwards of Louisiana, a Blue Dog style candidate, pulled off a remarkable come from behind victory to become Governor of Louisiana. In 2016 virtually all the tough fights where Democrats came out ahead were pulled off by Blue Dogs. Three Blue Dog endorsed candidates flipped districts: Brad Schneider (IL-10), Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5), and Stephanie Murphy (FL-7).
Meanwhile Tom O’Halleran, a former Republican, pulled off a win in a red leaning district, keeping Arizona’s 1st in Democratic hands. O’Halleran won’t be the only Democratic convert arriving in Congress. Charlie Crist, a former Republican Governor, flipped (FL-13) for the Democrats as well. In the Governors races moderate Democrats won in deep red states like West Virginia and Montana.
Democrat Roy Cooper has retired Governor Pat McCrory, the man responsible for forcing the nation to waste precious time regarding a nonsensical debate over bathroom regulations. Democratic Senator elect Maggie Hassan’s more centrist record may have also contributed to her narrow victory over neoconservative Kelly Ayotte. Progressive Democrats meanwhile had a pretty rough go of it regarding their competitive races. To the shock of liberals nationwide Russ Feingold – the only Senator who stood up for civil liberties by voting against the Patriot Act – failed in his bid to return to office.
At the congressional level progressive icon Zephyr Teachout, whose race Senator Sanders described as the “Most Important in the Country,” also fell short in the tough but winnable 19th district of New York. As such whatever path the Democratic Party decides to take going forward they would do well to not abandon the moderates who have allowed them to maintain a toe hold in red states.
Kevin covers southern U.S. politics from Alabama