Two years removed from being the most powerful voting bloc on Capitol Hill, Blue Dog Democrats are now trying to stave off political extinction.
On Tuesday, Reps. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., and Tim Holden, D-Pa., members of the moderate-to-conservative caucus of Democrats known as the Blue Dog Coalition, lost their primary battles to more liberal opponents who painted their centrism as apostasies that could no longer be tolerated. These were the latest blows delivered to the Blue Dogs, whose ranks have been decimated the past two years by a political storm that has driven the House Democratic caucus farther to the left than at any time in the last decade.
It’s increasingly unclear whether Democrats can ever reclaim the House majority unless they pick up ground in the conservative-leaning terrain that the Blue Dogs once represented. In addition, with so few moderates left, there are fewer House members in the political center to create the sort of bipartisan coalition that has provided the bulwark of support for legislative compromise.
Boasting as many as 54 members in 2010, the Blue Dogs shrank to 26 after those midterm election campaigns scared many into retirement and left many others exposed to political winds that knocked them out that fall. Another pair of retirements last year and early this year, from Jane Harman, D-Calif., and Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., cut that total again. Moreover, seven more Blue Dogs have announced their intention to retire at the end of 2012, decided to seek higher office or lost in their primary races.
“Redistricting and a broken, polarized Congress have made it tough to be a moderate in Congress,” said Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., a co-chairman of the coalition, after the Pennsylvania losses.
Blue Dogs were left vulnerable to redistricting in states run by Republican governors and legislatures.
Altmire was thrown into a district with Rep. Mark Critz, D-Pa., a former aide to the late Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., whose union backers supported Critz after Altmire twice opposed President Barack Obama’s health-care law.
Holden, who represented a swing district for 20 years and defeated a veteran Republican 10 years ago after redistricting, had a unique problem: His new district became too Democratic, particularly because Holden also opposed the health-care bill. Republicans in Harrisburg dumped Democratic voters from GOP seats into the new Holden district around Reading. Then came a liberal challenge from Lawyer Matt Cartwright, who won roughly 60 percent of the vote.