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Dying dogs

Politics | Conservative Democrats-blue dogs in red districts-may become an endangered species after the elections in November

Issue: "Broken beyond repair?," Sept. 25, 2010

Learning how to frost a cake or organize one's closet? No problem.

eHow.com is a website that, as its tagline goes, "tells you how to do just about everything."

But for its recent entry on learning "how to be a conservative Democrat," eHow.com offers a blunt assessment: The site labels it "challenging" to pull that off in the current political climate.

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Challenging may be putting it mildly. Conservative Democrats are in tight spots right now all over the country. Even those who voted against such big-government legislation as healthcare reform are having a difficult time responding to Republican arguments that a vote for any Democrat is a vote for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Maybe that is why these conservative Democrats have kept busy this summer running as fast as they can away from Pelosi and their party's establishment. Just by observing their campaign strategies, it is easy to forget which party they belong to:

• Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello has been meeting with Tea Party groups in his Virginia district while fellow Virginia Democratic Rep. Glenn Nye touts in ads his willingness to "go against his own party."

• Democratic Rep. Travis Childers of Mississippi highlights in ads his pro-gun and pro-life stances while accusing his Republican challenger, Alan Nunnelee, of "raising taxes on sick people in hospitals."

• Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., is running commercials attacking "Nancy Pelosi's energy tax."

• Rep. Mike McIntyre, a North Carolina Democrat, "doesn't work for Nancy Pelosi," according to his commercial.

• Television ads for Rep. Bobby Bright, D-Ala., highlight how he voted against "massive government healthcare."

"Bobby Bright is an independent conservative," the commercial's narrator says. "He is one of us."

Bright, who won by 1,700 votes in 2008, serves an Alabama district where 63 percent of the voters went for John McCain for president over Barack Obama. In a campaign season where candidates have already painted Pelosi as public enemy No. 1, no one has gone further than Bright. When asked at a late August Chamber of Commerce event in Montgomery, Ala., if he would support Pelosi as House Speaker next year, Bright responded that Pelosi "may get sick and die" before he would have to decide.

But by Nov. 3, it may be conservative Democrats, called Blue Dogs in the House, who could be facing their own political death sentences.

With originally just 23 mostly Southern representatives at its formation 15 years ago, the Blue Dog coalition has enjoyed a renaissance the last two election cycles. Since 2006 more than 50 Democrats have won congressional seats in conservative-leaning districts.

There are now 54 Blue Dog Democrats in the House, representing districts from all over the country. But that may end up being the group's high water mark: Of the 54, 32 are in districts McCain won in 2008. Currently 43 of the Blue Dogs are in competitive races, according to a Cook Political Report evaluation. That includes 17 toss-up races and four races that lean Republican.

"All the Democrats, no matter what they vote for, the one vote Republicans bring up is that first vote they cast for Nancy Pelosi as speaker," says Isaac Wood, an expert on House races at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

Republican challengers are not letting Democrats shake their Pelosi ties: In Arizona, opponents of incumbent Democratic Rep. Harry Mitchell have surrounded Mitchell's campaign signs with larger ones that read: "Pelosi's Lap Dog."

One reason the label may be sticking can be found in the voting records of Blue Dogs. In the 110th Congress the Blue Dogs voted with their party an average of 92 percent of the time. This is no different than the rest of the party's members: Overall House Democrats voted with party leadership the same 92 percent of the time.

Take Maryland's Frank Kratovil. The freshman Democrat won by less than 3,000 votes in a district McCain won by 19 points. Kratovil is calling his newest campaign ad "Independent." Yet he voted with party leadership 85 percent of the time, including a vote for the cap-and-trade legislation that many fear would damage his district's Eastern Shore economy.

Rep. Walt Minnick, a Blue Dog Democrat from Idaho, voted the least with his party leadership at 71 percent of the time. Minnick often mentions this on the campaign trail. His opposition to the healthcare overhaul, climate-change legislation, and the federal stimulus package has helped him take a 23-point lead over his Republican challenger in a conservative state.

Conservative Democrats campaigned two years ago with promises to curb the national debt. But like Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper of Pennsylvania, many of these freshman Democrats made one of their first votes in favor of an economic stimulus package that is now costing nearly $1 trillion.

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