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GOP Campaign Against Blue Dogs: More Bark Than Bite

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/08/boren-ross.jpgReps. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) and Mike Ross (D-Ark.) (house.gov, ross4congress.com)

By accident, simply by being polite, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) drafted the best-known opponent of one of the leading Blue Dog Democrats.

At this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, Coburn was on his way out when he was approached by a 25-year-old constituent, Dan Arnett. The young law student didn’t get much time to talk. “[Coburn] was on his way to Hannity or something,” Arnett told TWI. A few weeks later, Arnett got a second chance to talk to Coburn in a town hall meeting held in the eastern 2nd Congressional District of Oklahoma, the traditionally Democratic stronghold held by Coburn as a Class of 1994 congressman, held now by Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.). Arnett told Coburn about his problems with Boren, who had just voted for the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Arnett recalled the senator’s advice: “If you think you can win, you should run.”


Image by: Matt Mahurin

That’s how Arnett found himself where he is today–a candidate for Congress, splitting his time between law school in Philadelphia and politicking in Oklahoma and meeting with members of the National Republican Congressional Committee. He has taken some credit for Boren’s decision to hold town hall meetings on health care, a move that came after Arnett held renegade town hall meetings because the congressman was not “meeting voters face-to-face.” And he has watched the congressman, who declined to endorse Barack Obama for president in 2008, become more and more outspoken and oppositional on the priorities of the Democratic leadership in the House.

“I’ve talked to strategists who say Boren seems unbeatable right now,” said Arnett, “but they remember that they said the same thing to Coburn when he ran in 1994. And look what he did.”

Arnett’s optimism is not totally unfounded. Boren is one of the 70 members of Congress named in the National Republican Campaign Committee’s list of potential 2010 targets. State political wags, however, are not expecting a real fight for the 2nd District. According to Keith Gaddie, a radio commentator and political scientist at the University of Oklahoma, the NRCC is only including Boren in its sights to “keep him honest.” That was the sentiment, often expressed with the same words, of other Washington-based Republican strategists who are putting heat on the members of the Blue Dog Coalition, the conservative, anti-spending Democratic caucus that was founded after the party’s 1994 electoral wipeout.

One immediate effect of that campaign has been to raise the profile of Blue Dogs, often portrayed in media coverage as the Democrats with the most to lose from the battle over health care reform. Blue Dogs such as Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Rep. Colin Peterson (D-Minn.) have become media fixtures as power-brokers without whom health care reform can’t work. Blue Dog Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) has said that his constituents were “coming home” to the GOP, and he needed to be “independent” to get re-elected. “The problem for Pelosi in this [health care] debate,”** **wrote Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post, “is that her caucus is almost too big.”

But a closer look at the Republicans’ 2010 map suggests that the Blue Dogs are in a safer position than many more liberal members of the Democratic majority. Of the 70 possible NRCC targets, only 23 are Blue Dogs. The outspoken and powerful Peterson, who recently told constituents that Democratic leaders had “screwed up” health care reform so far, is not a target, and neither is Cooper. Rep. Alan Boyd (D-Fla.), a Blue Dog opponent of the House health care bill who in 2005 was the only Democrat to engage with Republicans on the possible privatization of Social Security, is not on the list and is being challenged in 2010 by a Republican he defeated by 24 points in 2008.

And few of the Blue Dogs who’ve found themselves in the GOP’s sights face tough Republican opponents. Boren has $1.2 million in the bank, while his possible opponent Arnett is finishing up his law degree and has yet to file a finance report with the Federal Elections Commission. The seat held by Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), the influential Blue Dog whose compromise allowed the health bill to escape the House Energy and Commerce committee, contains voters who chose Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over Barack Obama by 20 points, but the seat is seen by one Arkansas Republican strategist as “impenetrable,” as is the seat of the state’s other Blue Dog, Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.). In fact, while many Blue Dogs represent districts carried by McCain, few of the Republicans’ best pick-up opportunities in 2010 are in Blue Dog territory.

The situation for Ross is typical. One Washington Republican strategist spoke excitedly about beating Ross, who defeated a Republican incumbent in 2000, and possibly sending a “tracker” to tape his appearances. Another strategist pointed to Ross as an example of the “keep them honest” strategy, raising the threat of an electoral challenge in order to keep him from voting for a health care deal and providing cover to other Democrats. Republicans have pushed the Blue Dogs on this all year–Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) has mocked the Blue Dogs as “lap dogs” who were no longer “the force they used to be”–but believe that their challenges have become more credible.

Republican Party strategists and independent analysts argue that it’s still prudent for Blue Dogs to act as if they’re in danger. “There were plenty of Democrats who lost in 1994 who didn’t look vulnerable in August 1993,” said David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the Cook Political Report.

Blue Dogs, suggested Wasserman, could look to the lessons of 1994. In the run-up to that midterm election, only 18 members of the Democratic majority opposed President Bill Clinton’s budget and the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. Seventeen of them won, even as the party lost a total of 54 seats.

“Bucking the administration is extremely helpful, if history is any guide,” said Wasserman. “But Blue Dogs are not necessarily the most endangered group of Democrats.”

Republicans in Arkansas, while appreciative of the rare attention the NRCC has devoted to the state, did not see many takeover opportunities. “This is my job, and I can’t tell you who a good candidate to beat Ross would be,” said Little Rock Republican strategist Bill Vickery. Most Republicans were focusing on drafting a strong candidate to oppose Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) or possibly to take on Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.), who represents a more Democratic, Little Rock-centered district and is not a member of the Blue Dog Coalition. “Ross and Berry are dug in,” said Vickery. “Their personal relationships in those districts are long and deep.”

One of the Republican leaders in Ross’s district, Garland County GOP Chairman Glenn Gallas, was less pessimistic about defeating Ross and suggested that the “political winds are blowing” for Tim Griffin, a Republican lawyer who was briefly a U.S. attorney for the state but resigned after the release of emails he’d sent about “caging” (sending mail to expired addresses as a way of challenging the residence of voters) during the 2004 election. But even Gallas did not think a strong Ross challenge was in the cards. “If you want to go super-big picture, there are much worse guys who need to be defeated.”

One Blue Dog whom strategists do agree is in trouble is Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.), who won a special election in northeastern Mississippi in 2008 and has drawn a first-tier opponent in State Sen. Alan Nunalee, a conservative, Tea Party-attending legislator with a political base in the district. “If I was a consultant for Childers,” suggested Mississippi Republican strategist Howie Morgan, “I’d tell him to vocally oppose anything that Pelosi and the rest of the liberal House leaders and their agenda.” The strategy, said Morgan, could be inspired by Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), who has held a Republican-leaning district in the state since 1987: stand against the administration, and deny Pelosi support whenever possible. “Taylor can always say that he was the only Democrat to support all four articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton.”

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