Alternative Investment Report

Rebranding rift guts Blue Dog Dem ranks

Congress’ influential Blue Dog Coalition is getting chopped nearly in half after an internal blow-up over whether to rebrand the centrist Democratic group.

Seven of the 15 members expected to join the Blue Dogs this year, including Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.), are departing after a heated disagreement over a potential name change for the moderate bloc. For now that’s left the Blue Dogs with seven, all male members — their smallest roster in nearly three decades of existence. One freshman member remains undecided.

At the core of some of the breakaway Blue Dogs’ demands was a rechristening as the Common Sense Coalition that, they argued, would have helped shed the group’s reputation as a socially moderate, Southern “boys’ club.” Blue Dogs have long stood for fiscal responsibility and national security, issues with broad Democratic appeal, but some members felt the name had a negative connotation that kept their colleagues from joining. A majority of other members disagreed, saying they saw no reason to toss out a longstanding legacy.

Those tensions came to a head earlier this month as Blue Dog members met for a lengthy debate over the reboot that culminated in a secret-ballot vote to reject the new name, according to interviews with nearly a dozen people familiar with the situation, on both sides of the dispute. Shortly after that vote, Reps. Ed Case (D-Hawaii); David Scott (D-Ga.); Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.); Lou Correa (D-Calif.), Spanberger and Sherrill all left the group.

“The Blue Dogs have never prioritized having a large coalition — our members look to have a focused, effective group that can influence the Congress regardless of numbers,” Andy LaVigne, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “With a narrow majority governing the House, even a smaller group of members focused on getting things done for the American people on these issues can and will play a vital role.”

The group will still have influence in this Congress’ historically small GOP majority, where four Democrats willing to side with Republicans could sway a floor vote. But the Blue Dogs’ shakeup raises glaring questions about their future at a critical time. The centrist coalition sought to increase its sway in recent years, building an increasingly diverse cast of Democrats — several of whom later led the failed push to orient the group away from its socially conservative, geographically limited past.

Returning Blue Dogs insisted that not all the departures were a result of the private tiff over the proposed name change, citing the effect of factors such as departing members’ potential ambitions for statewide office. In addition, the group’s size has historically always shrunk after a tough election, with its ranks often replenished when Democrats seize back power. Blue Dogs began the 2022 cycle with 19 members, only 13 of whom remain in office after the midterms.

Yet that very pattern of shrinking partly fueled the group’s debate over rebranding. With some members seeking to prioritize recruitment as the 118th Congress began, the coalition tapped Democratic polling firm Impact Research to convene one-on-one conversations with fellow party moderates about the group’s direction and image.

The interviews revealed that some felt concerned about the group’s reputation, according to multiple people familiar with the research, which was presented to the Blue Dogs during a meeting earlier this month. Impact found that some lawmakers still held outdated conceptions of the Blue Dogs, whose ranks have included the party’s last lingering opponents of same-sex marriage and abortion rights — on top of its origins from the so-called Dixiecrats, white southern Democrats who supported segregation.

Many Blue Dogs have routinely dismissed that criticism, citing an uptick in generational, geographical and racial diversity in recent terms.

“It seems like it’s been a pretty diverse group of people over the last four years. I’m not thinking of 30 years ago. I don’t really entertain that type of critique,” said one Blue Dog Democrat who opposed the name change, speaking on condition of anonymity, as did most others interviewed.

This centrist added that a majority of the remaining members weren’t trying to “change the Blue Dog caucus” by increasing its muscle with more members: “We’re not trying to recruit and become, like, the center of gravity.”

Internal reformers pushed the name Common Sense Coalition. That included Spanberger and Sherrill, the last two women in the group, who were among those advocating for a rebrand.

Those opposed included Reps. Jared Golden (D-Maine) and Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) as well as longer-serving members who had first joined the group in the 1990s, like Reps. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.). At least one member, Gottheimer, took issue with the lack of quantitative data during the closed-door Impact Research presentation, since its work largely involved one-on-one conversations with members.

When the vote failed, members began to depart the group. Rep. Don Davis (D-N.C.), who replaced retiring Rep. G.K. Butterfield, was expected to join but declined after the group decided not to rebrand, according to two people familiar with the situation. A website for the Blue Dog PAC, the political arm of the coalition, was quietly updated last week to list eight remaining members: Bishop, Thompson, Gottheimer, Golden, Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), Jim Costa (D-Calif.), Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) and freshman Rep. Wiley Nickel (D-N.C.).

In fact, though Nickel was endorsed by the Blue Dog PAC, he has not decided whether or not he is joining the group, according to two people familiar with his thinking. That leaves seven members to begin the 118th Congress.

Brutal election cycles tend to decimate the Blue Dogs’ roster because the group is typically composed of swing-seat members. Last cycle alone, redistricting felled former Reps. Carolyn Bourdeaux (D-Ga.), Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.) and Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.). Meanwhile, Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) lost his primary and former coalition Chair Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) retired.

Many Blue Dogs left after the midterms are no longer in swing seats, thanks to redistricting and changing demographics. Schneider’s suburban Chicago district, for example, has gone from a battleground to safe Democratic turf. Sherrill, who flipped a tough swing seat in 2018, received a significantly more Democratic district last cycle under New Jersey’s new lines. And Case, who has represented both of Hawaii’s two districts at different times, is now in the more staunchly Democratic Honolulu-based district.

The Blue Dogs could grow beyond their seven current members if they launch a successful recruitment push in 2023. But its membership is a far cry from its peak of 54 centrist Democrats during the Obama administration — let alone the heyday of 2007, when the group decided to cap its membership to no more than 20 percent of the full Democratic caucus.

The conservative tea party wave of 2010 toppled more than half of the Blue Dogs. But after a previous all-time low from 2015 to 2017, the group regained strength in the 2018 midterms, when it ushered in a historically diverse freshmen class — including Sherrill and Spanberger.

Throughout the group’s history, it hasn’t been unusual for some members to leave for various reasons. Progressive Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) once belonged to the Blue Dogs, for instance, as did former Reps. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), both of them former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chiefs.

Not until this year had their numbers ever dropped below 15 members, according to data maintained by the coalition.