Centrist Democrats are back. But these are not your father’s Blue Dogs.
When Mikie Sherrill first ran into the congressional Blue Dog coalition in 2018, she wasn’t sure it would be the place for her.
She knew the caucus focused on fiscal and national defense issues, which she – a Democrat then running for a GOP-held seat in northern New Jersey – cared deeply about. But she also knew it had been founded by a group of white Democratic congressmen, most from the South, who felt they were being “choked blue” by the party’s leftward shift. She remembered that the coalition, back in 2009, had urged changes to the Affordable Care Act that some in the party say watered down President Barack Obama’s signature bill.
“I had some pause,” Representative Sherrill says in a phone interview. “I had some concerns about the policies, about the history.”
What won her over was Stephanie Murphy, the Vietnam-born Florida lawmaker who came to Congress in 2017 and now serves as the first woman of color to co-chair the Blue Dogs. The two women connected instantly on the issues. “She was incredibly thoughtful about how to move the economy forward, creating broad coalitions, moving on infrastructure,” Representative Sherrill recalls. They also shared experiences: young kids at home, careers in public service (the Pentagon for Representative Murphy, the Navy for Representative Sherrill), and support for LGBTQ and women’s rights.
Such résumés would have been unusual, if not unimaginable, for the original Blue Dogs. Today’s coalition, however, looks a lot like the rest of the Democratic caucus: less white, less male, and less conservative. Current Blue Dogs hail from red and purple districts across the country, including the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest. And like Representative Sherrill, their newest members campaigned – and won – on bread-and-butter issues like health care and infrastructure.
Blue Dog members say they still stand by the old centrist mantra of fiscal responsibility, a strong national defense, and commonsense solutions to practical problems. But their membership today reflects how much the demographic and geographic profiles of the Democratic Party has changed – and how much the political center has shifted.
“It seems so cliché, but I can’t help but think, ‘This is not your father’s Blue Dog committee,’” says Representative Sherrill. “Those who say it’s an old, white, Southern caucus – I tell them they haven’t seen the Blue Dogs lately.”
‘Democrats in name only’
The Blue Dogs were founded in 1995, the year after Republicans took control of the House for the first time in four decades. Though the caucus didn’t officially take positions on social issues, most of its members were Southern Democrats with conservative views on things like abortion and gun control. They focused on fiscal issues, however, and rose to prominence in their early years during budget negotiations. Their bills straddled the line between what Republicans wanted, which was usually tax cuts or reduced spending, and what Democrats called for, which was often more investment in federal programs.
The 2009-10 session, with the coalition at 51 members, was a productive legislative term for them: They got Congress to restore Pay-As-You-Go budget rules, which require lawmakers to offset the cost of any increased spending on entitlements by cutting funding for other programs or raising other revenues. They successfully opposed a public option to compete with private insurance companies under what would become the Affordable Care Act. And they sponsored a bill that required federal agencies to report their achievements every fiscal year so that congressional committees had a basis for setting each agency’s annual budget.
The work was rarely easy, or popular. Their role in the public option debate, for instance, drew criticism from the progressive left, which accused them of being DINOs – “Democrats in name only” – and using fiscal responsibility as camouflage for their support of corporate interests. “[They] seemed to exist to stop Democrats from achieving their objectives,” says Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, a progressive advocacy firm.
“Blue Dogs are in the middle of the road all right – but only in the sense that a dog hugging the center stripe amid whizzing 18-wheelers is in the middle of the road,” Dennis Farney wrote for The Wall Street Journal back in 1997. “In today’s Congress the center may be the most dangerous and discouraging place of all.”
Over the years, as party lines deepened and conservative Democrats either retired, were challenged in the primaries, or defected to the GOP, the coalition – like centrists in general – dwindled. In the wake of the tea party takeover, Blue Dogs were down to just 15 members.
The situation began to turn after this last midterm. The so-called “blue wave” that brought to Congress the most diverse class of freshmen in history included 42 Democrats who had flipped their districts. Ten, including Representative Sherrill, became Blue Dogs, bringing the coalition’s numbers up to 27 – enough to influence legislation, given the Democrats’ 18-seat House majority.
“When they have a sizable number, like they do now, their votes are needed,” says Jennifer Walsh, a public affairs director for the D.C. law firm Foley and Lardner, and former chief of staff to California Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a Blue Dog who retired in 2012. “It’s fun when your votes are needed. People care what you think.”
The Blue Dogs began taking advantage of their new numbers right after the election. Representative Murphy was among those who held back her vote for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi until leadership promised a group of moderates that bipartisan bills would have an easier time making it to the floor for votes. (Some Blue Dogs, like Representatives Sherrill and Ben McAdams of Utah, didn’t vote for Speaker Pelosi at all.)
Once the session started, they made sure that their party’s agenda-setting H.R. 1 included language around campaign finance and redistricting reform. They took vocal positions on infrastructure and rural broadband. They’re supporting Representative McAdams’ proposal for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution and stalling a $15 minimum wage bill until it’s more amenable to rural areas.
Blue Dogs say these efforts prove they’ve stuck to the coalition’s founding vision of providing an alternative to the party’s liberal wing. “We’re still united around the same issues that we’ve always been united around, and that’s fiscal responsibility, national security,” Representative Murphy says at a meeting of the coalition’s co-chairs at her offices on Capitol Hill.
But they’re decidedly not the Blue Dogs of old. Though there’s still some variety in their social views – Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, for instance, is prominently antiabortion – most members align with their party on issues like reproductive health, gun laws, and immigration. Many push back against being labeled conservative, or even moderate. Representative Murphy would rather they’re called “pragmatic Democrats,” willing to work with Republicans and progressives alike to move practical legislation forward.
And members say it’s she – who fled communist Vietnam with her family in 1979, and recently penned an op-ed defending capitalism – who embodies the new narrative that’s driving the coalition. She “was able to lift herself up and create opportunities for herself and her family,” Representative McAdams says in a phone interview. “Her personal story encapsulates for me a lot of what the Blue Dogs are.”
Skepticism from both sides
Some observers say this shows that the coalition, like the party, is drifting away from the center. The Blue Dogs may have regained some influence after 2018, but it’s hard to imagine the trend of polarization reversing itself. “They make a stylistically moderate point,” says Danielle Thomsen, a visiting scholar in politics at Princeton University and author of a book on the political center. But from the policy side, she says, “the actual demands that they’re trying to make might not differ so much from the party mainstream.”
Progressives like Mr. Lawson disagree; he says many Blue Dogs today use socially liberal views to win support from Democratic voters, despite the fact that on economic matters they represent corporate interests. He says the coalition wrongly identifies the political center as a place where Wall Street gets a bigger piece than Main Street. “It’s ‘fiscal responsibility’ that happens to hurt the people,” he says.
Blue Dogs say they’re used to skepticism from across the political spectrum. At the meeting with Blue Dog leaders, Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon remembers having to convince former Reps. John Tanner of Tennessee and Allen Boyd of Florida that he was serious about addressing fiscal issues. “Everyone assumed, ‘Oregon’s very deep blue, and therefore you’re a tax-and-spend liberal Democrat,’” Representative Schrader says.
He says the coalition’s growing diversity, reflective of both the Democratic Party and the country, shows that more Americans want what they offer than ever before. After most of the other members have left the meeting, rushing off to committee hearings and floor votes, he and freshman co-chair Anthony Brindisi of New York stick around to hammer their point home.
“Bipartisanship, fiscal responsibility, defense, and working with business as well as labor ... the country is more reflective of that Blue Dog philosophy now,” Representative Schrader says.
“Make America governable again,” Representative Brindisi adds. “That’s what got us into the majority.”