Another Blue Dog bites the dust

June 9, 2011

Another one bites the dust.

On the heels of an election that decimated the Blue Dog ranks in Congress, one more conservative House Democrat is packing it in.

Unlike the Blue Dog Democrats who were tossed out by voters, Oklahoma Rep. Dan Boren is leaving of his own accord, announcing Tuesday he will not seek a fifth term.

His departure is the latest blow to the party’s moderate-conservative wing, a faction that is beginning to look like the nearly extinct Gypsy moth Republicans of the Northeast.

The Blue Dog decline has been sharp, to put it mildly. Following the 2008 elections, the coalition counted 54 House members. When the dust settled from the 2010 midterms, just 25 remained. There will be two fewer with the departures of Boren and Indiana Rep. Joe Donnelly, who is running for Senate.

Former Tennessee Rep. John Tanner, a leading conservative Democrat who helped found the coalition in 1995, acknowledged that the Blue Dog wing is, for the time being at least, struggling for survival.

“It ought to concern us from the standpoint that we need to put aside strongly held philosophies,” said Tanner, who retired last year.

Former North Dakota Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a Blue Dog who lost his seat last November, put it more directly: “I think you could say this was the most disastrous House election that Democrats ever had, and those who paid the highest price were those in swing districts and those who were Blue Dogs.”

While Boren didn’t announce his plans, many in the growing ranks of former Blue Dogs have beaten a path to the lucrative environs of K Street, where they aren’t regularly berated by progressives who resent their departures from party orthodoxy or Republicans insisting they are tools of a liberal national party. In just the past few months alone, former South Dakota Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, former Tennessee Rep. Bart Gordon, Pomeroy and Tanner are among those who have taken the lobbying path.

Like them, Boren had seemed to find a niche representing a conservative seat where the Democratic Party label was rarely an asset. Just 37 years old, Boren, the son of a senator and governor and the grandson of a congressman, is a household name in Oklahoma who likely could have held the seat for as long as he wanted. He managed to win reelection last year with 57 percent of the vote, an impressive result in a conservative-minded district in a strongly Republican year.

But the trend lines weren’t great. He was the only Democrat left in the congressional delegation. His winning margins were on the decline. The GOP won every statewide race in 2010 for the first time ever. And in 2012, he’d be sharing the ballot with a Democratic president who managed to gain just 34 percent in his southeastern Oklahoma-based seat in 2008.

Boren was, from all outward appearances, preparing to seek a fifth term. He had told advisers that he had set a goal of raising $3 million during the next two years and had recently taken on a leadership position in the Blue Dog Coalition.

But there was also a private acknowledgement among Boren loyalists that the unpopularity of his national party in deep-red Oklahoma had taken a toll on him. Over the past several years, Boren has distanced himself from the Obama administration — voting against the health care overhaul and much of the national Democratic Party agenda — and had even declined to endorse Obama during the 2008 presidential election.

One Boren adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, said 65 percent of the district’s voters currently have an unfavorable impression of Obama.

The congressman’s camp was bracing for his toughest race yet. On the day after the midterm elections, National Republican Congressional Committee Executive Director Guy Harrison held a conference call with reporters and singled out Boren as a top 2012 target. Just hours before his unexpected retirement announcement, the NRCC launched a series of robocalls in Boren’s district hammering Democrats over Medicare.

“You would have been assured that he was going to have a well-funded opponent, perhaps the best-funded opponent he has ever faced,” said John Rowley, a Boren media consultant who counts many rural Democrats as clients.

On the left, Boren found few friends. Last year, Boren faced a primary challenge from state Sen. Jim Wilson, who hammered the Blue Dog for his opposition to the health care bill. Boren cruised to an easy victory — but not before dumping nearly $1 million into a media blitz excoriating his foe as a liberal who opposed gun rights.

Boren, however, cast his retirement as a family decision, pointing out that he had two children at home in Muskogee, Okla. — both born since his 2004 election to Congress.

“This is not an easy decision for me,” Boren said at a Tuesday press conference. “It was based on the demands of constant campaigning and, most importantly, spending too much time away from my family, which includes two very young children.”

The conservative base of Boren’s seat will make it difficult for Democrats to hold. In 2006 and 2008, the Democratic majority swelled as the party won seats in Republican-friendly areas stretching from Indiana to Alabama. But many of those areas emphatically rejected the party in the midterms.

If Democrats hope to have a viable shot at returning to the majority in 2012, Tanner said part of the road would have to run through moderate-to-conservative districts that spurned them in 2010.

“Whoever wins the majority of the 91 seats within the 50-50 [percent] voting pattern will hold the gavel,” he said.

Tanner expressed concern that the ranks of Blue Dog members could further dwindle as the redistricting process proceeds. Several remaining Blue Dogs, including Pennsylvania Rep. Jason Altmire, North Carolina Rep. Heath Shuler and Georgia Rep. John Barrow, are expected to be top targets of GOP mapmakers.

“This redistricting that’s coming up isn’t going to help a damn bit,” Tanner said.

Boren’s seat doesn’t change dramatically in Oklahoma’s recently passed congressional map, and Democrats have high hopes that former Rep. Brad Carson, who indicated he intends to seek the seat, can capture it in 2012.

Carson is already acquainted with the pressures of representing a conservative district as a Democrat. Following his defeat, Carson wrote a piece in The New Republic in which he sharply criticized his national party. “While the defeat was all my own, the failure was of the party to which I swear allegiance, which uncritically embraces a modernity that so many others reject,” he wrote.

In an interview with POLITICO on Tuesday, Carson said he planned to wave the same Blue Dog flag he held during his four years in the House. But he said he wouldn’t distance himself from his party.

“You don’t embrace or distance yourself,” he said. “You just be yourself.”

Click here to read the full story.