For the last two years moderate Democrats have found themselves in dire political straits. While it might be easy to boil the reasons down to an election cycle that simply didn’t go their way, there’s also a historical angle to consider.
Think about it: Prior to the election of President Obama in 2008, the most liberal occupant of the Oval Office in the previous fifty years was arguably Lyndon B. Johnson. He was followed by a series of Republicans and moderate Democrats from the new south.
Then came 2008. The election of Obama, with Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) holding the Speaker’s gavel, created a hyper-polarized Washington—leaving the down-ballot moderates, who gave the ‘Big Tent’ Democrats their name, without a party.
There’s also a numbers game in play. For House members, every 10 years brings the gauntlet of redistricting. For Senators, evolving demographics may pose roadblocks to traditional means of reelection. Neither party is immune to these effects, but if history is already stacking itself against you the problem becomes amplified.
That’s the very bind center-leaning ‘Blue Dog’ Democrats find themselves in.
The House’s Blue Dog Caucus saw disaster strike two years ago, as its membership shrank by half—voted out of office by an angry electorate that focused on their national ties with Obama rather than local credibility.
In 2012, perhaps no House Democrat facing such a problem is as profiled as Georgia’s John Barrow—the only white Democrat left standing in the Deep South. The newly minted—he’s moved twice to remain in his district—Augusta, Ga. co-chair of the Blue Dog Caucus faces a perilous environment fostered by historical trends and numerical shifts. His new district voted for George W. Bush by 60 percent in 2004 and 56 percent for John McCain in 2008. Polls show Mitt Romney pulling similar numbers.
And, yet, just last week the Rothenberg Political Report shifted Barrow’s race from ‘Lean Republican’ to ‘Lean Democratic,’ thanks in part to a masterful ad campaign that proves his skill as a bobbing and weaving political survivor by showing him toting an antique shotgun and speaking as only a Deep Southerner could. He’s nowhere near out of the woods yet though, and should he manage to defy the odds this time, a lower turnout midterm year like 2014 will likely spell the end.
Meanwhile, coal country Democrats also face a slippery slope when it comes to their association with Obama, perhaps to an even greater degree given the focus on jobs by both presidential candidates. The last four years have wreaked havoc on the coal industry, and many voters in the region are blaming the president.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D) situation is arguably more documented than Georgia’s Barrow, but he’s in good shape for similar reasons: an effective ad campaign—again featuring firearms—and a proven ability to navigate a tough political terrain. Manchin goes a step farther with his ardent pro-coal stance—actually opposing his national party on a policy point, rather than simply trying to play identity politics to create a public image voters are comfortable with.
West Virginia's state legislature provides another interesting case study. The body is still controlled by Democrats even though, at a national level, Romney is set for an easy win in the state next week. There too, Democrats have aggressively distanced themselves from Obama’s energy policy.
Heading into the Midwest, Democrat Joe Donnelly attached his name as a supporter of the Stop the War on Coal Act in his bid to flip an Indiana Senate seat. The bill itself has cleared the House but is likely set for failure in the Senate, due in part to the shrinking number of moderates in the Democratic majority.
The pundit class often finds it easier to focus on infighting among Republicans in the age of the Tea Party than discuss some of the more subtle contrasts opening up within the Democratic Party. But the last four years paint a compelling picture of buildup and electoral impact of a hard-left administration and party leadership on moderate Democrats—a dynamic likely to play an integral role in coming elections.
Brandon Howell is an account services director at Hynes Communications and contributes to the Peach State political blog Georgia Tipsheet.