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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

‘Blue Dog’ Losses: Good Party Discipline or Shrinking Big Tent?

Two ‘Blue Dog” House incumbents, Reps. Tim Holden (D-Pa.) and Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), lost their seats to challengers in Democratic primaries on Tuesday, whittling the centrist Dems coalition down to 23 House seats, a new low in their numerical influence.
Both candidates were defeated by progressive Democrats. Matt Cartwright defeated Holden in Pennsylvania’s redrawn 17th district, with strong support from progressive groups, including MoveOn and the League for Conservation Voters, as well as the anti-incumbent Super PAC, the Campaign for Primary Accountability. Cartwright, who also spent a lot of his own money, attacked Holden for his opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
With strong support from organized labor, Mark Critz beat Altmire, who also opposed the ACA, in PA-12. As Amanda Terkel reports at HuffPo, “Eddie Vale, spokesman for the AFL-CIO’s super PAC Workers’ Voice, said Altmire was a “huge favorite” based on the geography of the new district, but “boots on the ground and the energy of working families upset that paradigm.”
While centrists lament the loss of two ‘Blue Dogs,’ many Democratic progressives are undoubtedly heartened by the defeats, which they see as a kind of party discipline invoked by the grass roots in the vacuum created by the reluctance of Democratic congressional leaders to do so. Blue Dogs rarely paid a price in terms of committee assignments or other perks when they failed to support the legislative agenda of Democratic leadership. Now they will have no doubt that progressive groups have the power to hold them accountable at the primary level.
Centrist Dems fear that the campaign to reduce the Blue Dog coalition may drive moderate voters to the GOP and ultimately increase the GOP House majority. But many political scientists now believe that the percentage of genuine swing voters is very small, and most self-described moderates lean toward one party or the other with predictable regularity.
Altmire and Holden opposed the ACA. But centrist Dems point out that another ‘Blue Dog,’ former Rep. Bart Stupak, was instrumental in securing a favorable House vote for the legislation. His seat is now held by wingnut Republican Dan Benishek.
Progressive Democrats have strengthened their hand with the two Blue Dog defeats. But the debate over whether reducing the number of political centrists is a healthy thing for the party or not will continue.
In either case, more discipline invoked by Democratic leaders in congress against straying members would likely strengthen party unity. The ‘Big Tent’ can be a good thing in terms of holding a majority. But the Democratic Party has to take a clear stand — as unified as possible — for defining reforms like affordable health care.

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