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Out of the Blue

Blue Dog Democrats—strong supporters of our cause—have almost disappeared.

By  Joel Wood

Rep. Tim Holden, D-Pa., lost his primary reelection battle in April after Republicans eviscerated his congressional district. The victor was a liberal, self-funding trial lawyer, who will almost certainly be elected in November.

So what, you ask?

Actually, it’s a big deal. Holden is a former insurance broker who has always been attuned to the often complicated and obscure insurance regulatory agenda. Angering many in his Democratic base, he opposed President Obama’s and Nancy Pelosi’s healthcare reform effort at every step, and he articulated his fear that the Affordable Care Act would undermine the employer-sponsored health insurance marketplace and brokers’ role in it.

As The Council’s lobbyist, my job is to knock on doors, build relationships and ask for help. I get a lot of calls from members of Congress, the overwhelming majority seeking campaign contributions. Holden is one of the rare members who picked up the phone to call me not for fundraising, but to ask my help in organizing opposition to provisions moving through the House that would have stuck it to brokers. He takes legislating seriously.

In his nearly 20 years in Congress, Holden has been a big part of the vanishing breed of Blue Dog Democrats. Not so long ago, the Blue Dogs balanced out many of the liberal impulses of the Democratic Congress. Not only were the Blue Dogs generally sympathetic to the business community, they were especially cognizant of the legislative concerns of the insurance industry, and a bunch of them—like Holden—had a background in our industry.

Holden’s eastern Pennsylvania district was classic Rust Belt blue collar, and he was a bridge between business interests and organized labor. When Republicans took control of Pennsylvania state government after the 2010 elections, they were faced with losing a House seat due to declining population, and they naturally redistricted in a way to bolster their own delegation. Holden’s seat was carved to bits to free up Republican votes for neighboring officeholders.

Gerrymandering congressional lines, as a general matter, is fair game. Holden chose to run in a district where three quarters of his constituents were new. His opponent, Matt Cartwright, made Holden’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act a centerpiece of his campaign. But it really wasn’t a campaign about the issues. It was about the ability of Cartwright to self-fund from his riches as a plaintiffs attorney, combined with partisan demographics.

It didn’t help that the anti-incumbent “super PAC” Campaign for Primary Accountability targeted Holden. Funded by a group of Texas millionaires, this super PAC is the most irrational political effort I may have ever witnessed. Its premise is that all incumbents are bad and that the country can get back on track only with fresh faces. By aiming at incumbents of all stripes, the group substitutes stupidity for ideology. It endorsed uber-liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, when he was thrown into a district this year with a much-longer-tenured incumbent. The same group tried to defeat Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., the chairman of the Financial Services Committee and a rock-ribbed conservative. Fortunately for the republic, in both of those instances the “super PAC” failed. With the defeat of their target, Holden, this group now gets an establishment liberal trial lawyer. Some accomplishment.

My disappointment in the Holden election is a broader reflection of my fears that Washington has become today what Sacramento became more than a decade ago—occupied by both the right and the left, with a disappearing middle. The Cook Political Report, the nation’s best and most granular political handicapper, assesses races on a scale—safe Republican, likely Republican, leaning Republican, tossup, leaning Democrat, likely Democrat and safe Democrat. Even in a highly combustible political 2012 environment, congressional district lines across the country have overwhelmingly been drawn in an uncompetitive way. Almost everybody in Congress is “safe” or “likely.”

As a Republican, I’m pleased to note that Democrats would have to win almost every single “lean” or “tossup” seat to regain control of the House. As a citizen, the consequences of this polarization (and sophisticated partisan mapmaking) are troubling.

Greece’s recent parliamentary elections increased the power of both the far right and the far left. There’s a lesson there.

Meanwhile, there is precisely one remaining Blue Dog Democrat left in the Deep South—Rep. John Barrow of Georgia—who happens to be the Democratic co-author of the legislation that would exclude broker compensation from the Affordable Care Act’s minimum medical loss ratio. He, too, put his party second and his country first on all the House votes on healthcare reform. Republicans in the Georgia legislature drew the maps this year to make Barrow much more vulnerable in November. Everybody I know in the D.C. business lobbying community thinks that losing Barrow would be awful.

Congressman Holden, never flashy or ego-driven, will make a whole lot more money when he’s out of Congress. His life will be much more sane without the constant push-and-pull from the left and the right. But with the loss of legislators like him, Congress will be diminished.

Wood is The Council’s senior vice president of Government Affairs.


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