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(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, is gearing up for an election that may be his toughest in years — if not ever. The "Blue Dog" Democrat is trying to help other moderate Democrats running this year in Republican leaning or split districts in this year's election.
‘Blue Dog’ Democrats fighting to avoid extinction

Blue Dogs campaign hard to avoid endangered species status

First Published May 19 2012 07:24 am • Last Updated Aug 28 2012 11:34 pm

Washington • Rep. Jim Matheson is in the midst of two tough campaigns and the one outside of Utah may prove to be the most challenging.

He’s trying to grow the once mighty Blue Dog Coalition, a group of centrist Democrats that was cut in half in the 2010 Republican landslide. To do this, Matheson hired the Blue Dogs’ first campaign strategist and overhauled the coalition’s recruitment effort, trying to get stronger candidates to run in districts he thinks Democrats can reclaim.

At a glance

Blue Dogs by the numbers

A look inside the political action committee of this group of moderate and conservative Democrats

$1.7 million » Amount of cash in the Blue Dog PAC as of April 30

$10,000 » Maximum contribution the Blue Dog PAC can give to a candidate

54 » Number of Blue Dogs before the 2010 election

25 » Number of current House members in the Blue Dog Coalition

11 » Number of candidates the Blue Dog PAC has endorsed.

0 » Number of endorsed candidates who are front-runners in their races.

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"In a world that is all the more competitive, I think it’s important for Blue Dogs to take steps to compete," said Matheson, a co-chairman of the Blue Dog political action committee. "Expanding the scope and reach of the PAC is the smart thing to do."

But turning that outreach into election-night victories is far from guaranteed. Matheson has more than a few factors working against him starting with the attention-sucking presidential contest and the once-in-a-decade redistricting where Republicans targeted areas where moderate and conservative Democrats have had success.

So far the Blue Dogs have endorsed 11 candidates and all of them are underdogs, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which handicaps federal elections.

"It is possible that all of their endorsed candidates will come up short," said David Wasserman, who focuses on House races for Cook. "Today, none of them would win."

Wasserman said part of the problem is that President Barack Obama is vastly unpopular in many of the rural districts in places like Georgia and Arkansas that Blue Dogs are attempting to represent.

"The Obama years are dark times for Blue Dogs. It may take a different presence atop the ticket to revive their strength," said Wasserman.

Blue Dogs were some of the most powerful House members in the early years of the Obama administration, holding the swing votes on major legislation such as health care reform and a failed energy bill. But when Republicans won control of the House in 2010, Blue Dogs took a severe beating dropping from 54 members to just 25.

Then came redistricting, and Wasserman said not only will it be tough for Blue Dogs to add any members, it will be difficult for them to keep the seats they have now.

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Seven current Blue Dogs will either retire or run for another office, and five, including Matheson, are in races that Wasserman considers 50-50 propositions.

He said it wouldn’t surprise him if there were only 15 coalition survivors after the November election, despite the group’s more organized campaign effort.

"You know Jim Matheson may be spearheading this drive, but he’s a prime example of someone who is highly endangered in 2012," said Wasserman, noting that Matheson is running in a new district against an expected strong challenger — Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love. "If it were just one or the other, [new district or strong challenger] Matheson would have a small advantage. With both it is a total tossup."

Utah’s 2nd Congressional District is the most Republican area nationwide now held by a Democrat and that has made Matheson one of the Republicans’ perennial top targets. But the six-term congressman has decided to run in Utah’s new 4th Congressional District, even though he doesn’t live in the area, because his team calculated it is slightly more favorable to a conservative Democrat.

If he wins, he is likely to keep the mantle as the Democrat representing the most Republican area. His argument for another term is the same argument the Blue Dog PAC is encouraging its endorsed candidates to use, namely that he is not a reliable Democratic vote.

"I think Utahns know full well that I’m not the type of guy who just walks the party line," Matheson said. "I’ve certainly heard criticism from my own party over that. But at the end of the day, I think most people appreciate that I’m different."

Matheson doesn’t share Wasserman’s skepticism. He believes that the nation is yearning for more pragmatic lawmakers, willing to cut deals to get important legislation passed. And Matheson is optimistic that Blue Dog-endorsed candidates have crossover appeal that will draw in Republican and independent voters.

"I wouldn’t put them in the category of long shots," Matheson said. "This is what Blue Dogs always face. Generally they come from the more competitive races and the tough districts."

Matheson won his second race, in 2002, by less than 1 percentage point after the last round of redistricting. In 2010 — before another redistricting — he won by less than five percentage points. He knows the atmosphere in 2012 will be a challenge and that’s why he wanted to beef up the Blue Dog’s political organization.

Matheson and his PAC co-chairman, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., who is retiring this year, hired Andrew Whalen, a political consultant out of North Carolina.

Whalen has a history with Blue Dogs, working for Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., who is also retiring this year.

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