Travis Childers is exactly the type of politician you would expect to represent Mississippi’s 1st Congressional District, which gave President Bush 62 percent of the vote in 2004. He’s for prayer in schools and against abortion. He opposes gun control and gay marriage. And he vowed never to vote for a tax increase.
There’s just one thing that’s unusual about Childers: He’s a Democrat. Running on this conservative platform, he narrowly prevailed in a May 13 special election after his predecessor, Roger Wicker, was elevated to the U.S. Senate. Childers now holds a congressional seat that had been Republican since 1994.
Spurred by the civil rights movement and the 1964 Goldwater presidential campaign, Southern conservatives have been ditching the party of Jefferson for the party of Lincoln for four decades. When Republicans took control of Congress 14 years ago, erstwhile Boll Weevils began switching parties at a furious pace. The old Blue Dogs didn’t look like they would be able to hunt any more.
But conservative Democrats are making a comeback. Even though the country is moving leftward on some issues and the national party is more homogenously liberal than ever, new Blue Dogs have helped fortify Nancy Pelosi’s House majority. According to National Journal’s 2007 vote rankings, 15 of the 41 freshman Democrats elected in 2006 earned liberal scores of 55 percent or less. Heath Shuler of North Carolina, Brad Ellsworth and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Christopher P. Carney of Pennsylvania are among the more culturally conservative Democrats to win key races that year.
The trend has continued this year. In addition to Childers’ contest, Democrats won another special election in Louisiana with anti-abortion, socially conservative Don Cazayoux. His opponent, Woody Jenkins, was a more typical Southern conservative: a former Democrat who became a Republican. Yet Cazayoux combined a critical mass of white conservative Democratic voters with a majority of blacks in his district to win by a small margin.
Rep. Charlie Melancon is another Louisiana Democrat who courted conservative voters by opposing abortion rights, gay marriage and gun control. In 2004, Melancon beat Billy Tauzin III, the son of the former congressman and his namesake, who had started out as a conservative Democrat and became a Republican.
In some Southern states, the party-switching is even beginning to run in the opposite direction. Virginia helped give Democrats control of the Senate by electing former Republican and Reagan appointee Jim Webb in 2006. This year, Democrats nominated former Ron Paul Republican Bob Conley to challenge GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina.
Two factors have spurred the rise of the Blue Dogs. National Democrats have decided it is better to win by running candidates who reflect their districts’ ideological tint than to lose by imposing rigid litmus tests. Several of the more conservative 2006 candidates were recruited or encouraged by liberal campaign committee chairmen. Second, the more pro-business candidates are prospering financially now that Democratic control of Congress looks secure. Donations to the Blue Dog Coalition’s political action committee, for example, are running nearly three times what they were in the last election cycle.
A successful political party benefits all its factions, and right now, the Democrats have a very successful party. When the Republicans were ascendant in the ’90s, GOP candidates were able to win in unlikely areas by running with the national party brand on some issues — taxes, welfare reform and crime — while abandoning it on others, such as abortion, gun control and gay rights. Today’s conservative Democrats are the mirror image of ’90s Republicans like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld and former California Gov. Pete Wilson.
Childers and Cazayoux embraced their party’s economic populism, criticism of the Bush administration and desire to end the war in Iraq, while eschewing the social liberalism that might have doomed them in their districts. But the conservative Democrats’ success may also contain the seeds of their undoing. Representing GOP-leaning districts, they will be the most vulnerable in the event of a Republican recovery.
They will also face increasing pressure from within their own party. Writing in Salon, Glenn Greenwald has already called on progressives to purge conservative Democrats who stand in the way of their agenda on foreign policy, civil liberties and other issues. Liberals will not want to waste the opportunities afforded by Democratic majorities.
In the meantime, Blue Dogs will enjoy their removal from the endangered species list, making life difficult for red-state Republicans and liberal Democrats alike.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.