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Democrats expand big tent in the Deep South

As the House Democrats'  'big tent' expands, it is getting more Southern.  How much influence can conservative Southern Democrats such as Rep. Don Cazayoux have on a House leadership headed by liberal Speaker Nancy Pelosi?
In Louisiana's Sixth Congressional District, Democrat Don Cazayoux won a special election on May 3 to fill the seat vacated by Republican Richard Baker.
In Louisiana's Sixth Congressional District, Democrat Don Cazayoux won a special election on May 3 to fill the seat vacated by Republican Richard Baker. Tim Mueller / AP
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The May 3 election of Democrat Don Cazayoux in a Louisiana congressional district that had been Republican for decades might be followed by the victory of Democrat Travis Childers in Mississippi’s heavily Republican First Congressional District.

Childers faces Republican Greg Davis in a special election Tuesday. Underscoring the importance of the race, Vice President Dick Cheney will speak at a rally for Davis in Southaven, Miss. Monday.

As the Democrats’ “big tent” expands, it is getting more Southern. But how much influence can conservative Southerners such as Cazayoux really have on a House leadership headed by liberal Speaker Nancy Pelosi?

In his first days last week as the new representative from Louisiana’s Sixth District, Cazayoux was busy learning his way around the halls of the Capitol.

At one point he wandered off from the staff member assigned by Democratic Whip James Clyburn to shepherd him. But Cazayoux kept his conservative ideological bearings.

New House member is staunchly anti-abortion
“I supported probably the strongest anti-abortion bill in the country,” Cazayoux noted, referring to his service in the Louisiana legislature. “It would ban abortion in all cases except (to save) the life of the mother.”

He added, “I would vote for that as well” as a piece of federal legislation, making it the law of the land in all 50 states.

But as Cazayoux knows, it’s improbable that such a far-reaching anti-abortion bill would ever come to a vote in a House run by Pelosi.

The Speaker has long been staunchly in favor of abortion rights and most of her 234 Democrats are pro-choice.

Hewing to the line held by Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Cazayoux stressed that issues such as abortion are not his priority.

“My focus has always been on the bread-and-butter issues that matter to our district,” he said shortly after taking his oath of office last week. “Our constituents are concerned right now about the price of gas, the price of health insurance. So those are the issues that I’m going to be focused on, at least initially.”

Abortion not on the agenda
Democratic leaders say social issues are not on their agenda because they don’t affect most people’s day-to-day lives.

Hoyer said, “The social issues are issues that people feel strongly about for one reason or another, but the issues you will see pretty consistent Democratic unity on are issues affecting families every day in their jobs, their health care, their environment, in the education of their kids — that’s what unifies our party.”

When the Republicans controlled the House, they’d regularly require votes on abortion, gay rights, school vouchers, and other issues that put Southern Democrats at odds with most of their Democratic colleagues.

Pelosi understands that Southern Democrats such as Cazayoux must take an anti-abortion stance to get elected.

She said last week she tells her new members, “’We expect to you come here to represent your districts,’ and they will vote accordingly when they are here.” But Pelosi won’t force her troops to vote on issues that split the party.

Instead, said Pelosi, “We work together in our caucus to find consensus on our issues of priority,” such as more federal spending on infrastructure and on public education. “We've had great consensus in our caucus on those issues; other issues, less consensus.” 

Coming back from the '94 massacre
The Democrats suffered a loss of 19 Southern seats in the 1994 elections when their party lost control of the House.

(NYT89) HERNANDO, Miss. -- April 21, 2008 -- MISS-CONGRESS-ELECT -- Travis Childers, a Democratic Congressional candidate in Mississippi, took his campaign to Hernando on Monday, April 21, 2008. Childers appears to be doing unusually well in the Republican district. (Kate Medley/The New York Times)Kate Medley /The New York Times/ / NYTNS

“As we start to get some of these back, it is certainly going to have an effect,” said Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, one Democrat who survived the 1994 massacre. But the effect of the Dixie Democrats will not necessarily be on social issues.

Taylor and most of the other Southerners have joined the 48-member Blue Dog Coalition. Its goal is fiscal, not social, conservatism.

And the Blue Dog Democrats say they are having an impact. “You’re seeing it this week,” Taylor said last Thursday referring to the Blue Dogs blocking a vote on the supplemental Iraq spending bill.

“A substantial number of people in our coalition insist on trying to pay for things as we go; that has held up the supplemental bill,” he noted. “All of us would prefer to see that the whole thing were paid for” by offsetting cuts in other spending or by tax increases.

Referring to the election of Cazayoux and perhaps other Democrats in the South, Taylor said, “The biggest effect is that this is going to strengthen the hand of the Blue Dogs as far as calling for fiscal responsibility. You are going to have more guys who have come from an environment where they’ve had to live within their means, and who made pledges back home that we’ve got to get back to living within our means.”

“We’ve already had a tremendous impact,” said another Blue Dog Democrat, Rep. Lincoln Davis of Tennessee. “The Democratic caucus for the first time established paygo (pay-as-you-go) policies. Those of us who agree with paygo will constantly be a thorn in the side of any leadership who wants to change that or ignore it.”

As for abortion, Taylor pointed out that when the GOP controlled the Congress from 1995 until 2006, “they would tweak at the edges, but they would never try to pass a constitutional amendment overturning Roe v. Wade.”

Last major House abortion vote in 2006
The last time there was a major abortion vote in the House when the Republicans were still in control was in 2006 on a bill to make it a crime to transport a minor across state lines to obtain an abortion, if the law in her home state required her parent’s notification or consent.

Forty-nine Democrats, including Taylor and Davis, voted for that bill.

Davis said some progress on reducing abortion may be possible. He and other Democrats are proposing what they call the “95-10 initiative” try to reduce abortion by 95 percent over the next ten years, by such means as expanding medical insurance coverage to low-income pregnant women and unborn children.

Despite the success of Cazayoux and the potential for a win Tuesday by Childers in Mississippi, there’s at least one observer who says the Democrats would be wiser to focus their efforts outside the South.

Political scientist Tom Schaller, author of the provocative book "Whistling Past Dixie," said that most of the Democratic opportunities this election cycle “will come in the more than two dozen open seats created by retiring Republicans, the vast majority of whom are from the Northeast and Midwest.”

Will there be an Obama effect?
In November, Southern Democrats such as Cazayoux, Taylor, and Davis will likely be running with Sen. Barack Obama at the top of the ticket.

Republicans tried and failed to defeat Cazayoux by linking him to Pelosi and Obama. On the night of Cazayoux’s victory, the National Republican Congressional Committee drew attention to its own failed effort.

“Republicans saturated the Baton Rouge airwaves in an effort to …make the election about the real-life consequences of a Barack Obama presidency and a continued Pelosi-run Democratic Congress,” the NRCC said.

It's true that Cazayoux won by less than three percentage points, but he still won.

Davis said Obama won’t be relevant to his own re-election bid in November in his Tennessee district (which President Bush carried in 2004 with 58 percent of the vote).

“Folks in my district have proven that they believe who I am and what I stand for and that I will not yield to anyone on any principled issue,” said Davis. “So for me it doesn’t matter who the presidential candidate is. It will have no impact on my race.”