Centrist Blue Dogs In The Midterm Cross Hairs

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This Bobby Bright ad features a picture of House Minority Leader John Boehner as Bright boasts that he has voted with Boehner 80 percent of the time.

The upcoming midterm elections have many Democrats fighting for their political lives. But one group may have the toughest fight of all: the centrist House Democrats known as Blue Dogs.

Elected in traditionally Republican territory, they now find themselves in the cross hairs as voter sentiment has soured.

If you just listened to the campaign ads, you wouldn't guess some of these candidates have a "D" by their names.

"I've said no to more government spending, no to President Obama's big health care plan, and no to Wall Street bailouts," says freshman Rep. Walt Minnick of Idaho.

In Mississippi, Travis Childers brags, "I'm pro-gun and pro-life. I'm endorsed by the NRA and National Right to Life."

And an announcer reports that freshman Democrat Bobby Bright of Alabama "voted against the bailouts, against stimulus spending, against the massive government health care."

Bright is the first Democrat to represent Alabama's 2nd Congressional District in 44 years. The son of a sharecropper and former mayor of Montgomery won by a scant 1,700 votes two years ago.  And ever since, he's amassed a voting record that breaks with his party a majority of the time.

Freshman Democrat Bobby Bright

Freshman Democrat Bobby Bright talks to voters at Famous Floyd's diner in Evergreen, Ala. He says centrist Democrats like him find themselves on the chopping block in this political climate. Debbie Elliott/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Debbie Elliott/NPR

On a recent campaign stop across from the train depot in rural Evergreen, Ala., Bright greets voters at Famous Floyd's diner — and comments on the fact that two gentlemen who arrived together are sporting rival team colors.

"Is that Auburn? And Alabama — looka here," Bright says. "They're getting along fine together."

College football arch rivals might be getting along fine for breakfast, but Bright points out it doesn't work like that for Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

"We've got more people in the center trying to make things good happen than we do on the fringes that are the loudest and most volatile and the most vocal," says Bright. "Those are the guys controlling our government right now. But you know who is on the chopping block this term? People like me."

Taking Risks

Congressional Quarterly says Bright opposed the Democratic Party line on 55 percent of votes in 2009. That has him walking a fine line with voters in southeast Alabama — touting his vote against President Obama's health care overhaul while at the same time defending the legislation.

"I don't care what people tell you," he says. "It's doing some good things for 80 percent of the people who live in Alabama."

But he says 80 percent of the people in Alabama didn't want it, so he voted against it.

"It was a real negative for me to hear him say 'I didn't vote for it,' " says retiree Daniel McDaniel. He is among the 30 percent of voters in Bright's district who are African-American. Their turnout was crucial two years ago, and in question today.

"I probably wouldn't have voted for him if I hadn't talked to him today," McDaniel says.

Bright risks alienating the Democratic base with his ads sporting a picture of House Republican Leader John Boehner and promising not to vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker.

Democratic pollster John Anzalone says to win in this political climate, the fiscally conservative Blue Dogs like Bright have to distance themselves from the party, Pelosi and the president.

In the minds of voters, Anzalone says, "they have to show they are not part of the [D.C.] cabal."

Republican Martha Roby greets voters at a Kiwanis Club luncheon in Dothan, Ala. i i

Republican Martha Roby greets voters at a Kiwanis Club luncheon in Dothan, Ala. The Montgomery City Council member is trying to win back Alabama's 2nd Congressional District for the GOP. A Republican held the seat for 44 years until Blue Dog Democrat Bobby Bright won it in 2008. Roby has been endorsed by Sarah Palin and is hammering Bright for voting for Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House. Debbie Elliott/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Debbie Elliott/NPR
Republican Martha Roby greets voters at a Kiwanis Club luncheon in Dothan, Ala.

Republican Martha Roby greets voters at a Kiwanis Club luncheon in Dothan, Ala. The Montgomery City Council member is trying to win back Alabama's 2nd Congressional District for the GOP. A Republican held the seat for 44 years until Blue Dog Democrat Bobby Bright won it in 2008. Roby has been endorsed by Sarah Palin and is hammering Bright for voting for Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House.

Debbie Elliott/NPR

Opponent Puts Focus On Pelosi

Republicans are trying to keep the red state Democrats on the defensive. Bright's opponent, Martha Roby, a Montgomery City Council member, has kept the focus on Pelosi.

"We've seen a lot happen in the past year and a half that's come straight out of her agenda," Roby says. "And people down here don't like it."

Roby, a 34-year-old mother of two, beat a Tea Party candidate in the Republican primary, and has since picked up an endorsement from Sarah Palin. At a recent Kiwanis Club lunch in Dothan, Ala., she called for smaller government and a repeal of the health care law.

Sitting at the Rotary's "curmudgeon table," 88-year-old Charles McLeod says she'll get his vote.

"I voted for Dewey in 1944 and I'll probably still vote Republican," chuckles McLeod. He adds he likes the way Bright votes, but says the congressman is in the wrong party.

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