What You Heard About ‘Conservative Democrats’ Winning Was Wrong

by Stuart Rothenberg November 19, 2006 · 11:02 PM EST

It quickly has become conventional wisdom that last week’s Democratic House victory swept in a crop of moderate and conservative Democrats who’ll both keep party liberals in check and help remake the image of the party of former Vice President Al Gore, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and soon-to-be Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Well, I met dozens of Democrats running in 2006 – no, not everyone, but most of them – and I can’t find much more than a couple who merit the label “conservative.” That’s not meant to be either criticism or praise. It’s merely a statement of fact.

North Carolina Rep.-elect Heath Shuler surely qualifies as a culturally conservative Democrat, but the pro-life, pro-gun Democrat who is a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes is the exception, not the rule. Virtually all of the Democrats I interviewed were pro-choice, favored rolling back President Bush’s tax cuts and sounded traditional Democratic themes on education, the environment and foreign policy.

In Connecticut, Reps.-elect Chris Murphy and Joe Courtney are pretty typical Northern liberals. In New York, Rep.-elect John Hall, who I didn’t meet, appears to be quite left of center. Two upstate Democrats, Reps.-elect Kirsten Gillibrand and Michael Arcuri, have more moderate personas, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call them conservatives, or even moderates.

Arcuri often referred to himself as a “Boehlert Democrat,” a label that won’t make conservatives who cringed at the voting record of retiring Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R) the least bit comfortable. Gillibrand, who is impossible not to like, didn’t sound like a liberal firebrand, but I’d be surprised if her record was much different from that of most Northeast Democrats.

In Pennsylvania, there is no reason to believe that Reps.-elect Patrick Murphy and Joe Sestak will be anything but typical suburban Philadelphia Democrats: If you are a liberal, you’ll like them, and if you aren’t, you probably won’t.

In Florida, Rep.-elect Ron Klein’s state legislative voting record seems consistent with a liberal Democrat, and while some observers have pointed out that Rep.-elect Tim Mahoney talked a moderate line during his campaign and is a former Republican, my notes from my interview with him show that he has not supported a Republican presidential nominee for more than 20 years and seems likely to vote along traditional Democratic lines.

Texas Rep.-elect Nick Lampson may have to vote like a moderate or conservative if he has any hope of winning re-election in Texas’ 22nd district in two years, but his record when he was in Congress was not what one normally would identify as conservative, or even moderate.

My interview with California Rep.-elect Jerry McNerney suggests he’s quite liberal. The same goes for Rep.-elect Steve Kagen in Wisconsin. I didn’t interview Iowa’s newly elected Member, Dave Loebsack, but his profile — he’s a political science professor at Cornell College and ran against middle-of-the-road GOP Rep. Jim Leach from the left — suggests he’s no moderate.

In Ohio, Rep.-elect Charlie Wilson is conservative on cultural issues, so that makes him a relatively moderate Democrat. But fellow Buckeye State Rep.-elect Betty Sutton certainly isn’t a moderate, and although I didn’t meet Rep.-elect Zack Space, I am told by people who did that his views seem fairly liberal.

I wrote after the previous cycle that I liked Indiana Democrat Joe Donnelly and hoped he’d run again, but I’d never call him a conservative Democrat. On the other hand, Rep.-elect Brad Ellsworth told me that he is pro-life, supports a constitutional amendment defining marriage and supports capital punishment, so he does appear to be a moderate Democrat.

Then there is Rep.-elect Baron Hill, who, if you ask him, probably will call himself a moderate Democrat. The only problem is that voters in Indiana’s 9th district fired him two years ago because they thought he was a cultural liberal who tried to have issues both ways.

I’ve never met Rep.-elect John Yarmuth, who knocked off Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.) and has a reputation for being both very personable and very liberal. Kansas Rep.-elect Nancy Boyda is pro-choice, and as far as I can tell, there is no reason to see her as a moderate.

Kentucky Democrat Ken Lucas would have been a conservative Democrat, but he lost. Florida’s Christine Jennings, a bank president, might have been moderate on business issues, but she apparently lost narrowly.

Colorado Rep.-elect Ed Perlmutter? Liberal. Iowa Rep.-elect Bruce Braley? Very liberal. Arizona Rep.-elect Gabrielle Giffords? Liberal, I think.

Now let me be very clear about my point. I’m not saying that it’s good or bad that most of these Democrats are likely to be pretty typical members of their party. I’m only saying that’s where they fit. A bunch of conservative Democrats didn’t win election last week.

So how and why did the buzz get going that the Democrats elected last Tuesday foreshadow a different Democratic Party? I’m not sure.

Part of it may have been all the hype about Democrats “broadening the playing field” and possibly taking very Republican seats in Idaho, Nebraska, Colorado, Washington, Wyoming and Indiana. That didn’t happen, though in some cases the Democrats running for those seats performed well above what would be expected for their party.

Though there were obvious exceptions, most of the House takeovers occurred in swing and Democratic-leaning districts, and those districts elected pretty conventional Democrats.

The election of Bob Casey Jr. (Pa.) to the Senate may have added to the impression that Democrats were sending moderates and conservatives to Washington, D.C. But again, Casey – who opposes legal abortion – is the exception, not the rule.

House Democrats way well attempt to steer a more moderate path between now and 2008, especially since their opportunities are limited with Bush in the White House. But if that happens, it would be the result of a pragmatic decision by party leaders, not the result of an infusion of moderates and conservatives into their party last week.