New Democrat Coalition Seeks Influence

The New Democrat Coalition is preparing to fire up its political arm this year in an attempt to widen its ranks and become the go-to group for moderates next year.

With a litany of retirements from the Blue Dog Coalition, the New Democrats see an opening to flex their muscles in the next Congress and grow their ranks after losing several Members in the 2010 elections.

“I do think it’s poised to be more influential than ever in part because we’ve seen serious decimation of the Blue Bog membership, and that creates some openings for the New Dems to partner with more like-minded Members and have their voice strengthened in the next Congress,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (Va.), a New Democrat who was also backed by its political action committee when he first ran in 2008.

The PAC, which raised more than $1 million last year, is endorsing Ami Bera in California, Brad Schneider in Illinois, Rob Garagiola in Maryland, Denny Heck in Washington, Paul Hirschbiel in Virginia, Christie Vilsack in Iowa and Jamie Wall in Wisconsin as well as former Reps. Bill Foster (Ill.) and Dan Maffei (N.Y.). Each of those candidates will receive $10,000 from the PAC and gain exposure to a broad swath of downtown supporters, who are also asked to write checks and host fundraisers for the chosen candidates.

The New Democrats’ PAC, led by Rep. Jason Altmire (Pa.), was first launched in 2005, and the Keystone program that harvests K Street support was later developed to connect candidates with fundraisers and political consultants. Aides remember the PAC as a sleepy operation in its early years, known simply for cutting checks. And rather than supporting potential new members during the 2010 cycle, the PAC spent the bulk of its $1.9 million war chest on protecting incumbents.

The coalition still has several endangered members this year, and seven from its ranks are part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s incumbent retention program.

One New Democrat, Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (Texas), is retiring. Two, Reps. Shelley Berkley (Nev.) and Christopher Murphy (Conn.),  are running for Senate, and one, Rep. Jay Inslee (Wash.),  is running for governor.

Three of the coalition’s members, including its chairman, Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), hold leadership positions at the DCCC. Crowley serves as the DCCC’s chairman of finance, and Rep. Allyson Schwartz (Pa.) leads DCCC efforts on recruitment and candidate services. Rep. Jim Himes (Conn.) leads the DCCC’s Frontline operation, while Rep. Jared Polis (Colo.) is chairman of the DCCC’s Red to Blue program.

Crowley said the PAC’s efforts will help the party win the 25 seats needed to take back the majority in November. In an interview, he said, “I’m very excited about our prospects,” in part because of the recruitment of moderate, pro-business Members who fit the New Democrat mold.

“I don’t think there’s any question that our profile will be uplifted,” Crowley said of the coalition that he has chaired since 2009. “I think we have an awful lot of talent to offer to our general Caucus. And the one thing I think we’re focused on is this isn’t about the New Dems; this is about the Democratic Caucus. And when we win, we’ll be in the position to govern.”

Observers note that Crowley is interested in House leadership positions, and growing the coalition’s ranks helps line up support for such a run. DCCC Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) are former New Democrats.

“I think Joe Crowley is going to get high marks for bringing the coalition to where it is today — basically in recovering mode from the last cycle and making sure it stayed critical and relevant,” one Democratic lobbyist said.

If Democrats can win even a slim majority in 2012, “I think Crowley’s going to get credit for all of that. That can help him.”

Each of the nine districts that are home to New Democrat-backed candidates falls under the DCCC’s Red to Blue program and is considered crucial in the party’s efforts to win the majority. Of those nine candidates, Garagiola and Schneider are facing contentious primaries.

Although party leaders don’t always like getting into messy primary fights, the New Democrats saw a pickup opportunity not just for the party but for their coalition.

The coalition’s PAC will likely back more candidates, but aides say it is waiting for more state maps to be finalized before making further announcements. Any future endorsements would likely match the first tranche of moderate, pro-business types who fall under the New Democrats’ political ideology.

“They are definitely trying to make themselves more cohesive and get people who are willing to vote pro-business,” a senior Democratic aide said, adding that the coalition could use more moderates in its ranks. “It would be a good thing for New Dems to do strategically, to have someone interested in growing the moderate brand.”

Correction, Feb. 14

A previous version of this story listed Rep. Jared Polis as the chairman of the New Democrats' PAC. Polis is chairman of the Keystone group, a subset of the PAC.

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