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Washington • By all indications, Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, has a significant lead in his congressional race something many of his friends in the centrist Blue Dog caucus can't say.
The number of Blue Dogs in neck-and-neck contests has doubled since June from 9 to 18 according to the Cook Political Report, one of the nation's most prominent election forecasters. And on top of that, Cook says Republicans hold a serious advantage in six other seats now held by Blue Dogs.
Scrapping to keep their jobs, a growing number of these Democrats have started slamming their own party leaders and distancing themselves from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in particular.
In North Carolina, Rep. Mike McIntyre says in an TV ad: "I don't work for Nancy Pelosi."
In Indiana, Rep. Joe Donnelly touts his vote against "Nancy Pelosi's energy tax."
And in Alabama, Rep. Bobby Bright joked that Pelosi may fall ill and die before the next Congress meets.
While not as aggressive, even Matheson, the Blue Dog's leading spokesman, said if the Democrats hold a majority he would consider supporting a change in House leadership.
"If someone challenges her within the caucus that is more moderate in their views, that is someone I would take a serious look at," he said.
Matheson's Republican challenger Morgan Philpot said the Blue Dogs are being insincere.
"If you want to get rid of Pelosi as speaker of the House, you have to get rid of people like Jim Matheson, because he has voted for her as speaker of the House every time," Philpot said. "The damage is done, it is a little too late."
Republicans have made Pelosi a focal point of their campaign, driving a "Fire Pelosi" bus around the country. The bus plans to stop at Sandy's City Hall this Saturday to support Philpot's campaign, just the latest rally targeting moderate to conservative Democrats for supporting a speaker they say is the embodiment of a liberal agenda out of step with voters.
But conservative groups like the Club for Growth have also taken direct aim at the Blue Dogs, who are the most vulnerable group of Democrats, since they tend to represent conservative leaning districts in an election year where Republicans have a decided advantage.
Philpot piled on Wednesday, calling the Blue Dogs "perhaps the greatest con men in Washington, D.C. right now."
He claims their centrist stances are a "marketing tool" to gain campaign contributions, while they are willing to go along with party leaders behind the scenes.
"They bounce back and forth, trading votes when they can afford them so Pelosi's agenda gets passed," Philpot said.
The Republican's supporters cite how often Matheson votes with party leaders. The Washington Post's voting database includes every vote cast in the past two years and it shows Matheson has stood with the Democrats 92.3 percent of the time, matching his party's average.
By comparison, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, votes with his party 90.7 percent of the time and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, backs the GOP on 94.4 percent of House votes, both slightly above average for Republicans. The representative least likely to support his party's position is Blue Dog Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho.
Matheson rejects Philpot's criticism of Blue Dogs and warns that those vote percentages are misleading.
"A lot of rhetoric and political accusations start to fly at this time of year," he said. "Voters take this with a grain of salt."
The five-term congressman said many votes are near unanimous as they simply name a post office or celebrate a sports champion.
On the top-tier issues of the last two years, Matheson has been with his party about half the time. He voted against health reform but for the economic stimulus. He voted against the energy bill but for Wall Street reforms.
The outlook on Blue Dogs
Roughly half of the 54 Blue Dogs are facing seriously contested elections and in the past six months, only one has seen his prospects improve.
The Cook Political Report said Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, was in a "toss up" back in June, but now the district "leans Democratic."
Utah Rep. Jim Matheson remains in the report's "likely Democratic" category, meaning that the race isn't tight, but it is one that could turn so quickly.