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Washington • In his decade in office, Rep. Jim Matheson saw the great rise of the Blue Dog Coalition, and now he has witnessed its fall. More than half those moderate House Democrats lost in Tuesday's historic Republican landslide.

At the beginning of the night, the caucus, in which Matheson, D-Utah, has derived much of his congressional clout, controlled 54 seats. By night's end, the Blue Dogs suffered 29 losses, while a few races remain too close to call.

Of the Blue Dogs' trio of leaders, only Matheson survived, and he beat his Republican challenger by a scant 5 percentage points.

Political scientists such as Chris Deering of the George Washington University in the nation's capital and Anthony Corrado of Colby College in Waterville, Maine, say the impact is obvious. The Blue Dogs reached the height of power during the past two years, but they have now seen their influence nearly disappear.

With about 240 House seats, Republicans won't need Blue Dogs to pass their agenda, as Democrats did with health reform or the energy bill. And more liberal House Democrats will no longer have to appease the moderate wing of the party when fighting for legislation.

"They kind have become free agents. The Democratic Party doesn't have to whip them into line," Deering said. "And the Republicans probably don't need them."

But Matheson, the Blue Dogs' spokesman, believes that's a simplistic way of looking at the situation. He also rejects the notion that Blue Dogs are now an irrelevant minority within the minority party and said their defeat hasn't zapped his influence in Washington.

"I think it is all about attitude, in terms of how much influence you have," he said. "I've always believed that if you peruse an issue and have the substance behind you, it doesn't matter if you are in the majority or minority."

Matheson, who won a sixth term Tuesday, has been in the minority before and knows its shortcomings. The other party determines the agenda in committees and on the House floor, but he said it isn't all one-sided.

If the newly empowered House Republicans want to change public policy, cut spending and lower the deficit, they will need to marshal more than just Republican support — because whether they like it or not, Democrats still control the Senate and the White House.

So while House Republicans can clearly pass legislation on a completely partisan basis, Matheson asks: "Is that really getting something done? Moving legislation toward becoming a law is going to take a bipartisan effort."

And if Republicans are looking for a few Democratic votes, they are likely to turn to Blue Dogs such as Matheson first, said Corrado, a congressional expert.

"Blue Dogs are an important source of support for them," he said. "Republicans will want to posture any budget and tax policy as bipartisan."

A small band of moderates created the Blue Dog caucus after the last major Democratic defeat in 1994. The idea was to combine influence and protect themselves from more liberal members of their party, whom they blamed for pushing policies that endangered their chances of winning in largely conservative districts.

Since its founding, the Blue Dog caucus has grown in size and influence, spiking during the big Democratic wave of 2006 and 2008, when it added 21 members. If the Blue Dogs voted as a bloc, they could hold up their own party's legislation and, a few times, threatened to do just that.

Their enhanced power irritated progressive House members, while at the same time, Republicans bristled at Democrats holding seats they thought should be occupied by GOP members.

For months, political handicappers said Republicans would make gains and maybe even take control of the House, though most Blue Dogs thought it would be a narrow margin, keeping them in a position of strategic advantage.

Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla. — who did survive Tuesday's vote — has previously told reporters that whether Democrats won or Republicans won, he would likely see his power grow.

But that was then. Of the 21 Blue Dogs elected since 2006, only five remain in office. Before Tuesday's election, 20 percent of all House Democrats were Blue Dogs —now that number is about 13 percent. Caucus leaders Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota and Baron Hill of Indiana were swept out as well.

All told, the Blue Dog defeats accounted for half of all Democratic losses.

Matheson wasn't surprised by the outcome, but he mourns its potential consequences.

"You are taking away a group of moderate voices, and there are not a lot of moderate voices on either side of the aisle in the House as it is," he said. "It has the potential to add a more polarized dynamic to the House."

That could lead to legislative gridlock and a spike in partisan sniping, he said.

Or alternatively, House leaders could see the election as a sign that voters are tired of a Congress that doesn't work together and will punish whomever is in control at the time.

"If elected officials view it that way, they have an incentive to try to be productive and get things done," he said.

And Matheson believes the remaining Blue Dogs will be willing to negotiate with the new majority party, especially on signature issues involving the budget.