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In American politics, a conservative Democrat is a member of the Democratic Party with conservative political views, or with views that are conservative compared to the positions taken by other members of the Democratic Party. Traditionally, conservative Democrats have been elected to office from the Southern states, rural areas, the Rust Belt, and the Midwest.
Prior to 1964, both parties had influential liberal, moderate, and conservative wings. During this period, conservative Democrats formed the Democratic half of the conservative coalition. After 1964, the conservative wing assumed a greater presence in the Republican Party, although it did not become the mainstay of the party until the nomination of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The Democratic Party retained its conservative wing through the 1970s with the help of urban machine politics.
After 1980, the Republicans became a mostly right-wing party, with conservative leaders such as Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, and Tom DeLay. The Democrats, while keeping their liberal base intact, grew their centrist wing, the New Democrats, in the 1990s, with leaders such as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Evan Bayh. In addition to the New Democrat Coalition, which represents the moderate wing, the Blue Dog Coalition represents conservative Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
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1876–1964: Solid South
The Solid South describes the reliable electoral support of the U.S. Southern states for Democratic Party candidates for almost a century after the Reconstruction era. Except for 1928, when Catholic candidate Al Smith ran on the Democratic ticket, Democrats won heavily in the South in every presidential election from 1876 until 1964 (and even in 1928, the divided South provided most of Smith's electoral votes). The Democratic dominance originated in many Southerners' animosity towards the Republican Party's role in the Civil War and Reconstruction.
1874–1896: rise of agrarian populism
The Populist Party, Greenback Party, and the Agrarianism movement are often cited as the first truly left-wing political movements within the United States. Nonetheless, while they emphasized economic issues that were radical by the political standards of the time, they were relatively conservative by today's standards. Historian Richard Hofstadter has taken the view that the Populist and Agrarian movements were essentially right-wing and reactionary movements, left-wing economic issues notwithstanding.
Because of the political dominance of one party or the other in many states, the real political races during this period would often be within the party primary. Indeed, in many southern states, there was hardly any Republican Party at all, and the serious candidates of both the conservative and liberal kind were all Democrats. For example, in the southern states the race might be between a populist left-wing Democrat and a conservative Democrat in the primary, while in regions of the country such as the Midwest or New England in which the Republican Party was dominant, the race might be decided in the primary between a progressive Republican and a conservative Republican.
1932–1948: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal coalition
The 1932 election brought about a major realignment in political party affiliation, and is widely considered to be a political realignment. Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to forge a coalition of labor unions, liberals, Catholics, African Americans, and southern whites. These disparate voting blocs together formed a broad majority and handed the Democrats seven victories out of nine presidential elections to come, as well as control of both houses of Congress during much of this time. In many ways, it was the American civil rights movement that ultimately heralded the demise of the coalition.
Roosevelt's program for alleviating the Great Depression, collectively known as the New Deal, emphasized only economic issues, and thus was compatible with the views of those who supported the New Deal programs but were otherwise conservative. This included the Southern Democrats, who were an important part of FDR's New Deal coalition.
Political anomalies during the Great Depression
During the Roosevelt administration, several radical populist proposals which went beyond what Roosevelt was willing to advocate gained in popularity. It is notable that all four of the main promoters of these proposals, Charles Coughlin, Huey Long, Francis Townsend, and Upton Sinclair, were originally strong New Deal supporters but turned against Roosevelt because they believed the New Deal programs didn't go far enough. Like the New Deal programs, these populist proposals were based entirely on single economic reforms, but did not take a position on any other issue and were therefore compatible with those holding otherwise conservative views. Some historians today believe that the primary base of support for the proposals of Coughlin, Long, Townsend, and Sinclair was conservative middle class whites who saw their economic status slipping away during the Depression.
A different source of conservative Democratic dissent against the New Deal came from a group of journalists who considered themselves classical liberals and Democrats of the old school, and were opposed to big government programs on principle; these included Albert Jay Nock and John T. Flynn, whose views later became influential in the libertarian movement.
Conversely, it also held the party to increasing commitment to ending segregationism and Jim Crow, and disengaging itself from its segregationist wing, held to be too far right for the new centrist consensus. This led to a conservative backlash by southern Democrats during the same period.
1948–1968: segregationist backlash
The proclamation by President Harry S. Truman and Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey of support for a Negro civil rights plank in the Democratic Party platform of 1948 led to a walkout of 35 delegates from Mississippi and Alabama. These southern delegations nominated their own "States Rights Democratic Party" (a/k/a "Dixiecrat Party") nominees with South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond leading the ticket (Thurmond would later represent South Carolina in the U.S. Senate, and join the Republicans in 1964). The Dixiecrats held their convention in Birmingham, Alabama, where they nominated Thurmond for president and Fielding L. Wright, governor of Mississippi, for vice president. Dixiecrat leaders worked to have Thurmond-Wright declared the "official" Democratic Party ticket in Southern states. They succeeded in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina; in other states, they were forced to run as a third-party ticket.
Similar breakaway Southern Democratic candidates running on states' rights and segregationist platforms would continue in 1956 (T. Coleman Andrews), and 1960 (Harry F. Byrd). None would be as successful as the American Independent Party campaign of George Wallace, the Democratic governor of Alabama, in 1968. Wallace had briefly run in the Democratic primaries of 1964 against Lyndon Johnson, but dropped out of the race early. In 1968, he formed the new American Independent Party and received 13.5% of the popular vote, and 46 electoral votes, carrying several Southern states. The AIP would run presidential candidates in several other elections, including Southern Democrats (Lester Maddox in 1976 and John Rarick in 1980), but none of them did nearly as well as Wallace.
1977–1981: Jimmy Carter
When Jimmy Carter entered the Democratic Party Presidential primaries in 1976, he at first was considered to have little chance against nationally better-known politicians. However, the Watergate scandal was still fresh in the voters' minds, and so his position as an outsider distant from Washington, D.C. became an asset. He ran an effective campaign, did well in debates, and won his party's nomination and then the election, receiving 50.1% of the popular vote. The centerpiece of his campaign platform was government reorganization. Carter was the first candidate from the Deep South to be elected president since Antebellum.
He is a born-again Christian and was (until 2000) a member of the Southern Baptist Convention. While the Republican Party began to pursue a strategy of wooing born-again Christians as a voting bloc after 1980, led by activists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, in 1976, 56% of the evangelical Christian vote went to Carter. However, he had both liberal fiscal and social policies with liberal views on peace and ecology, with foreign policies oriented toward peace and human rights, making him unsatisfying for most Southern conservative Democrats.
Carter's 1976 electoral sweep of all the states of the former Confederacy except Virginia (which he narrowly lost to Gerald Ford) was the first time a Democrat (excluding the third-party campaigns of George Wallace and Harry Byrd) had swept the South since 1956, and would never be repeated. In 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton won some southern states, and Barack Obama was successful in some coastal Southern states such as Florida, North Carolina and Virginia, but otherwise the South turned solidly Republican after 1976.
1981–1989: boll weevils of the Reagan era
After 1968, with desegregation a settled issue, conservative Democrats, mostly Southerners, managed to remain in the United States Congress throughout the 1970s and 1980s. These included Democratic House members as conservative as Larry McDonald, who was also a leader in the John Birch Society. During the administration of Ronald Reagan, the term "boll weevils" was applied to this bloc of conservative Democrats, who consistently voted in favor of tax cuts, increases in military spending, and deregulation favored by the Reagan administration but were opposed to cuts in social welfare spending.
Boll weevils was sometimes used as a political epithet by Democratic Party leaders, implying that the boll weevils were unreliable on key votes or not team players. Most of the boll weevils eventually retired from office, or in the case of some such as Senators Phil Gramm and Richard Shelby, switched parties and joined the Republicans. Since 1988 the term boll weevils has fallen out of favor.
Political anomalies during the 1980s and 1990s
In 1980, a political unknown named Lyndon LaRouche entered the New Hampshire Democratic Primary and polled 2% of the vote, coming in fourth place. He and his National Democratic Policy Committee were largely ignored until 1984, when he became something of a curiosity by paying for half-hour political ads proclaiming Walter Mondale a Soviet agent of influence, and 1986, when two followers of his won upset victories in Democratic primaries for statewide races in Illinois. After the media began to pay attention, LaRouche was promptly labeled an ultraconservative Democrat by some, and a nut by others, primarily due to the overlap of some of his views with those of the Reagan administration. Others disputed the label and noted LaRouche's background as a Marxist/Trotskyist from the 1940s until the early 1970s. Among those to criticize LaRouche as a "leftist" was conservative Democratic Congressman and John Birch Society leader Larry McDonald, who was killed when the passenger aircraft he was travelling in was shot down by Soviet interceptors.
Aside from LaRouche, some Democratic leaders during the 1980s did turn toward conservative views, albeit very different from the previous incarnations of southern Democrats. In 1988, Joe Lieberman defeated Republican U.S. Senate incumbent Lowell Weicker of Connecticut by running to the right of Weicker and receiving the endorsements of the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association. Colorado governor Richard Lamm, and former Minnesota Senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy both took up immigration reduction as an issue. Lamm wrote a novel, 1988, about a third-party presidential candidate and former Democrat running as a progressive conservative, and Lamm himself would go on to unsuccessfully seek the nomination of the Reform Party in 1996. McCarthy began to give speeches in the late 1980s naming the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Federal Election Commission as the three biggest threats to liberty in the United States.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., known during the 1950s and 1960s as a champion of "Vital Center" ideology and the policies of Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy, wrote a 1992 book, The Disuniting of America critical of multiculturalism. Jerry Brown, meanwhile, would adopt the flat tax as a core issue during the 1992 Democratic primaries. Bill Clinton, the winner of the 1992 Democratic nomination, ran as a New Democrat and a member of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, distancing himself from the party's liberal wing.
2009–2017: presidency of Barack Obama
2008 United States presidential election
During the Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, he received the endorsement of prominent Obamacons, conservatives and Republicans who supported Obama. This was due to Bush's unpopularity. Despite receiving support from some Republicans, Obama ran to the left of Bill Clinton.
2008 Democratic Party presidential primaries
During the 2008 Democratic Party presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton ran to the left of Barack Obama on economic issues but to the right on national security and foreign policy issues. Clinton also proposed a Cabinet-level poverty czar position. Clinton secured more labor union backing than Obama, and Obama did better than Clinton at gaining primary votes from self-identified independents.
During the 2006 midterm elections, the Democratic Party ran moderates and even a few conservative Democrats for at-risk Republican seats. The Blue Dog Democrats gained nine seats during the elections. The New Democrats had support from 27 of the 40 Democratic candidates running for at-risk Republican seats. In 2010, the Blue Dog Coalition lost more than half its members. As of 2020, the Blue Dog Coalition had 14 members.
In the 2018 House of Representatives elections, the Democratic Party nominated moderate to conservative candidates in many contested districts and won a majority in the chamber. In the aftermath of the elections, the Blue Dog Coalition expanded to 27 members.
Blue Dog Coalition
The Blue Dog Coalition was formed in 1995 during the 104th Congress to give members from the Democratic Party representing conservative-leaning districts a unified voice after Democrats' loss of Congress in the 1994 Republican Revolution.
The term "Blue Dog Democrat" is credited to Texas Democratic U.S. Representative Pete Geren (who later joined the Bush administration). Geren opined that the members had been "choked blue" by Democrats on the left. It is related to the political term "Yellow Dog Democrat", a reference to Southern Democrats said to be so loyal they would even vote for a yellow dog before they would vote for any Republican. The term is also a reference to the "Blue Dog" paintings of Cajun artist George Rodrigue of Lafayette, Louisiana.
The Blue Dog Coalition "advocates for fiscal responsibility, a strong national defense and bipartisan consensus rather than conflict with Republicans". It acts as a check on legislation that its members perceive to be too far to the right or the left on the political spectrum. The Blue Dog Coalition is often involved in searching for a compromise between liberal and conservative positions. As of 2014, there was no mention of social issues in the official Blue Dog materials.
New Democrat Coalition
Conservative endorsements of Democratic candidates
During the 2004 election, several high-profile conservative writers endorsed the Presidential campaign of John Kerry, arguing that the Bush administration was pursuing policies which were anything but conservative. Among the most notable of these endorsements came from Andrew Sullivan and Paul Craig Roberts, while a series of editorials in Pat Buchanan's The American Conservative magazine made a conservative case for several candidates, with Scott McConnell formally endorsing Kerry, and Justin Raimondo giving the nod to independent Ralph Nader.
In South Carolina in 2008, the Democratic candidate for United States Senator was Bob Conley, a traditional Catholic, and a former activist for the presidential candidacy of Ron Paul. Conley failed in his bid to defeat Republican Lindsey Graham, receiving 42.4 percent of the vote.
In his 2010 campaign for reelection, Walter Minnick, U.S. Representative for Idaho's 1st congressional district, was endorsed by Tea Party Express, an extremely rare occurrence for a Democrat. Minnick was the only Democrat to receive a 100% rating from the Club for Growth, an organization that typically supports conservative Republicans. Minnick lost to Raúl Labrador, a conservative Republican, in the general election.
Ideology and polls
According to a 2015 poll from the Pew Research Center, 54% of conservative and moderate Democrats supported same-sex marriage in 2015. This figure represented an increase of 22% from a decade earlier.
In 2019, the Pew Research Center found that 47% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters identify as liberal or very liberal, while 51% identify as moderate, conservative, or very conservative.
Democrats described as conservatives
- Frank O'Bannon Governor of Indiana January 13, 1997 – September 13, 2003. (He died in office)
- Phil Bredesen Former governor of Tennessee from January 18, 2003 – January 15, 2011. Bredesen was fiscally conservative despite his liberal social positions.
- Zell Miller Governor of Georgia, later elected Senator.
- Jim Justice Current Governor of West Virginia, switch to Republican Party in 2017 despite winning his gubernatorial race as a Democrat.
- Bill Ritter Former Governor of Colorado from January 9, 2007 – January 11, 2011. Ritters despite being firmly left leaning in his self proclaimed "semi-progressive" political platform did opposed same-sex marriage, abortion and unionization during his tenure as governor despite supporting universal healthcare, environmental protection, housing subsidy and welfare increases amongst other democrat positions.
- Bob Casey Sr. Former Governor of Pennsylvania January 20, 1987 – January 17, 1995
- Ben Nelson
- Joe Lieberman (A conservative Democrat until 2006, when he formally left the party. He caucused with Senate Democrats until 2013.)
- Kent Conrad
- Wendell Ford
- Zell Miller
- Arlen Specter (Former Republican)
- Strom Thurmond (Former Democrat)
- Lloyd Bentsen
- Hattie Caraway
- Joe Donnelly
- Heidi Heitkamp
- Mary Landrieu
- Mark Pryor
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives
- John Barrow
- Dan Boren
- Joe Cunningham
- Gabby Giffords (Former Republican)
- Kendra Horn
- Dan Lipinski
- Ben McAdams
- Jim Matheson
- Collin Peterson
- Mike Ross
- Kyrsten Sinema, United States Senator from Arizona and former U.S. Representative from Arizona's 9th congressional district. (Former Green)
- Joe Manchin, United States Senator from West Virginia and former Governor of West Virginia.
- Mark Kelly, United States Senator from Arizona and former astoronaut.
- Sanford Bishop, Member of the United States House of Representatives from Georgia's 2nd congressional district.
- Anthony Brindisi, Member of the United States House of Representatives from New York's 22nd congressional district.
- Ed Case, Member of the United States House of Representatives from Hawaii's 1st congressional district.
- Jim Cooper, Member of the United States House of Representatives from Tennessee's 5th congressional district.
- Jim Costa, Member of the United States House of Representatives from California's 16th congressional district.
- Henry Cuellar, Member of the United States House of Representatives from Texas's 28th congressional district.
- Josh Gottheimer, Member of the United States House of Representatives from New Jersey's 5th congressional district.
- Stephanie Murphy, Member of the United States House of Representatives from Florida's 7th congressional district.
- Brad Schneider, Member of the United States House of Representatives from Illinois's 10th congressional district.
- Kurt Schrader, Member of the United States House of Representatives from Oregon's 5th congressional district.
- David Scott, Member of the United States House of Representatives from Georgia's 13th congressional district.
- Abigail Spanberger, Member of the United States House of Representatives from Virginia's 7th congressional district.
- Black conservatism in the United States
- Blue Dog Coalition
- Boll weevil (politics)
- Democrats for Life of America
- Factions in the Democratic Party (United States)
- Hispanic and Latino conservatism in the United States
- LGBT conservatism in the United States
- Libertarian Democrat
- New Democrats
- Reagan Democrat
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