In the House, as noted earlier, some ideological overlap remains. But the basic story is the same—and in some ways is even more dramatic. In 1982, the days of conservative Democratic “Boll Weevils” and liberal Republican “Gypsy Moths,” fully 344 House members received NJ vote ratings between the most liberal Republican (Rhode Island’s Claudine Schneider) and the most conservative Democrat (Georgia’s Larry McDonald). Even as recently as 1999, 226 House lawmakers compiled ratings between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat. By 2005, the number between those two poles fell to 54. By 2010, the number of members between those two boundaries had shriveled to seven.
The separation between the parties might not always be as pronounced as in the 2010 ratings. Some Senate Republicans (Scott Brown of Massachusetts, say, or Mark Kirk of Illinois) might easily compile more-moderate voting records than Democrats Nelson of Nebraska or Joe Manchin of West Virginia, particularly if both tilt to the right in anticipation of tough 2012 reelection campaigns. As Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation, notes, it may have been easier for Republicans to achieve unanimity in opposition to Obama’s agenda than it will be for them to do so while trying to pass their own programs.
Yet, the underlying trend toward the parties pulling apart in Congress is unmistakable, and, in the eyes of many analysts, probably irreversible. “The two parties,” says Washington lobbyist Vic Fazio, the former chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, “increasingly are at polar opposites.”
LINES OF DIVISION
Though the dominant trend is increasing convergence within the parties, and widening divergence between them, the 2010 vote ratings reveal enduring fault lines in each chamber, particularly among Democrats.
The ratings measured 427 House members and 94 senators; the missing House and Senate seats were held by a person (or persons) who did not cast enough votes last year to warrant a score.
The results reaffirm the link between senators’ voting records and the behavior of their states in presidential elections. Senators whose states reliably support candidates from the lawmakers’ party in White House races have consistently compiled more-ideological voting records than senators whose states often prefer the other party or swing between them. (See “Serving Behind Enemy Lines,” NJ, 4/24/10, p. 25.) That pattern was vivid again in 2010.
Of the 21 Democratic senators with the most-liberal overall voting records, according to the ratings, 18 were elected from “blue wall” states that have voted Democratic in at least the past five presidential elections. The only exceptions to the pattern are Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, who tied with seven others for the most liberal Democratic score; and first-termer Tom Udall of New Mexico, who tied for the 15th-most-liberal score.
Among Republicans, the 22 senators with the most-conservative vote ratings were all elected in states that voted Republican in at least the past three presidential elections. That group includes the eight who tied for the most conservative score—among them Jim DeMint of South Carolina, John Cornyn of Texas, and Mike Crapo of Idaho. In a striking measure of his repositioning since 2008, Arizona’s McCain also tied for the most conservative score among Republicans; as recently as 2001, in the aftermath of his defeat by Bush in the 2000 GOP primaries, McCain had generated the 39th-most-conservative record in the Senate.
In both parties, dissent is more common among the senators elected, in effect, behind enemy lines. These are the lawmakers who are often most interested in exploring compromises that round off the sharp edges of partisan conflict. Overall, the 30 GOP senators, for instance, elected from states that voted Republican in each of the past three presidential elections compiled an average composite liberal score of 17, meaning that as a group they were more liberal than 17 percent of their Senate colleagues. But the three GOP senators elected from states that voted Democratic in each of the presidential contests since 2000—Collins and Snowe of Maine and Brown of Massachusetts—generated an average liberal score more than twice that, 37 percent.
The same holds true for Democrats. The 30 Democratic senators elected from states that voted Democratic in the past three presidential elections compiled an average liberal score of nearly 76. By contrast, the eight Democrats elected from states that voted Democratic for president only once since 2000 compiled an average liberal score of 67, and the dozen from states that have not voted Democratic since at least 2000 amassed an average liberal score of only 60. Except for iconoclastic Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman (who is retiring after next year), all 14 of the Senate Democrats with the most-conservative voting records, relatively speaking, represent states that have not voted Democratic more than once since 2000—a list that includes Nelson of Nebraska, Jon Tester and Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Warner and Jim Webb of Virginia, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Michael Bennet and Mark Udall of Colorado.