2007 Vote Ratings: Special Report - The New Center

March 8, 2008, 7 a.m.

Richard E. Co­hen

When fresh­man Rep. Tim Ma­honey, D-Fla., learned that his vot­ing re­cord in 2007 placed him pre­cisely in the cen­ter of the House in Na­tion­al Journ­al’s con­gres­sion­al vote rat­ings, his ini­tial re­ac­tion was laughter. “I laughed be­cause of the stat­ist­ic­al prob­ab­il­ity,” he said. “I was nev­er a le­gis­lat­or. I was a busi­ness­man who gets the facts in the best in­terests of my dis­trict. I don’t get caught up in ideo­logy.”

In­stead, Ma­honey ex­plained, he has fo­cused on the di­verse needs of his South Flor­ida con­stitu­ents, in­clud­ing strength­en­ing fed­er­al pro­tec­tion of homeown­ers in­sur­ance against hur­ricanes, de­vel­op­ing wa­ter-re­source pro­jects to clean up the Ever­glades, and boost­ing the de­vel­op­ment of fuels made from sug­ar­cane. “I got elec­ted be­cause people in my dis­trict wer­en’t happy with the status quo,” said Ma­honey, who has been widely de­scribed as an “ac­ci­dent­al” con­gress­man be­cause he won the seat of Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Mark Fo­ley, who resigned shortly be­fore the 2006 elec­tion after it was dis­closed that he had sent sexu­ally ex­pli­cit in­stant mes­sages to con­gres­sion­al pages.

Ma­honey said he wasn’t fa­mil­i­ar with Na­tion­al Journ­al’s vote rat­ings un­til he was in­formed that the res­ults made him the man in the middle of the House’s ideo­lo­gic­al spec­trum, with 214 mem­bers more con­ser­vat­ive than he was, 214 mem­bers more lib­er­al than he was, and the rest not re­ceiv­ing scores be­cause of missed votes. His votes for lib­er­al po­s­i­tions on the min­im­um-wage hike, em­bryon­ic-stem-cell re­search, and Ir­aq war spend­ing were bal­anced by his con­ser­vat­ive votes on the al­tern­at­ive min­im­um tax, il­leg­al ali­ens, and mis­sile de­fense funds.

Ma­honey nev­er­the­less seemed pleased with the out­come. He sug­ges­ted that he is help­ing to re­shape polit­ics in his bell­weth­er state, which fam­ously split in the 2000 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. “I’m proud as a con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crat to be right in the middle,” he said. “My [cam­paign] op­pon­ents are con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans and out of touch with the dis­trict.”

Ma­honey has plenty of fresh­man class­mates to keep him com­pany at the cen­ter, in­clud­ing Rep. Nancy Boyda, D-Kan. She said she viewed her mod­er­ate rank­ing as “third-party val­id­a­tion” of her non­par­tis­an ap­proach, which, she em­phas­ized, is “not based on ideo­logy or be­hold­en to a party.”

“Kansans don’t get in­volved in the polit­ics,” Boyda con­ten­ded. “They want to know how the is­sues af­fect them.” She is so in­de­pend­ent that she has re­fused to join the House’s mod­er­ate “Blue Dog” Demo­crats and has turned down en­treat­ies to par­ti­cip­ate in party pro­grams to pro­mote her re-elec­tion. “I told [House Demo­crat­ic Caucus Chair­man] Rahm [Emanuel] in no un­cer­tain lan­guage that I didn’t care what he thought about how I should run my cam­paign,” Boyda said. “I told him to leave me alone, and I won’t tell him how to run [oth­er] cam­paigns. After three weeks, he learned to leave me alone.”

Boyda’s cent­rism is all the more com­pel­ling be­cause she de­feated GOP Rep. Jim Ry­un, who was the No. 1 most con­ser­vat­ive House mem­ber in NJ’s 2006 vote rat­ings. Ry­un is try­ing to re­gain the seat this year, but he faces a primary chal­lenge from a more mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­an.

These and oth­er fresh­man Demo­crats ex­em­pli­fy the ma­jor changes in the House and Sen­ate fol­low­ing the shift in party con­trol brought by the 2006 elec­tion. When Re­pub­lic­ans held the ma­jor­it­ies, the mem­bers at the ideo­lo­gic­al cen­ter, not sur­pris­ingly, ten­ded to be mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans who — des­pite some grumbling — usu­ally voted for the agenda set by Pres­id­ent Bush and GOP con­gres­sion­al lead­ers. In those days, the smal­ler corps of mod­er­ate Demo­crats rarely de­term­ined the out­come on ma­jor votes.

Those dy­nam­ics changed rad­ic­ally last year, par­tic­u­larly in the House. Re­pub­lic­ans there dis­played in­tense co­he­sion and unity: None of them ended up in the lib­er­al half of the cham­ber in the 2007 vote rat­ings, and only Reps. Wayne Gil­chrest, R-Md., and Chris­toph­er Shays, R-Conn., ranked out­side the 200 most con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers. The House’s new cen­ter filled dis­pro­por­tion­ately with fresh­man Demo­crats, par­tic­u­larly those who won GOP-held seats. They joined more-seni­or mod­er­ate Demo­crats — in­clud­ing long­time Blue Dogs and “New Demo­crats” — to re­place the mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans who had oc­cu­pied the cen­ter un­der GOP con­trol.

Of the 10 Demo­crats, in­clud­ing Ma­honey, who hold the slots at the ex­act cen­ter of the House in the 2007 vote rat­ings, six are first-ter­mers. More broadly, Na­tion­al Journ­al typ­ic­ally clas­si­fies mem­bers with av­er­age — or “com­pos­ite” — scores in the vote rat­ings between 35 and 65 on a scale of 100 as “cent­rists.” Nine­teen of the 42 House Demo­crat­ic fresh­men qual­i­fy as cent­rists un­der those stand­ards, as do three of the nine Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic fresh­men. (See chart list­ing all of the con­gres­sion­al cent­rists, pp. 30-31, and charts on the fresh­man Demo­crats’ scores, pp. 22-25.)

Among the Sen­ate cent­rists was fresh­man Sen. Claire Mc­Caskill, D-Mo., whose over­all rat­ing made her only two ticks more lib­er­al than Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., at that cham­ber’s ideo­lo­gic­al ful­crum. “When you come from a mod­er­ate state, be­ing mod­er­ate is as nat­ur­al as brush­ing your teeth,” said Mc­Caskill, who ous­ted GOP Sen. Jim Tal­ent. “It’s the people you rep­res­ent.” Join­ing Mc­Caskill among the cent­rists were fresh­man Sens. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Jon Test­er, D-Mont.

Na­tion­al Journ­al has com­piled the con­gres­sion­al vote rat­ings an­nu­ally since 1981 un­der a sys­tem de­signed by Wil­li­am Schneider, a CNN polit­ic­al ana­lyst and com­ment­at­or, and a con­trib­ut­ing ed­it­or to the magazine. The rat­ings are based on key votes — 107 in the House and 99 in the Sen­ate for 2007 — that a pan­el of NJ re­port­ers and ed­it­ors se­lec­ted and clas­si­fied as re­lat­ing to eco­nom­ic, so­cial, or for­eign policy.

Com­puter-as­sisted cal­cu­la­tions ranked law­makers on how they voted in each of the three is­sue areas re­l­at­ive to each oth­er on a con­ser­vat­ive-to-lib­er­al scale in both the Sen­ate and the House, and as­signed per­cent­ile scores. The sys­tem also as­signs com­pos­ite scores, which are an av­er­age of the mem­bers’ is­sue-based scores. (For list­ings of the key votes used to cal­cu­late the rat­ings, and for more de­tails on the meth­od­o­logy, see pp. 40-46.)

The res­ults show, for ex­ample, that on for­eign-policy is­sues, Boyda had a lib­er­al score of 57 and a con­ser­vat­ive score of 42. That means that she was more lib­er­al than 57 per­cent of oth­er mem­bers, more con­ser­vat­ive than 42 per­cent, and tied with the rest. The scores do not mean that Boyda voted with the lib­er­als 57 per­cent of the time, or that she was 57 per­cent “cor­rect” from a lib­er­al per­spect­ive.

Vot­ing Their Dis­tricts

While plot­ting their 2006 elec­tion strategy, the Demo­crat­ic cam­paign com­mit­tee chiefs, Emanuel and Sen. Charles Schu­mer, D-N.Y., made a con­cer­ted ef­fort to re­cruit can­did­ates who matched their states and dis­tricts, even if their policy po­s­i­tions were not in line with party dogma. Schu­mer, for ex­ample, sup­por­ted fresh­man Sen. Bob Ca­sey, D-Pa., des­pite his anti-abor­tion views, be­cause he thought that Ca­sey could de­feat GOP Sen. Rick San­tor­um. Sim­il­arly, even though Test­er and Webb fa­vor gun rights, heavy sup­port from Schu­mer’s com­mit­tee helped put them over the top in the elec­tion. Demo­crat­ic lead­ers also craf­ted a mod­est, middle-of-the-road agenda — “Six for ‘06” — that their party’s chal­lengers could em­brace, even in Re­pub­lic­an strong­holds.

The up­shot, of course, was the “ma­jor­ity makers,” 30 fresh­man Demo­crats in the House and six in the Sen­ate who won Re­pub­lic­an-held seats. Their vic­tor­ies handed their party con­trol of Cap­it­ol Hill, but the new­comers also gave the Demo­crat­ic caucuses a more mod­er­ate hue.

“We bring a healthy at­ti­tude to the Demo­crat­ic Party,” Webb said. “People tend to listen to our views.” He de­scribed many of the fresh­men as “eco­nom­ic pop­u­lists.” Asked to define that term, he replied, “You meas­ure the health of a so­ci­ety by how work­ing people are do­ing, not by what’s hap­pen­ing on Wall Street. There are prob­ably six of us out of the nine [fresh­men] that were elec­ted to­geth­er that to vary­ing levels feel strongly about that.”

Rep. Jason Alt­mire, D-Pa., said that the mod­er­ate vote-rat­ings scores for him and oth­er fresh­men prove that “we could, for the first time, field can­did­ates who could be com­pet­it­ive in these [Re­pub­lic­an] dis­tricts. These res­ults show where I want to be: work­ing the middle with both sides.” By con­trast, Alt­mire said, he de­feated his pre­de­cessor, GOP Rep. Melissa Hart, in his sub­urb­an Pitt­s­burgh dis­trict be­cause “she had moved too far from the cen­ter; once her con­stitu­ents found that out, they kicked her out.” Hart is seek­ing to re­gain the seat this year.

“I’m a con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crat,” ex­plained fresh­man Rep. Chris­toph­er Car­ney, D-Pa., who rep­res­ents the north­east­ern corner of his state. “And that’s where our dis­trict is — with fam­ily val­ues, people who at­tend church, and people like me who are gun own­ers, hunters, and fly fish­er­men.” Car­ney de­feated Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Don Sher­wood, who faced leg­al charges that he had ab­used a wo­man who claimed to be his mis­tress.

The vote rat­ings “show my in­de­pend­ence,” said fresh­man Rep. Za­ck Space, D-Ohio, who suc­ceeded con­victed GOP Rep. Bob Ney. “The res­ults don’t sur­prise me. I try very hard to view my vot­ing ob­lig­a­tion as a re­flec­tion of my con­stitu­ents…. People in my dis­trict don’t want to know about lib­er­als and con­ser­vat­ives. They want ac­tions con­sist­ent with their val­ues.”

Fresh­man Rep. Ciro Rodrig­uez, D-Texas, pre­vi­ously rep­res­en­ted a mostly urb­an dis­trict centered in San Ant­o­nio. But be­cause of re­dis­trict­ing, the seat he cap­tured in his 2006 comeback is rad­ic­ally dif­fer­ent and far more con­ser­vat­ive, sprawl­ing more than 600 miles from the San Ant­o­nio sub­urbs to the out­skirts of El Paso. He now takes more-con­ser­vat­ive stances on some is­sues, such as im­mig­ra­tion and gun con­trol, and his vote rat­ings scores have moved to­ward the cen­ter.

“It’s a totally dif­fer­ent ball game,” Rodrig­uez said. “Al­though my ba­sic val­ues haven’t changed, what changes is that I am re­spond­ing to views of dif­fer­ent con­stitu­ents. I have a bet­ter ap­pre­ci­ation of mem­bers who rep­res­ent swing dis­tricts and how the [Demo­crat­ic] lead­er­ship has to deal with those mem­bers.”

In­deed. As they’ve settled in­to their roles on the Hill, the ma­jor­ity makers (and their lead­ers) have been pain­fully aware of the need to en­sure their polit­ic­al vi­ab­il­ity — par­tic­u­larly in the House, where the fresh­men face re-elec­tion already this fall. They have be­come prime GOP tar­gets, and their fates will go a long way in de­term­in­ing wheth­er Demo­crats re­tain their House ma­jor­ity, and by how much.

The fresh­men know that every vote they cast could be used against them on the cam­paign trail. For the lead­ers, it’s a con­stant bal­an­cing act: seek­ing to sat­is­fy and help the mod­er­ate first-ter­mers polit­ic­ally, while not en­dan­ger­ing the party agenda or ali­en­at­ing more-lib­er­al caucus mem­bers.

Alt­mire has not been afraid to dis­agree with Demo­crat­ic lead­ers. “Early this Con­gress, they would make clear their un­hap­pi­ness,” he said. “Over time, they have de­cided they can work without us on some votes, and they are com­fort­able that we know what we are do­ing.”

Like­wise, Car­ney said, “I have no hes­it­a­tion when I vote against the party view if it con­flicts with the val­ues of my dis­trict.” Space, when asked wheth­er he talks with oth­er fresh­men be­fore tough votes, replied, “We don’t turn to each oth­er on how to vote but to share in­form­a­tion on how we vote,” such as con­stitu­ency-re­lated data.

A look at the vot­ing pat­terns of the two most con­ser­vat­ive fresh­man Demo­crats — Rep. Joe Don­nelly, D-Ind., and Mc­Caskill — demon­strates how they and their class­mates have giv­en the lead­ers heart­burn. Don­nelly sided with con­ser­vat­ives on sev­en of the 44 eco­nom­ic votes used in NJ’s 2007 vote rat­ings, in­clud­ing his vote against ex­pand­ing the State Chil­dren’s Health In­sur­ance Pro­gram by rais­ing to­bacco taxes; that meas­ure, a Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship pri­or­ity, passed by 21 votes. Don­nelly and five oth­er fresh­men were also among the 12 House Demo­crats who voted against their party’s budget res­ol­u­tion last March, al­low­ing the lead­ers only a nar­row 216-210 win for ad­van­cing their tax and spend­ing pri­or­it­ies for the com­ing year.

Im­mig­ra­tion and law en­force­ment votes tilted Don­nelly’s re­cord on so­cial is­sues to­ward the con­ser­vat­ive end of the spec­trum. He voted with most Re­pub­lic­ans and against most Demo­crats to build ad­di­tion­al fen­cing along the south­w­est bor­der, a meas­ure that lib­er­als man­aged to turn back by a close 200-217 vote. Over­all in the so­cial cat­egory, he voted with con­ser­vat­ives 23 of 35 times. Sim­il­arly, Don­nelly voted with con­ser­vat­ives 18 of 28 times on for­eign policy, largely on de­fense mat­ters. He voted to fund the Ir­aq war through the first half of 2008, for ex­ample, sid­ing with all but one Re­pub­lic­an and with 77 oth­er Demo­crats, in­clud­ing 15 oth­er fresh­man Demo­crats who re­placed Re­pub­lic­ans.

Mc­Caskill was equally will­ing to go her own way in the Sen­ate. In the eco­nom­ic cat­egory, she voted with con­ser­vat­ives on sev­en of the 36 votes in­cluded in the 2007 rat­ings. Like Don­nelly, Mc­Caskill voted against rais­ing taxes to fund the SCHIP ex­pan­sion.

On so­cial is­sues, Mc­Caskill also took con­ser­vat­ive stances on im­mig­ra­tion, lead­ing her to side with con­ser­vat­ives on 11 of 34 votes. Her vote was de­cis­ive on one key mat­ter: She — along with Webb and Ca­sey — gave Pres­id­ent Bush ex­actly the 60 votes he needed in Au­gust to keep in­tel­li­gence sur­veil­lance powers for six more months, over the ob­jec­tions of most Demo­crats and of civil-liber­ties groups. On the war, Mc­Caskill re­jec­ted lib­er­al ef­forts to with­draw troops quickly and to cut off fund­ing. All told, she sided with con­ser­vat­ives on eight of the 29 for­eign-policy votes.

Fresh­man Rep. Gab­ri­elle Gif­fords, D-Ar­iz., said she thinks her lead­ers are sym­path­et­ic to the first-ter­mers’ oc­ca­sion­al splits with their party. “I’m sure they un­der­stand that we need to keep this dis­trict to re­tain the ma­jor­ity — and that I won’t re­turn un­less I vote my con­stitu­ency,” she said.

Gif­fords pre­dicted that her cent­rist score in the vote rat­ings would have a pos­it­ive ef­fect at home. She re­called serving in the Ari­zona Le­gis­lature, when “we ral­lied around the score­board to see every­body’s grades” in in­terest-group rat­ings. “My op­pon­ents call me a ‘Nancy Pelosi lib­er­al,’ ” she said. “But the elect­or­ate un­der­stands the facts … and they want us to get the job done, and on a bi­par­tis­an basis.”

GOP op­er­at­ives are skep­tic­al that these Demo­crats’ cent­rist vot­ing re­cords will give them much elect­or­al pro­tec­tion. For many of the fresh­man Demo­crats who rep­res­ent Re­pub­lic­an-lean­ing dis­tricts, “walk­ing the plank for Nancy Pelosi — even if they don’t vote with her 100 per­cent of the time — still has very real polit­ic­al con­sequences,” said Ken Spain, a spokes­man for the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee.

“It only takes one or two is­sues to make an elec­tion com­pet­it­ive, and so far, a large num­ber of fresh­man Demo­crats have provided us with plenty of fod­der for the fall,” Spain ad­ded. In Feb­ru­ary, for in­stance, after House Demo­crats de­cided to let the in­tel­li­gence sur­veil­lance law ex­pire without passing a new one, the NR­CC sent press re­leases to 20 fresh­man Demo­crats’ dis­tricts ar­guing that the law­makers were “play­ing polit­ic­al chick­en with Amer­ic­an lives and our coun­try’s se­cur­ity.”

In a ses­sion this week with re­port­ers, NR­CC Chair­man Tom Cole, R-Okla., said that even if the fresh­man Demo­crats have com­piled mod­er­ate re­cords, they’ll still suf­fer polit­ic­ally be­cause of what he de­scribed as their party’s paltry le­gis­lat­ive achieve­ments. “Most voters will tell you the coun­try is not bet­ter off,” Cole said.

Hav­ing served three terms be­fore he was de­feated in 2004 and then re­gained his seat in 2006, fresh­man Rep. Bar­on Hill, D-Ind., is very fa­mil­i­ar with Re­pub­lic­an cam­paign tac­tics. “I wouldn’t ex­pect them to say any­thing else,” Hill said. “They will say any­thing in their ads, as I have learned over the years. I don’t re­spond to their ads, oth­er than to re­spond with my own ads. My theme is that I am a mod­er­ate Demo­crat, as are most of my con­stitu­ents.”

Class Con­flicts and Con­sensus

The fresh­man Demo­crat­ic class of 2006 isn’t en­tirely mod­er­ate, of course. Those who won blue dis­tricts or states ten­ded to have far more-lib­er­al scores in NJ’s vote rat­ings. Take fresh­man Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., who suc­ceeded re­tired Demo­crat­ic Rep. Ma­jor Owens in a Brook­lyn-based dis­trict that gave John Kerry 86 per­cent of its vote in the 2004 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. She was the 33rd-most-lib­er­al House mem­ber in 2007. And fresh­man Sen. Shel­don White­house, D-R.I., who ous­ted mod­er­ate GOP Sen. Lin­coln Chafee, was the second-most-lib­er­al sen­at­or last year.

Ca­sey noted that the wide-ran­ging scores of the nine fresh­man Sen­ate Demo­crats re­flect how dif­fer­ent their states are — from red­dish Mis­souri, Montana, and Vir­gin­ia, to swing states Ohio and Pennsylvania, to bright blue Rhode Is­land. “We rep­res­ent dif­fer­ent states and dif­fer­ent con­stitu­en­cies,” Ca­sey said. “There’s a lot of di­versity in the class.”

Such ideo­lo­gic­al di­versity has made it dif­fi­cult for the class to find much con­sensus on policy po­s­i­tions. The single most uni­fy­ing is­sue for the fresh­man Demo­crats in both cham­bers has been eth­ics re­form, which is not sur­pris­ing, giv­en that their party’s elect­or­al suc­cess res­ul­ted in great meas­ure from the GOP’s eth­ics prob­lems. “We want to have a leg­acy as a class,” Alt­mire told NJ last year. “It won’t be on policy grounds, but to have an iden­tity as agents of change who fo­cus on re­forms.”

Ca­sey agreed. “Eth­ics is prob­ably the best ex­ample of us not just agree­ing to come to­geth­er, but hav­ing a real un­an­im­ous feel­ing about it,” he said. “I was sur­prised, frankly, at the ca­marader­ie in the class. I thought every­one would stay in their own lanes, lead their own lives le­gis­lat­ively.”

Mc­Caskill, a former state aud­it­or, con­ten­ded, “My theme song is ac­count­ab­il­ity. My com­fort zone is ask­ing ques­tions about the way the money is be­ing spent.” The fresh­men are not afraid to chal­lenge their party’s vet­er­ans and push tough eth­ics changes, she noted. “Some, es­pe­cially those who came from the House, are much more dip­lo­mat­ic and much more stra­tegic. And some of us have a bad habit of pick­ing up a two-by-four.”

—Re­search as­so­ci­ate Peter Bell as­sisted in com­pil­ing this year’s vote rat­ings.


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