Vote Scores hurt Vulnerable Senate Democrats

Several Senate Democrats are running their campaigns as far away from the President as possible. Democrats are defending six states that Mitt Romney won in 2012. Three Democratic incumbents find themselves in toss-up races in states Mitt Romney won by landslide margins. The President’s approval numbers in those states are dismal, forcing Democrats to deny policy agreement the Chief Executive.

However, many Democratic incumbents have had difficulty doing so. Unsurprisingly, many of them are tripping over their voting records. In 2013 Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) was the Democrat who voted with the President the least– and his presidential support score is 90%.

To many liberals, Sen. Pryor barely counts as a Democrat. So why is his presidential support score so high? In many ways the combination of gridlock and legislative campaigning in the 113th has limited conservative Democrats’ ability to distance themselves from Obama.

First, gridlock over policy has pushed Reid to schedule executive nominee confirmation votes. When the House and Senate are controlled by different parties it often stymies congressional production. That effect is particularly pronounced when the parties are polarized. The 113th Congress, so far, has passed 98 fewer laws than the 112th, which was the least productive Congress since the Civil War. Gridlock, in part, pushed Democrats to shift their governing strategy. After the nuclear option was invoked last November, the Senate could confirm executive nominees by a simple majority. This procedural change gave Democrats a useful outlet to accomplish some of their governing goals in the face of legislative gridlock.

However, this tactic had a downside. It had the effect of boosting presidential vote scores of many vulnerable Democrats. Votes on confirming nominees made up the overwhelming majority of votes in the Senate. Fifty-two percent of all votes cast in the 113th Congress were on presidential nominees. In the 2nd session a whopping 182 out of 270 votes (67%) confirmed (in most cases) presidential nominees. And in many cases those nominees were confirmed on party line votes. This boosted presidential support scores for many conservative Democrats who were seeking distance from the president, not demonstrate a cozy relationship.

Second, as is often the case in election years, the Senate scheduled campaign votes. Majority parties have political incentives to make their majority party look good at the expense of the minority party. Therefore, majority leaders (or the Speaker in the House) schedule votes that highlight that distinction. Campaign votes were prominent in the 113thCongress. In 2nd session (2014), 26 of the 88 non-nominee votes in the Senate, just under 30-percent, were for bills that had practically no chance to pass the Senate and zero chance at passing the House. Votes on a constitutional amendment to limit money in politics, the Paycheck Fairness Act, raising the minimum wage, and the Sportsman’s Act are all bills that had little opportunity to become law in this Congress. If you are outraged that seemingly common sense measures had no chance of becoming law, then scheduling these votes had their desired effect. These bills were never intended to pass. They were scheduled for members to use on the campaign trail. Yet again, they pulled many vulnerable Democrats’ vote history closer to the President’s agenda.

The remaining votes in the 113th Congress were on must pass or important legislation (such as WRDA, Highway funding extension, the FARM bill). These were bills the president may not have liked but did not outwardly oppose or threaten with a veto.

The legislative schedule, affected by gridlock and campaign incentives, artificially boosted many Democrats’ voting scores in an election year when that trend is very damaging. Vote scores offer only a limited look into a members’ ideology. But in hindsight vulnerable Democrats may have liked the opportunity to vote on bills or amendments that would have illustrated distance between themselves from the President’s position. However, political conditions and Senate scheduling did not cooperate. As a result many Democratic candidates in red states are now stringently highlighting their 5-10% disagreement with the President.