The nation officially has its 83rd attorney general with Loretta Lynch having taken the oath of office Monday morning. But before her five-month nomination odyssey fades into the rearview mirror, it’s worth noting the pivotal part played by an election 19 months down the road.
Five Republican senators are in the early stages of what will be highly competitive re-election campaigns in states that voted Democratic in the previous two presidential elections. Absent that fact, it’s a good bet Lynch would have been confirmed with something close to the bare minimum majority, not the 56 votes she received. But four senators from the “Blue State Five” got in her corner at the final hour, a big share of the 10 GOP votes she was able to muster: Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Mark S. Kirk of Illinois and Rob Portman of Ohio. The only “no” vote from this particular group was cast by Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania.
That roll call, which will stand among the most important tests of presidential support and party unity in 2015, offers a window into how Senate voting records are already being massaged by those in the most electoral trouble in 2016.
Turns out, the Lynch vote was not an aberration. So far this year, all four of the vulnerable senators who supported her have been voting the way President Barack Obama has wanted much more often than the typical Senate Republican, and more often than many have in the past. Each also has been straying from the party line more frequently than their typical colleague, or their own past behavior. As for Toomey, he’s been more oppositional to the president than ever before and just as much of a partisan loyalist.
All that becomes clear with a quick look at CQ Vote Watch , the new online tool that gauges every lawmaker’s partisanship, presidential backing and attendance in close to real time — instead of only at the end of each year, as the CQ vote studies had been doing since the early 1950s.
Although the 114th Congress is only 13 legislative weeks old, the votes so far offer pretty good evidence about where the senators are aiming to position themselves for the races ahead.
Kirk, Portman and Ayotte are hoping to buttress the reputations they’ve cultivated as regular operators in the world of bipartisanship and the ideological middle ground. That’s customarily the smartest place to be if you are from one party but your constituents generally prefer the other one. (Rep. Tammy Duckworth is at the top of the Democratic pack in the race in Illinois, former Gov. Ted Strickland is the party’s early favorite in Ohio and Democrats are eagerly awaiting word that Gov. Maggie Hassan will run in New Hampshire.)
Toomey, by contrast, seems comfortable staking his future as the same movement conservative he’s been in the past — a risky if principled approach that may mean he’s not that worried about either next year’s top of the ticket or his likely rematch against Democrat Joe Sestak, a retired admiral and former House member.
It’s Johnson who’s been getting the farthest outside his comfort zone. He has been voting in ways that suggest he no longer wants to be seen as progeny of the GOP’s tea party wing. That was a fine place for him to be in the rightward wave that propelled his victory in the 2010 midterm but probably won’t be in 2016. That's in no small part because Wisconsin last went Republican for president in 1984 and Johnson looks to once again be facing the senator he ousted, Democrat Russ Feingold.
Those are among the reasons why the Wisconsin contest is one of just three Senate races labeled a pure Tossup at the moment by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call. The other Tossups are Illinois and the open seat in Florida. Toomey’s prospects are tilted in his favor, while the Ayotte and Portman contests are rated one notch more favorable to them, or “Leans Republican.”
So far this year, senators have voted on 20 matters (about evenly split between confirmations and legislation) where Obama’s preference has been well understood in advance. Johnson has voted the president’s way on 15 of them, a 75 percent support score that’s exceeded at the moment by just three other Republicans.
Until now, the Wisconsinite has never come remotely close to cracking the Top 10 list of GOP senators voting most often with Obama — rosters on which Ayotte, Portman and Kirk all appeared in both the previous two years.
Ayotte has backed Obama 79 percent of the time this year, Kirk 65 percent and Portman 63 percent — all of them well above the senatorial GOP average of 55 percent.
Anchoring the other end of the spectrum is Toomey. He’s been with the president just 40 percent of the time. Only four GOP senators have voted Obama’s way less often — among them presidential candidates Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida.
At the moment, three other Republican senators look to face viable competition for re-election, and each joined Toomey and most others in their caucus in voting against Lynch. John McCain of Arizona has an above-average presidential support score of 61 percent, Richard M. Burr of North Carolina is spot on the 55 percent average and Johnny Isakson of Georgia is a below-average 50 percent.
On the somewhat different measure of partisanship — what a lawmaker does on roll calls that fall mostly along party lines — only two GOP senators in competitive races have party unity scores above their caucus average, 94 percent. Isakson has toed the line 98 percent of the time and Toomey 95 percent. The roster of the most iconoclastic Republicans includes three others from the Blue State Five: Ayotte has stayed on her side on just 72 percent of the party unity votes, Kirk 77 percent and Portman 87 percent.
McCain is joined by less-likely suspects Burr, and especially Johnson, in being a couple of notches below average in party unity.
CQ subscribers will find Vote Watch at CQ.com. Get more information on subscribing here. Related: Check out CQ Vote Watch Vote Studies Track Presidential Hopefuls in Real Time Vote Studies Show Double-Sided Numbers for Senate’s ‘Red State Four’ Lessons for This Year in Voting Patterns of Last Year The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.