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Senate GOP Newcomers Neither Far Right Nor Extra-Loyal

Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton was one of 10 most likely to support the party in floor votes. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

They’re often dubbed “the majority makers,” the nine Republicans who took Senate seats from Democrats in the 2014 election. But what sort of majority have they made for themselves?  

After a year on the job, the group’s collective impact on the senatorial rhythm has proven to be more nuanced than many in either party portray. They have undeniably pushed the Senate hard to the right, but they haven’t started out by being all that much more doctrinaire or combative than their elders in the GOP caucus. Having turned Mitch McConnell into the majority leader, in other words, the freshmen have not been down-the-line conservative or lockstep-easy for the Kentuckian to lead. The contours of the group’s personality come through in the 2015 votes studies, focused on presidential support and party unity, conducted by our newsroom colleagues at CQ.  

On votes where President Barack Obama had a preference clearly stated in advance, the typical Republican senator backed him 56 percent of the time and the average for the nine majority makers was a strikingly similar (and a tiny bit higher) 58 percent. Those may seem like surprisingly big numbers, given the partisanship of the Capitol, but to a large degree they’re explained by the fact that two out of every five presidential support votes in the first half of the 114th Congress were on confirmations, and the GOP only called up judicial or administration nominees they’d decided in advance to endorse.  

That deceptively inflated measure of support, though, still pales by comparison to the almost pure loyalty Obama had commanded from the GOP group’s Democratic predecessors, five who lost re-election and four who did not run again. Their presidential support scores averaged 98 percent in the 113th Congress.  

The change in partisan control of these nine seats accounts for a dramatic drop in Obama’s senatorial success rate. He won 93 percent of the time in 2014, the second-highest number for any president in the seven decades CQ has been keeping track — in part because Harry Reid, as majority leader, succeeded in confining the Senate agenda to things his troops and the White House agreed on. But the presidential success rate dropped 10 points in 2015 to Obama’s personal worst.  

One freshman, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, cracked the top 10 of Republican presidential supporters at 66 percent. Another, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, almost made the roster of top 10 opponents, voting 53 percent against Obama’s wishes.  

The dynamics are similar when it comes to party unity — how often senators remain on their side of the aisle during rolls calls when the majority of senators in one party opposes a majority of the other's. (That’s about two-thirds of all votes at the Capitol during this administration, a big increase from the George W. Bush years.)  

Two years ago, Reid had a two-pronged floor strategy for helping hold control of the Senate: A series of messaging votes in support of policies that unified his troops, and blocking GOP efforts to make politically vulnerable Democrats go on the record on more divisive policies.  

The approach proved insufficient on Election Day, but it nonetheless yielded a 99 percent average 2014 party unity score for Senate Democrats. Even the five sometime centrists who went down to defeat — Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Udall of Colorado – voted the party line an average 97 percent of the time. And Reid won a near-record 92 percent of the votes that fell mainly along party lines, which were dominated by roll calls in which the unified Democrats choked off GOP efforts to alter legislation.  

Last year, McConnell’s twin objectives were demonstrating the new GOP majority’s competence at governing and making good on his promise to return more regular order to the Senate. Achieving the first goal required plenty of pragmatic deal-cutting, while the second meant allowing Democrats, as well as fellow Republicans, permission to get test votes at least on their amendments. One consequence was that he prevailed on just 60 percent of all the party unity votes, the smallest share for any GOP majority since the 1950s, because winning a roll call in today’s Senate very often requires a 60-vote supermajority and McConnell’s caucus has only 54 members.  

Furthermore, the majority makers have not collectively proven to be any more reliable as party stalwarts than the longer-serving Republicans. The nine who picked up seats for the party had an average party unity score of 93 percent, almost the same as the 94 percent median for all GOP senators in 2015 as it was in 2014.  

While Cory Gardner of Colorado and Shelly Moore Capito of West Virginia were among the top dozen GOP iconoclasts, going against the grain on about one of every eight party unity votes, Cotton and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana were among the 10 most reliable party stalwarts because they voted the party line more than 96 percent of the time.  

The vote studies cleave the nine GOP freshmen into three camps. Cotton, Cassidy, Jodi Ernst of Iowa and Dan Sullivan of Alaska not only opposed Obama but also toed the party line more often than the Senate GOP average. Capito, Rounds and Gardner did the opposite, voting with the president and against their party position more often than the typical Republican senator. The other two were a mixed bag, Steve Daines of Montana essentially matching his caucus’ median on both counts while Thom Tillis of North Carolina had an average party unity score but took Obama’s side a bit more than average.  

If McConnell hoped his life would be made more easily predictable with the help of his large freshman class, he can at least turn to the subset of three new senators who held on to seats that had been in GOP hands. Georgia’s David Perdue, Nebraska’s Ben Sasse and Oklahoma’s James Lankford all spent their first years in office voting against Obama but with the party line more often than the typical Republican senator.  

Contact Hawkings at DavidHawkings@rollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @davidhawkings.

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