Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's decision to avoid tough votes this year has backfired in one respect — it gave his vulnerable incumbents few opportunities to show off any independence from President Barack Obama.
A new CQ vote study shows vulnerable Senate Democrats almost always voted to support the president in 2014 — a fact that has been instantly seized upon by Republicans, given that Obama's approval rating is languishing in the low 40s nationally and lower still in several battleground states.
As senior writer Shawn Zeller writes in this week's CQ Weekly cover story, Democrats who have been distancing themselves from Obama on the campaign trail not in votes on the Senate floor — whether it be Mark Udall of Colorado, Mark Pryor of Arkansas or Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana:
Udall disagreed just once, on a Pennsylvania state judge’s nomination to a federal district court. Pryor parted with Obama three times, and Landrieu four, but only one of those votes was on a policy matter. In July, Landrieu voted against Obama’s request for $2.7 billion to deal with the surge of Latin American children entering the U.S. illegally.Indeed, all of the most vulnerable Democrats voted with President Obama at least 96 percent of the time on the 120 votes on which Obama has urged a "yes" or "no" vote. Reid clamped down on amendments more than ever this year and the bills he brought to the floor were aimed at unifying Democrats and putting Republicans on defense — like a minimum wage hike, an unemployment extension, pay equity or refinancing student loans — rather than bills that would lead to Democratic defections.
As a result, there are only 18 legislative votes involved in the scoring this year. The vast majority (102) were nomination votes. That's the most lopsided ratio since CQ began keeping records on the ratio in 1988.
Reid's use of the nuclear option last year to effectively prevent Republicans from blocking judicial and executive branch nominees has also contributed to the results. Since the nuclear option, Republicans have insisted on roll call votes on a whole slew of traditionally non-controversial nominations, a move that's had the bonus effect for them of raising presidential support scores for Democrats.
Republican groups couldn't wait for the release of the updated numbers, which are online for CQ subscribers and appear earlier than usual this year, in this week's print edition of CQ Weekly. Zeller's full story is here to subscribers.
On Thursday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee issued separate releases targeting Democrats citing the figures.
Those releases are virtually identical, with NRSC spokeswoman Brook Hougesen offering quotes that differ only in the name of the senator being targeted and the voting percentage figures from CQ Roll Call.
"Mark Begich is no independent; this year he actually voted for President Obama's agenda an astounding 98% of the time," Hougesen said in the Alaska version of the releases. "President Obama is right, a vote for Mark Begich is a vote for his policies."
Zeller tweeted out the numbers for the Democrats, and CNN's Wolf Blitzer referenced the CQ number in a question directed to Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen while moderating a New Hampshire Senate debate Thursday evening.
"How is a vote for you not a vote for President Obama and his policies?" asked Blitzer.
"You know, my opponent talks a lot about that survey that he's always quoting. In fact, he's built his whole campaign on that," Shaheen said. "But the fact is, I work and I vote for New Hampshire."
Shaheen's campaign website includes a rebuttal, of sorts, to the underlying charge from GOP challenger Scott P. Brown, the former Massachusetts senator, listing times that Shaheen has opposed the Obama administration's policies, even if there isn't a roll call vote on the Senate floor associated with it.
The Republican party in North Carolina was also quick to highlight Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan scoring a 99 percent presidential support rating in 2014.
On the Republican side, the large number of generally non-controversial nominees included in the calculations contributed to all-but-one GOP incumbent supporting Obama more than half the time. The one outlier, Pat Roberts of Kansas, also happens to be the most vulnerable Republican on the ballot this year. He supported Obama about 49 percent of the time.
Here are where the Democrats and Republicans on the October edition of Roll Call's 10 Most Vulnerable Senators of 2014 rank in terms of their roll call voting support for Obama's agenda:
Democrats Mark Udall of Colorado: 99 percent Kay Hagan of North Carolina: 99 percent Jeff Merkley of Oregon: 99 percent Al Franken of Minnesota: 99 percent Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire: 98 percent Mark Begich of Alaska: 98 percentSens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., were the only senators on the ballot to score a perfect 100 percent score, although Durbin's seat is rated Safe Democrat and Warner's Democrat Favored by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.Mark Pryor of Arkansas: 97 percentRepublicans Mitch McConnell of Kentucky: 60 percent Pat Roberts of Kansas: 49 percentMary L. Landrieu of Louisiana: 96 percent
Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report. Related stories: Why Senate Attendance Attacks Are Usually Bogus Senate Democrats Backed Obama On Overwhelming Number of 2013 Votes, CQ Roll Call Vote Studies Show Tea Party Class More Confrontational Than Ever Vote Studies Show Double-Sided Numbers for Senate 'Red-State Four' Roll Call Election Map: Race Ratings for Every Seat Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.