The Most Polarized Congress Ever: 2013 Congressional Vote Ratings

Who are the most liberal and conservative senators and representatives in Washington?
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The Blue Dog Democrats boasted some exciting news last month—the addition of four new members to replenish their depleted ranks. But the recruitment of Representatives Kyrsten Sinema, Ron Barber, Cheri Bustos, and Nick Rahall was as much a sign of existential crisis as it was reason for celebration.

While all ranked among the Democrats' more moderate members in National Journal's 2013 vote ratings, none was a logical fit to join a group of fiscally conservative Democrats who want to rein in government spending. Earmark-lover Rahall was first elected in 1976 and never showed any interest in joining the Blue Dogs before facing a serious reelection challenge in West Virginia this year. Arizona's Sinema, Illinois's Bustos, and Arizona's Barber are all freshmen who haven't had much time to prove their commitment to fiscal conservatism. (They, too, face tough contests in the fall, however.)

Sure, the Blue Dogs could try to set higher standards for membership, so that the caucus isn't signing up only at-risk Democrats in search of a centrist credential. But that would mean the end for one of the last bastions of centrism and moderation among House Democrats. Already, the caucus's numbers are dreadful—down to 19 today from 54 four years ago—because, plain truth, so few Democratic fiscal hawks are left.

As the Democratic Party shifts leftward without much resistance, Republicans are fighting a war for the soul of their party. House Speaker John Boehner faces constant revolt on his right flank from a growing number of Tea Party-affiliated members who believe compromise is a dirty word. Outside conservative groups, such as the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, are enforcing ideological purity among members as well as primary candidates. Six of the 12 Republican senators up for reelection in 2014 are facing primary challenges from their right, even though several rank among the most conservative, according to the vote ratings.

Welcome to today's Congress, which in 2013 was more polarized than any Congress since National Journal began calculating its ratings in 1982.

For the fourth straight year, no Senate Democrat was more conservative than a Senate Republican—and no Senate Republican was more liberal than a Senate Democrat. In the House, only two Democrats were more conservative than a Republican—and only two Republicans were more liberal than a Democrat. The ideological overlap between the parties in the House was less than in any previous index.

The ideological sorting of the House and Senate by party, which has been going on for more than three decades, is virtually complete. Contrast the lack of ideological overlap with 1982, when 58 senators and 344 House members had voting records that put them between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat; or 1994, when 34 senators and 252 House members occupied the same territory.

"The last couple of Congresses have been among the most polarized in history. This is just a continuation of that. There's nothing that will break this [trend]," said Gary Jacobson, a University of California (San Diego) political scientist, who specializes in congressional politics. "Voters have been voting along party lines at the highest rate in 50 years; they expressed that vote at the congressional and presidential levels. It's hard for members to win in districts where their party is not favored."

Beyond the polarization, the vote ratings highlight other compelling findings. Among Republican presidential candidates, Texas's Ted Cruz proved he could vote more conservatively than Kentucky's Rand Paul, 2013's Tea Party favorite. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is not quite as progressive as she advertised, at least compared with her Democratic colleagues. While most Democratic senators have moved to the middle as they face competitive elections, Al Franken has remained a stalwart liberal. Meanwhile, John McCain and Orrin Hatch, who had moved to the right in preparation for primary races, once again occupy the moderate wing of the Republican Party. Contrary to conventional wisdom, most members whose districts became safer during the redistricting process didn't become any more ideological.

Here are the 12 most important takeaways from National Journal's 2013 ratings:

1. It's hard to believe, but Congress is likely to be even more polarized next year.

Three of the five most moderate Democrats in the House—Jim Matheson of Utah, Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, and Bill Owens of New York—have already announced their retirements this year. John Barrow, the most moderate Democrat, faces another difficult reelection campaign in deeply conservative rural Georgia. In the Senate, it's plausible that as many as six of the 11 most moderate Democrats could be gone next year; some are retiring, some are facing tough reelection campaigns.

It's not much better for the remaining GOP centrists. Half of the 10 House Republicans who have announced their retirement—Frank Wolf in Virginia, Jim Gerlach in Pennsylvania, Jon Runyan in New Jersey, Spencer Bachus in Alabama, and Tom Latham in Iowa—rank in the top fifth of moderate Republicans.

2. Republican presidential candidates in Congress continue to showcase their conservatism.

Every prospective Republican presidential candidate ranked as reliably conservative, although none more so than Cruz in his first year on the job. He ranked as the fourth-most-conservative senator, with a composite score of 95.0, fully living up to his reputation. Cruz outdistanced Senator Marco Rubio of Florida (tied for 17th) and Paul (19th) in that respect, but both of them ranked in the top half of conservative senators. (Paul's 82.0 composite conservative score was a slight drop-off from his 2012 rating of 90.8, when he ranked sixth in the Senate.)

Likewise, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan ranked as one of the most conservative representatives, with an 81.2 composite conservative score. That put him in the upper-third of House Republicans, ranking 71st. But Ryan opened himself up to conservative criticism late last year in negotiating a bipartisan budget deal that averted a government shutdown. In the Senate, 36 Republicans voted against the compromise, including Cruz, Rubio, and Paul.

3. Red-state Democrats are breaking with their party, but their Obamacare votes still lurk.

Democrats facing tough reelection campaigns in red states this year can point to evidence that they're more moderate than Republicans give them credit for. Of the 11 Democratic senators who rank as the most moderate, nearly half are facing the political fights of their careers. Leading the pack is Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who is the second-least-liberal senator, with a 46.2 composite score. Kay Hagan ranks as the fourth-least-liberal. Also at the top of the list are Alaska's Mark Begich (54.7 liberal), Virginia's Mark Warner (56.3 liberal), and Louisiana's Mary Landrieu (58.3 liberal).

It's worth noting that every Democratic senator, even West Virginia's Joe Manchin, is more liberal than the most moderate Republican senator, Maine's Susan Collins. That's both a result of congressional polarization and a sign of the Democratic Party's leftward drift. And all of the Democrats supported President Obama's healthcare law, their most politically consequential vote in recent years.

4. The Tea Party is running out of conservatives to target.

Of the six Republican senators facing primary challenges in 2014, only three are significantly more moderate than the average Republican senator. Heading the pack are South Carolina's Lindsey Graham and Tennessee's Lamar Alexander, who both rank as the fifth-most-moderate, with 64.5 conservative scores. Both face nominal GOP opposition but are favored to win their primaries. Thad Cochran in Mississippi, viewed as the most vulnerable of the six, ranks as the 12th-most-moderate, with a 67.5 score.

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Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal.

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