Ratings war: Congressional liberal, conservative rankings conflict

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W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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It’s official: Idaho Republican Sen. James Risch was the most conservative member of the U.S. Senate in 2012. That is, unless you ask the American Conservative Union, which considered seven senators more conservative.

The recently released ideological ratings of members of Congress may be more of an art than a science, but they will still have implications for elected officials who seek to prove their liberal or conservative credentials as they climb the political ladder.

For the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, it may end up mattering to conservative voters that both Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio were listed among the ACU’s “Defenders of Liberty,” members of Congress with 100 percent scores. Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan missed the cutoff at 84 percent.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been hoping to avoid a tea party challenger in the 2014 Kentucky Republican primary. His 100 percent rating from the ACU should help him argue he has been sufficiently conservative.

But in the National Journal’s rankings, McConnell is just the 15th most conservative Republican senator while Rubio is the 17th. Paul ranks sixth, yet finds himself behind Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who has also been hoping to ward off a tea party challenge. This is the list that awards Risch the top spot. New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall and Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal tied for most liberal.

The National Journal ratings have been considered quirky in the past, such as when Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain was in an eight-way tie for most conservative senator in 2011. The magazine says that this year it evaluated 116 votes from 2012 in each chamber and categorized them as pertaining to economic, social or foreign policy issues.

Missouri Republican Rep. Todd Akin, who lost a Senate race last year after making controversial remarks about rape and abortion, was the National Journal’s most conservative member of the House. But Akin didn’t crack the ACU’s 38 top House conservatives who scored 100 percent.

The liberal group Media Matters repeatedly attacked the National Journal during the 2008 presidential campaign for rating then Sen. Barack Obama the most liberal senator the year before. Media Matters complained, “Media figures continue to cite National Journal ranking of Obama as ‘most liberal senator’ without noting subjectivity.”

While announcing the congressional rankings, the National Journal didn’t waste time pointing out possible races they could impact. The magazine posted an article titled, “Facing primary threat, Graham rated 33rd most conservative,” referring to South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.

The National Journal also noted that Georgia Republican Rep. Paul Broun, a likely candidate for retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ seat, “logs a surprisingly moderate score in vote ratings.” That would be their vote ratings. The ACU gave him a perfect conservative score.

“There could not be a more critical time for conservatives to evaluate America’s leadership and hold them accountable for their actions,” ACU Chairman Al Cardenas wrote in the group’s ratings guide overview.

Heritage Action released its own ratings earlier this year. South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, now president-elect of the Heritage Foundation, and Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee tied for the top position, while Paul and Rubio tied for second.

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W. James Antle III