By Russell Berman - 10/13/10 09:52 PM EDT
It’s an attack ad that writes itself: The House Republican leader, Rep. John Boehner (Ohio), votes with liberal Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) a majority of the time.
The statistic seems impossible to believe, given the ferocity with which Boehner denounces Pelosi, the progressive champion of San Francisco elitism and favorite GOP villain.
Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), the House Republican whip, and Rep. Pete Sessions (Tex.), head of the GOP’s House campaign committee, are even cozier with Pelosi. They’ve voted with her 57 percent of the time.
And Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), the conservative firebrand who has compared the Democratic agenda to socialism? She’s with Pelosi on 58 percent of House votes.
The data come from a Democratic leadership review of the 565 roll call votes in the House from January through the end of September, when Congress left Washington for the campaign trail. Since the Speaker herself rarely votes, the comparison is made using the recommended vote of the party leadership.
The percentages do not reveal a hidden bipartisanship in the rancorous 111th Congress, but they do throw into sharp relief the statistic that campaign ad makers use more than any other to cast opponents as ideological rubberstamps.
Republican campaigns nationwide are running dozens of ads that cite the percentage of time an incumbent Democrat votes with Pelosi.
In Alabama’s 2nd district, the National Republican Congressional Committee attacks Democratic Rep. Bobby Bright in radio and television ads for voting “with Pelosi 70 percent of the time” since 2009. In Idaho’s 1st district, Republican Raul Labrador’s ad criticizes Rep. Walt Minnick (D) for voting “with Obama/Pelosi over 70 percent.” Bright and Minnick of two of the most conservative Democrats in the House who opposed their party’s major agenda items.
The percentage appears high, but when Bright and Minnick are compared with the conservative Bachmann, the difference is only a few dozen votes. And compared with more centrist Republicans like Reps. Tim Murphy (Pa. – 66 percent with Pelosi) and Charlie Dent (Pa. – 65 percent), the disparity is even smaller.
The explanation for the elevated voting percentages is simple: While hotly-disputed legislation on healthcare, climate change and government spending command the public’s attention, the vast majority of congressional votes occur on more mundane and non-controversial items, like the naming of post offices or designating weeks or months to cancer awareness and other causes.
In the database of votes that campaigns rely on for attack ads, however, a vote to designate June 30th as National ESIGN Day or to congratulate the South Carolina Gamecocks for winning the College World Series counts the same as votes to overhaul the nation’s healthcare and energy industries.
The Republican strategy is a long-running standard of congressional campaigns. Democrats used it to similar effect in 2006 and 2008, tying even the most centrist Republicans to the unpopular President George W. Bush by virtue of their voting records. And a few Democratic campaigns are linking their opponents to Bush in 2010. The campaign of Ohio Democratic Senate nominee Lee Fisher, for example, has criticized Republican Rob Portman, a former congressman, of having “voted with the Bush administration nearly 95 percent of the time.”
“The data can be manipulated by both sides, and they are,” said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. Voters, she said, often don’t know what to make of the statistics that flash across a TV screen in 30-second spots. “Are these the most important bills? Are these the least important bills?” a voter might wonder, Binder said.
Democrats are fighting back with their own spin on the numbers. Bright is running a TV ad that says he voted “80 percent with the Republican leader,” and Rep. Jim Marshall (D-Ga.), in his own ad, touts his record of voting 65 percent “with Republican leaders.”
As for Boehner, the NRCC scoffed at the Democratic analysis. “It’s necessary to question any numbers coming from the same party that predicted their trillion dollar stimulus bill would keep unemployment below 8 percent,” committee spokesman Paul Lindsay said. “The fact that House Democrat staffers spent their time compiling this nonsense is further proof of why their party has failed to address the economic crisis facing American families, and why voters are determined to send them packing in November.”
Doug Thornell, a spokesman for Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and assistant to the Speaker, shot back: "Gosh, I wonder what the Tea Party would think if they knew House Republican leaders vote with Speaker Pelosi most of the time. This analysis just shows how big of a joke the GOP argument against Democrats is."