U.S. Sen. Mark Warner isn’t the moderate you thought you elected, Republicans say.
"97 percent of the time. That’s how often Mark Warner votes with President Obama," a recent web video by the Republican Party of Virginia said.
Warner, a Democrat, is running for a second term this year. Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Party and adviser to President George W. Bush, is expected to win the GOP nomination at a state convention next month.
A key strategy for Republican challengers in Virginia and across U.S. this fall will be to tie Democrat incumbents to President Barack Obama, whose national approval ratings have been hovering at around 44 percent. Our colleagues in other PolitiFact bureaus have already examined claims that Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Mark Begich of Alaska are in lockstep with the president.
We asked Garren Shipley, spokesman for the state GOP, to back up the claim on Warner’s voting record. He sent us presidential support data compiled by CQ Weekly, a nonpartisan Washington news service that was once known as Congressional Quarterly. The statistics track the percentage of times a member of Congress votes with the stated preference of the president on legislation.
Warner, as it turns out, did vote with the president’s wishes 97 of the time both last year and since entering the Senate in 2009. That’s slightly higher than the average for all Democratic senators, who backed Obama when he clearly stated a position 96 percent of the time last year and 95.4 percent of the time since 2009.
Here’s Warner’s annual percentage and his ranking in presidential support among all the senators who caucused with the Democrats each year:
- 96 percent in 2009, 30th out of 60
- 97 percent in 2010, 30th out of 58
- 99 percent in 2011, tied for 1st out of 53
- 96 percent in 2012, 21st out of 53
- 97 percent in 2013, 39th out of 55
There’s a few things that should be understood about presidential support statistics.
For starters, they deal with only a fraction of the votes Warner has cast. CQ found that Obama staked out a "clear position" on only 419 of 1,473 roll call votes in the Senate -- or 28 percent -- since Warner became a member in 2009.
Warner voted with the president’s position on 406 of those 419 votes. More than half of them, 226, were to confirm presidential nominations for federal posts.
He voted with the president on a number of high profile issues:
- The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare
- Extending the Patriot Act, allowing increased surveillance of people suspected of terrorist activities
- A farm bill expanding crop insurance and trimming the food stamp program
- Extending a period offering lower rates for student loans
- Increasing debt limits
On key issues, Warner has opposed the president by voting:
- Against regulating assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition feeding devices
- Against delaying the start of sequestration in 2013 that started a series of automatic spending cuts
- To overturn Environmental Protection Agency regulations to cut mercury and other emissions from coal-fired electric generation facilities
Warner campaigned for the Senate in 2008 as a "radical centrist" who would seek bipartisan compromise. David Turner, Warner’s campaign spokesman this year, was dismissive of the state GOP’s effort to define Warner by his presidential support votes.
"Solely tallying an arbitrary number of procedural votes does not accurately depict the sum total of a U.S. Senator’s work," he said.
Turner sent us links to other vote studies and news articles that praise Warner for his bipartisan work.
For example, National Journal rated Warner the 46th most liberal member of the 100-seat U.S. Senate in 2013, based on an analysis of 117 roll call votes on key economic, foreign and social issues last year. And Open Congress, found that Warner voted with the majority of his party on 90 percent of all Senate bills last year, ranking him 42nd among the 51 Democratic senators.
Some of the articles Turner sent concerned Warner’s persistent but unsuccessful efforts to build bipartisan consensus for a debt reduction plan that would cut spending and raise taxes.
Turner also noted that some of Warner’s legislative efforts in opposition to Obama’s policies have not advanced to a vote on the Senate floor and, therefore, were not counted in CQ’s presidential support ratings. Warner, for example:
- Co-sponsored legislation in 2012 to open offshore oil and gas drilling off the coast of Virginia.
- Co-sponsored a bill this year to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.
- Backed a proposal last year to impose tougher sanctions on Iran in December if its nuclear program negotiations with the White House broke down.
We asked two political scientists for their thoughts on presidential support ratings: Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia and Stephen Farnsworth of the University of Mary Washington. They both said the high level of support by Democrats and the low level by Republicans -- who have backed Obama only 46 percent of the time since 2009 -- speaks to the partisanship in the Senate.
Both professors said that the rating, which tracks a relatively small number of overall votes, paints an unsophisticated picture of any congressman’s total record, including Warner’s.
"Warner’s Obamacare vote was critical," Sabato said. "But using the 97 percent number really doesn’t tell you much more than he’s a Democrat."
Farnsworth noted that Obama did not take a position on the vast majority of bills that have come before the Senate.
"To imagine that Warner votes like a politburo member for the president would be misleading," he said.
The Republican Party of Virginia says Warner has voted with Obama "97 percent of the time."
Warner, since entering the Senate in 2009, indeed has taken the same position as the president 97 percent of the time when Obama outlined a clear position, according to Congressional Quarterly. That includes voting for Obamacare.
The presidential support rating is by no means a wide measure of performance by Warner or any other member of Congress. The president staked out a position on only 28 percent of the Senate roll call votes since 2009 and more than half of those were to confirm presidential appointments. Senate Democrats, on the whole, have backed the president 95.4 percent of the time during Warner’s term.
It should be noted that broad voting studies by the National Journal and Open Congress rate Warner as one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate.
Warner’s presidential support rating, however, is what it is: 97 percent. So we rate the GOP’s statement True.