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The Wisconsin Voter: A Historically Polarized Congress; An Increasingly Conservative GOP

February 25, 2012
In The News

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

By Craig Gilbert
Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has carved out a voting record to the right of nearly all his colleagues in the 100-member US Senate, according to two new studies of floor votes in Congress.
Yet as much as that record sets him apart, the GOP freshman is the embodiment of a major historic trend -- the increasing conservatism of Republicans in Congress -- that accelerated with the last mid-term election.
“Republicans have been moving steadily to the right,” says University of Georgia Prof. Keith Poole, who with colleague Howard Rosenthal has charted the shifting ideology of the parties across the decades, based on pioneering statistical analysis that ranks every federal lawmaker on a right-to-left scale.
The big story in their long-running research is the ever-growing polarization on Capitol Hill, as the gap between the voting behavior of Republicans and Democrats gets larger with each new Congress.
“At some point, it’s got to explode. You can’t go on like this that much longer without it breaking,” Poole says of the institution’s divisions.
His work suggests that in 2011, Congress was more polarized along party lines than in any year since the late 19th century.  Both parties have moved farther from the center in recent decades.  But the most dramatic movement has occurred in the GOP, as “succeeding waves of new Republicans have been more conservative” than their predecessors, says Poole.
Wisconsin’s congressional delegation is a microcosm of these broader trends. The ideological gap between the two parties has gotten steadily bigger since the early 1990s. And the biggest partisan change has been the growing conservatism of the state’s Republican representatives in Washington.
The ideology of the “average” Wisconsin Republican in Congress has shifted measurably rightward over the past 20 years, the data shows. Five of the six most conservative Republicans to represent Wisconsin since the 1960s are serving today, according to the Poole-Rosenthal ratings: Sen. Johnson and House members Jim Sensenbrenner of Menomonee Falls, Reid Ribble of Sherwood, Paul Ryan of Janesville and Sean Duffy of Ashland.
The one exception to that pattern is Mark Neumann, who served in the House in the 1990s and is now running for US Senate. Johnson, Neumann and Sensenbrenner have been the most conservative modern-day lawmakers from Wisconsin, according to the ratings.
Even the state’s most moderate Republican, longtime House member Tom Petri of Fond du Lac, illustrates the larger trend.
Petri is currently ranked the 189th most conservative lawmaker in the House, based on his lifetime voting score from Poole and Rosenthal. But that same score would have made him the 49th most   conservative House member three decades ago when he came to Congress.  In other words, enough House members to his right have been elected in the intervening years to drop him 140 spots in the conservative rankings.
“A ‘conservative’ Republican back in the early 1980s is on the left side of the Republican caucus now,” says Poole.
The changes on the Democratic side are less dramatic both here and nationally. The ideology of the “average” congressional Democrat from Wisconsin in recent years hasn’t changed all that much since the 1970s or 1980s, according to the data. And state’s most liberal modern-day lawmakers are spread out across the decades. They include not just current members (Tammy Baldwin of Madison and Gwen Moore of Milwaukee) and recent members (Sen. Russ Feingold), but several who served in the 1960s and 1970s (Senators Bill Proxmire and Gaylord Nelson and House member Bob Kastenmeier of Madison).
While Wisconsin’s representation in Washington has been divided historically between the parties, Democrats have had the upper hand over the past four decades, more often than not outnumbering their Republican colleagues and giving the delegation a center-left cast.
But the latest congressional vote studies show just how much that changed with the 2010 elections. When Wisconsin voters replaced three congressional Democrats with three Republicans, it was the biggest partisan shift in more than half a century.
The state is now represented by six Republicans and four Democrats in the House and Senate combined. One of those new Republicans, Johnson, was ranked the second most conservative member of the US Senate in ratings published last week by the nonpartisan National Journal, behind only Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
He was ranked the sixth most conservative Senator in 2011 by  Poole and Rosenthal, behind Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
Johnson’s election represented an even greater shift when you consider the politician he defeated. Feingold routinely ranked as number one or two among the Senate’s most liberal members in the Poole-Rosenthal ratings – the polar opposite of Johnson.
On the House side, the state’s two GOP freshmen have also pushed the delegation in a much more conservative direction.
The National Journal drew on its own set of vote ratings to gauge which of 65 GOP freshmen in the House represent the biggest ideological change from the Democrats they replaced. Number three on that list of 65 is Ribble, who defeated Steve Kagen of Appleton in 2010.  And number eight is Duffy, who replaced longtime lawmaker Dave Obey of Wausau.
Meanwhile, the Poole-Rosenthal ratings suggest today’s crop of lawmakers represents on average the most conservative Wisconsin congressional delegation in at least 50 years.
Along with ranking Johnson as the sixth most conservative Senator, they rank Democrat Herb Kohl as the 37th most liberal Senator.
Among House Republicans, the two scholars rank Sensenbrenner as the 32nd most conservative, Ribble as the 62nd most conservative, Ryan as the 64th most conservative, Duffy as the 121st most conservative and Petri as the 189th most conservative.
Among House Democrats, they rank Baldwin as the 18th most liberal, Moore as the 25th most liberal and Ron Kind of La Crosse as the 166th most liberal.
The Poole-Rosenthal ratings are widely used by political scientists because they capture voting trends and patterns over long periods of time. And rather than relying on subjective judgments about what constitutes a liberal or conservative vote, they’re based on powerful statistical programs that “map” how lawmakers vote in relation to one another.
Some final Wisconsin notes, based on their data:
  • The state’s most moderate House members in the rankings are Petri and Kind. Petri is to the left of three-quarters of his fellow Republicans. Kind is to the right of four-fifths of his fellow House Democrats. In the Senate, Kohl is to the right of a majority of his fellow Democrats.
  • Kohl and Kind have the most moderate (i.e., least liberal) lifetime voting scores of any Wisconsin Democrats to serve in Congress in the past four decades, with the single exception of Peter Barca, now serving the state Assembly, who spent less than one full term in Congress in the early 1990s.
  • Former lawmakers Steve Gunderson and Scott Klug have the most moderate (i.e., least conservative) voting records of any Wisconsin Republicans to serve since the 1960s. If Gunderson were in office today he would be at the far left end of the GOP spectrum. He would be less conservative than all but five House Republicans, according to the ratings.