Beto O’Rourke is a young, charismatic politician who is getting a lot of 2020 buzz from progressives. He’s even ranking among former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders in some recent primary polling.
But what does O’Rourke actually believe? After all, he won a House seat in El Paso largely by running to the right of the entrenched incumbent and after a couple of terms in office threw himself into the difficult task of trying to win a statewide election in Texas.
As you might expect from that personal history, O’Rourke has a voting record that is somewhat more conservative than the average House Democrat’s. Indeed, if you blocked all thoughts of the 2020 presidential primary and asked yourself what kind of House Democrat would have a chance of winning a statewide election in Texas, you’d say it would take a guy with a lot of charisma and probably a record that’s somewhat more conservative than your average House Democrat’s.
Unfortunately, because this point has most assertively been made by people who are known as fans of Sanders, it has led to pushback that in turn tends to flatten the entire analysis into a basic “Bernie versus the establishment” kind of thing.
The truth, however, is it’s not just that O’Rourke’s voting record is more conservative than Sanders’s — you could say that about lots of people. It really is more conservative than that of most Democrats in Congress, including other main 2020 contenders. This can be shown in a systematic way.
Beto O’Rourke’s record is somewhat conservative for a Democrat
The gold standard for measuring these things is a system called DW-NOMINATE, which essentially chunks together every vote recorded in Congress to analyze how the members’ records relate to each other. There’s a lot more to life than congressional voting records, so I wouldn’t take this as the final word on politicians’ true ideological souls.
But it does show us how they vote.
So how did O’Rourke vote? Well, in his first term in Congress, he voted somewhat more conservatively than the typical House Democrat. It was the same in his second term in Congress and the same again in his third term.
- In the 113th Congress, he was more conservative than 76 percent of Democrats.
- In the 114th Congress, he was more conservative than 79 percent of Democrats.
- In the 115th Congress, he was more conservative than 77 percent of Democrats.
Now, to be clear, if you look at a visualization of O’Rourke in the most recent Congress, it’s not like he’s a crypto-Republican or anything. Even the most conservative Democrats are well to the left of the most liberal Republicans, and O’Rourke is quite a bit more liberal than the most conservative Democrats.
All that said, O’Rourke basically has the voting record of someone capable of threading the needle between grassroots enthusiasm and swing voter acceptability that you would need to mount a credible statewide campaign in Texas.
Most of the other names you hear in the 2020 race are, however, more consistently progressive.
Other key 2020 contenders are from the party’s left wing
Bernie Sanders, for example, represents a safe blue seat in Vermont and consequently has a voting record that is more progressive than the average Senate Democrat’s.
But Sanders actually did not amass the most left-wing voting record in the 115th Senate. That distinction belongs to Elizabeth Warren. Kamala Harris was No. 2, Cory Booker was No. 3, and then Sanders and Tammy Baldwin are basically the same. Kirsten Gillibrand is closer to the middle of the pack but still more liberal than 76 percent of Senate Democrats.
A rough equivalent to O’Rourke’s record would be Amy Klobuchar, who in the most recent Senate was more conservative than 72 percent of Senate Democrats. She has had a voting record that’s a bit to the right of the median Democrat’s throughout her time as a senator.
Of course, Klobuchar represents a state that is less blue than Massachusetts, Vermont, California, New Jersey, or New York, and she’s very popular there, so it’s not shocking that her voting record would be more moderate. By the same token, it’s the opposite of shocking that a House member who was positioning himself for a statewide run in Texas would have a relatively moderate voting record.
In the grand scheme of things, the differences between these voting records are not enormous, and if you’re thinking about policy outcomes, the limiting factor is going to be what the most conservative Democratic Party senators can swallow, not whether the president is a bit more liberal than those senators (or a lot more liberal).
But the facts are the facts.
O’Rourke (and Klobuchar) have voting records that are more conservative than the average Democrat’s, while Harris and Booker and Gillibrand and Warren and Sanders are more progressive than the average Democrat. So if you’re looking for someone with a progressive voting record, you have a bunch of choices. And if you’re looking for someone with a less progressive voting record, you also have a couple of choices. And if you think voting records aren’t very important or informative, then you’re welcome to ignore all this.
But the reality is that O’Rourke has a record that’s somewhat more conservative than that of most of his colleagues on Capitol Hill, and pointing that out isn’t a nefarious conspiracy.
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