Scoring the Romney running mate choices: Portman the moderate option, Rubio the most conservative

Chris Moody
Political Reporter
The Ticket

When choosing a running mate, Mitt Romney will consider many factors: Can this person offer a bump in the polls? Will he or she excite the base? Could this person take the reins if necessary? Will we get along?

He will also weigh each candidate's ideological moorings. Let's take a look at where the candidates stand based on their voting records in public office.

For the answer, we dive into the informative—albeit imperfect—world of congressional scorecards. Advocacy groups and news outlets commonly rate lawmakers based on some standard relevant to the organization, which helps us determine where each contender falls on the ideological spectrum.

In the Senate, Rob Portman of Ohio, Marco Rubio of Florida, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and John Thune of South Dakota commonly appear on lists of possible running mates. Scorecards that measured voting records in 2011 suggest that among these, Rubio had the most conservative voting record and Portman the most moderate. Ayotte and Thune came in somewhere in between.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio

Across the board, Rubio scores the highest in ranking studies conducted by conservative groups, in part because of his limited voting record in Congress. In reports filed by Heritage Action, The Club for Growth and The American Conservative Union, each group placed the newcomer in its top tier of conservative members.

Heritage Action, which uses one of the most stringent and specific ranking formulas, judges lawmakers not just by how they vote, but by their involvement in the process. With a 96 percent Heritage Action rating, Rubio ranks in the top four most conservative members of the Senate.

According to the National Journal 2011 Vote Rankings, which lists members from the most liberal to most conservative, Rubio still lands far to the right. The magazine in 2011 ranked him as the 13th most conservative member of the Senate, just three notches below conservative stalwart Jim DeMint.

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman

Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, recently said said that Portman represented "the extreme fringe of the Republican Party," but an examination of his voting record over his nearly 15 years in Congress does not live up to that rhetoric. While Portman's record makes it clear that he is no liberal, his record puts him more in line with the pragmatic wing of the party.

National Journal's analysis of the Senate in 2011 put Portman just two places ahead of Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, who in May lost a primary battle to tea party-backed candidate Richard Mourdock. The magazine named Portman the 35th most conservative senator, far from the "fringe" members. (If you examine his entire record, however, Portman is no Lugar: He holds an average 87.92 percent American Conservative Union rating over his career, putting him more than 10 percentage points ahead of the Indiana senator.)

The Club for Growth offered a similar assessment of Portman in 2011, marking him as the 29th most free-market friendly senator. Heritage Action, the group that praised Rubio with a 96 percent rating, slapped Portman with a score of just 70 percent for his 2011 voting record. Specifically, Heritage Action dinged Portman for neglecting to co-sponsor bills the group deemed important. On his vote percentage, it rated him at 74 percent, giving him black marks for voting to raise the debt limit—an issue on which Portman has remained consistent throughout his time in both the House and Senate.

"In Sen. Portman's case," Heritage Action's CEO Michael A. Needham told Yahoo News, "he is to be commended for voting in favor of free trade, against market-distorting energy tax credits, and in opposition to the wasteful highway bill. He could have improved his score by standing with conservatives on other votes, such as supporting the Lee Budget and opposing the Export-Import Bank."

Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan

The Republican budget proposals drafted by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan since he became chairman of the House Budget Committee have boosted his stock tremendously among conservatives, but National Journal's analysis found that, compared with his House colleagues, Ryan doesn't rank in the top 100 conservatives in the chamber.

National Journal's report labeled him the "150th" most conservative House member in 2011. Meanwhile, his ACU rating dropped 16 percentage points in 2011 to 80 percent, although he retains a high lifetime rating of 91.96 percent.

The governors

There is a chance Romney will look beyond Washington to make his pick. Unfortunately, the market for scorecards that measure the record of America's governors isn't nearly as robust as it is for Congress.

The Fiscal Policy Report Card on America's Governors, conducted every two years by economist Chris Edwards of the libertarian Cato Institute, is one measure to judge the state executives. Edwards is still preparing the 2012 report, which will include grades for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, so his 2010 database is the most recent available. In that report, which measures governors' tax policy record and awards a letter grade based on a bell curve, two of the potential VP choices received top marks. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty were two of just four governors to receive an A grade in the 2010 biennial report. Jindal scored second-highest in the nation with a score of 71, with Pawlenty just behind him with a score of 66.

Although Edwards' 2012 report isn't due out until September, he offered some hints as to how governors rumored to be on Romney's list of possible running mates would fare. In his preliminary research, he said, things might not look so good for McDonnell, but Christie could score high.

"He's not a staunch fiscal reformer," Edwards said of McDonnell. "He's an establishment guy. He wants to get along. He wants to be loved. And that's established in his record. Chris Christie is the exact opposite."

A Club for Growth paper on Pawlenty, published during his short-lived run for president in 2011, offered a more complex analysis of the former Minnesota governor. The Club's analysis cited instances in which Pawlenty approved tax increases in the state and concluded that his "record on regulation is deeply troubling."

"It's clear that Governor Pawlenty is, for the most part, hard to pin down on his exact ideological moorings," the Club analysis read. " [W]e struggle to identify the real Tim Pawlenty."

Comparing the numbers

See the full rankings from The Club for Growth, Heritage Action, National Journal and American Conservative Union below:

National Journal 2011 Vote Rankings

Ayotte 80.8 percent 17th most conservative in Senate
Portman 70.2 percent 35th most conservative in Senate
Rubio 83.3 percent 13th most conservative in Senate
Ryan 68.1 percent 150th most conservative in House
Thune 78.0 percent 24th most conservative in Senate

Portman—70.2 percent, with high marks on economic issues (82 percent) and mild on social issues (68 percent). He ranks as the 35th most conservative member in the chamber, just two notches above Lugar

Thune—11 places ahead of Portman as the 24th most conservative member of the Senate and a 78 percent ranking.

Ayotte—ranked even higher as the 17th most conservative and an 80.8 percent ranking

Rubio—ranked as the most conservative among the group according to National Journal, which listed him as the 13th most conservative in the Senate in 2011

Ryan—The 150th most conservative in the House, total score of 68.1 percent with 66 on economics, 57 on foreign policy and 74 on social issues.

American Conservative Union

The ACU ranked the Senate on 20 votes during the 2011 congressional session, including repeal of the health care law, a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution and a bill that increased the nation's debt limit.

Name 2011 Lifetime
Ayotte 95 percent 95 percent
Portman 75 percent 87.92 percent
Rubio 100 percent 100 percent
Ryan 80 percent 91.69 percent
Thune 75 percent 87.90 percent

Portman—75 percent with a lifetime rating of 87.92 percent.

Rubio—received 100 percent voting record from the ACU, with a 100 percent life record, but that's only because the group first started ranking him when he began his first term in 2010. (Compared to Portman, who began his career in the House in 1993—when Rubio was still a teenager.)

Ayotte—95 percent with the same lifetime rating. Like Rubio, Ayotte joined Congress in 2011.

Thune—Received a 75 percent ranking in 2011, but a 100 percent ranking in 2010. With 13 years of service, he has an 87.90 lifetime rating from the ACU.

Ryan—Paul Ryan was given an 80 percent rating in 2011, a drop of 16 points from 2010. In 13 years in the House, he's ranked by ACU in the top tier: 91.69 percent

Heritage Action Legislative Scorecard

Ayotte 75 percent
Portman 70 percent
Rubio 96 percent
Thune 74 percent

Rubio—96 percent

Rubio ranks in the top four most conservative members of the Senate, based on his actions during his first two years in the Senate. He ranks below South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, Utah Sen. Mike Lee and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, all members of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, which Rubio decided not to join when elected to the chamber. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, also a member of the caucus, ranks just below Rubio with a 94 percent ranking.

Portman—70 percent

Heritage Action dinged Portman for not co-sponsoring a number of bills the group deemed important. On his vote percentage, it rated him at 74 percent, giving him black marks for voting to raise the debt limit—on which Portman has remained consistent throughout his time in both the House and Senate.

Thune—74 percent

Ayotte—75 percent

Ayotte garnered relatively high rankings for her vote record (80 percent), but Heritage Action dropped her ranking for choosing not to co-sponsor bills the group supported.

The Senate Republican average is 73 percent.

The Club for Growth

Ayotte 98 percent 8th most conservative in Senate
Portman 80 percent 29th most conservative in Senate
Rubio 97 percent 10th most conservative in Senate
Ryan 73 percent 101st most conservative in House
Thune 89 percent 20th most conservative in Senate

Rubio—97 percent

Rubio sought the approval of the club early in his political career, looking to the network of free-market conservatives to bolster his credentials and his support when few knew of him.

Portman—ranked 29th in 2011 with an 80 percent score. That is also his lifetime average since the Club began using the scorecard.

Thune—20th in the Senate, 89 percent in 2011, 83 percent lifetime

Ayotte—ranks 8th in the Senate, 98 percent score in 2011, her first year in the chamber

Ryan—101st in the House with a 73 percent score in 2011 and an 88 percent lifetime average


Ayotte 83 percent
Portman 66 percent
Rubio 94 percent
Ryan 85 percent
Thune 77 percent

FreedomWorks, a national tea party organizing group, key-voted 40 measures in the House in 2011 and 18 bills in the Senate in 2011, including a budget plan proposed by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and the "Cut, Cap and Balance" bill. The ranking below reflects the percentage of when members voted for bills FreedomWorks supported.






Cato Fiscal Policy Report Card on America's Governors: 2010

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal

Grade: A

Took office: January 2008

Governor Jindal is a top-performing governor with regard to both his tax and his spending policies. In 2008, Jindal repealed income tax increases that were put in place in 2002, providing taxpayer savings of more than $350 million a year. Jindal has also provided modest business tax cuts and opposed efforts to reverse the income tax cuts. Like nearly all governors, however, Jindal has succumbed to the tax credit disease and supported special interest breaks for film production, music recording, and other activities. On spending, the governor has consistently proposed reductions to the state budget, with the result that proposed general fund spending is 17 percent lower in FY11 than it was his first year in office, FY08.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty

Grade: A

Took office: January 2003

In his first few years in office, Governor Pawlenty backed tax increases on corporations and cigarette consumers. However, the governor has changed course in recent years, consistently supporting tax cuts and opposing tax increases. In 2008, he vetoed a large gasoline tax increase. In 2009, he twice vetoed giant tax packages passed by the legislature, which included increases in the top personal income tax rate and increased taxes on gaso- line, beer, wine, and liquor. In 2010, he again vetoed an income tax rate increase. Pawlenty has also proposed substantial business tax cuts to make the state more competitive, and he wants the corporate tax rate reduced from 9.9 percent to 4.8 percent. Under Pawlenty, state general fund spending rose 22 percent between FY03 and FY08, which was less than the average state increase. The governor's proposed spending for FY11 is down 10 percent from the FY08 peak. Pawlenty has proposed a constitutional amendment to limit annual growth in the state's general fund spending over the long term.