Conservatism in the Democratic Party

March 10, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

Last week’s vote in the Senate, which failed to confirm Debo P. Adegbile to be an Assistant Attorney General, was the first such failure post-nuclear option.  The motion for cloture did not even receive a simple majority with seven Democratic senators (not counting Harry Reid who voted no for procedural reasons) voting against it.  It would appear as if the conservative media killed the vote with a full court press against Mr. Adegbile for performing pro bono work for a convicted police murderer in the past thus making the vote highly politicized.

When digging deeper into the Democrats who voted “No,” it is interesting to point out that only two are up for reelection this term:  Mark Pryor of Arkansas and John Walsh of Montana (Walsh was appointed to take Senator Max Baucus’s seat in February of 2014 after Baucus became the US Ambassador to China.)  Pryor represents a conservative region of the country and given the profile of his upcoming Senate race, it is not surprising he voted “No.”  In fact, other Democratic senators have begun to distance themselves from the Obama administration and Obamacare in the hopes of winning over conservative voters.  Some such lawmakers include Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.  However, both Senators Hagan and Landrieu voted for the Adegbile nomination.

Another Democrat who voted in the negative is Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.  Voted into office in 2013, she made noise as one of three Democratic senators to vote against universal background checks last year.  North Dakota is also a very conservative state and Heitkamp was likely trying to appease those who just recently elected her.  On the issue of guns, North Dakota is extremely conservative with a provision found in Article 1 Section 1 of their constitution, which states, “All individuals are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inalienable rights, among which are those…to keep and bear arms for the defense of their person.”  In fact, North Dakota was given a grade of “F” by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.  Even more startling is that North Carolina, Montana, and Louisiana all received “F’s” with Louisiana and Montana being in the top ten percent of yearly gun deaths yet Hagan and Landrieu voted in favor of universal background checks.

In Gallup’s 2012 poll of most conservative states, Alabama ranked number one, with North Dakota tied for second and Louisiana in eighth place.  However, Alabama was the only state of the three to remain on Gallup’s 2013 list of most conservative states coming in tenth, while Montana cracked the list at number six.  It is not easy being a Democratic member of Congress in a severely conservative state.  This may point to why senators such as Heitkamp who broke with Democrats last week and last year.  Heitkamp typically does not break with the Democratic caucus with last week being the first time in 2014.

As POLITICO reported, last week’s vote may have been closer, but as the report paraphrased Majority Leader Harry Reid as saying, “some senators saw the writing on the wall and declined to take the tough vote in favor of the high-profile nominee.”  Other senators such as Joe Manchin (D-WV) voted with their district.

Pryor has done the best job of the vulnerable Democrats thus far to distance himself and vote on the conservative side.  Pryor, along with Heitkamp, have voted across the board for gun rights – not surprising given their constituency – yet Hagan and Landrieu have not been as conservative on guns.  Pryor is also a devout Evangelical Christian, the very vocal constituency on religious rights.  Pryor voted in favor of an amendment offered by Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that would have struck an “appropriate balance between protecting workers and protecting religious freedom,” along with one other Democrat.  Pryor also voted in favor of building a fence on the boarder of Mexico, again with just one other Democrat.

With high profile elections coming up, vulnerable Democrats are doing their best to appeal to conservative voters.  The stakes are extremely high with Republicans within reach of capturing a Senate majority.  Battle lines were drawn last week however and with the election on the horizon, members established where they stand.  Heitkamp, who will not face reelection for another four years, has established herself as a conservative Democrat with no ulterior motive.  Conservatives made a hard and successful push to block Debo Adegbile’s nomination.

Such a major conservative push would have been a perfect opportunity to appeal to conservative voters for members such as Hagan and Landrieu but clearly, they decided to vote against media hype, and with their hearts.  While members’ roles in Congress are to represent their constituency, they also are elected as the most qualified member to represent such a constituency, which sometimes means voting for what is right, even if it is contrary to the wishes of their constituents.