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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Pryor’s Prior Partisan Votes

Tom Cotton accuses Sen. Mark Pryor of “toeing the line” for President Obama and the Democratic Party, claiming Pryor voted with them 90 percent of the time. But the party unity figure is wrong (it’s actually 80 percent), and the presidential support figure, although accurate, shows Pryor voted against Obama more than any other Senate Democrat.

Cotton goes on to say in the ad that he’ll “stand up to President Obama and my own party when I have to.” We cannot predict the future, but when it came to toeing the party line in the House, Cotton’s voting was actually more reliably Republican than Pryor’s was reliably Democratic. According to CQ Weekly, Cotton voted in accordance with his party 97 percent of the time last year.

With polls showing the two Arkansas candidates locked in a tight battle that could help decide which party controls the Senate, Cotton and his allies are trying to tie Pryor to Obama, whose approval ratings are very low in the state. American Crossroads also recently cited the 90 percent figure in an ad in which a student at a spelling bee is asked to spell Pryor and responds, “O-B-A-M-A.” “Close enough,” the judges say.

In the Cotton campaign ad, Cotton says Washington culture dictates senators do “exactly what their political party wants, even when it’s wrong.” As an example, Cotton cites Pryor’s support for the Affordable Care Act, which passed entirely along party lines.

Cotton: They call it toeing the line. In Washington, that’s how they do business. Senators are expected to do exactly what their political party wants, even when it’s wrong. That’s what Sen. Pryor did on Obamacare. And it passed by just one vote, his vote. Sen. Pryor votes with his party and Obama 90 percent of the time. I’m Tom Cotton. I approve this message. I’ll stand up to President Obama, and my own party when I have to. That’s the only way to make things right.

The ad cites a Feb. 3 CQ Weekly article for the claim that Pryor “votes with his party and Obama 90 percent of the time.” Voting with the party and voting with Obama are actually two separate statistics kept by CQ Weekly.

We’ll start with Pryor’s votes with Obama. CQ analyzes senators’ share of roll call votes on which Obama took a clear position. CQ found Pryor opposed Obama’s position 10.3 percent of the time last year. In other words, the 90 percent figure is accurate with regard to Pryor’s votes with the president. But whether one considers that “toeing the line” is a matter of opinion.

The article cited in the ad notes that among Senate Democrats up for reelection in the fall, Pryor “broke with the president most often, opposing him in 10 percent of all 2013 votes where the administration stated a preferred outcome.” In fact, the data show that Pryor voted against Obama’s wishes more than any other Senate Democrat.

Pryor’s 90 percent support is the lowest it has been since Obama has been president. In 2012, Pryor voted with Obama 91 percent of the time; 95 percent in 2011; 92 percent in 2010; and 95 percent in 2009.

Last year, Pryor opposed the president on gun regulations, immigration issues, loosening restrictions of transfers from Gitmo and one judicial nominee.

  • In April 2013, Pryor opposed several gun control measures pushed by Obama in the wake of the Newtown school shooting: amendments to beef up background checks; to ban assault weapons; and to ban large capacity ammunition feeding devices. All three measures were rejected.
  • In June, Pryor voted for an amendment to the comprehensive immigration plan that would have required the completion of hundreds of miles of reinforced, double-layered fencing as a prerequisite for provisional and ultimately permanent legal status for immigrants in the country illegally. It failed 39-54. Pryor also voted for an amendment proposed by Republican Sen. David Vitter that would have required the implementation of a biometric border check-in and check-out system before anyone could be granted temporary legal status. It failed 36-58.
  • In November, Pryor voted against provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act that would “loosen restrictions on transferring detainees out of Guantanamo Bay, and help Obama toward his goal of closing the facility.”
  • In December, Pryor became one of just five Democrats to oppose one of Obama’s judicial nominees when he joined Republicans and two other Senate Democrats in opposing the confirmation of Cornelia “Nina” Pillard to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Republicans raised concerns about Pillard’s views on abortion rights and the Constitution.

That’s Pryor’s record on voting with the president. As we noted earlier, CQ Weekly also calculates a “party unity” score. To arrive at that, CQ analyzes votes in the House or Senate that split the parties — where a majority of Democrats opposed a majority of Republicans. CQ found that Pryor bucked the party unity votes nearly 20 percent of the time last year, second among Senate Democrats only to Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

As for Cotton, who serves in the House, his party unity score last year had him voting 97 percent with his party and 3 percent against. In other words, Cotton voted much more reliably in line with his party than Pryor did in line with his.

Voters can make of that what they will, but in an ad that knocks Pryor for toeing the party line, it should be noted that Pryor bucked the president more than any other Senate Democrat last year; that he bucked his party more than any other Senate Democrat save for one; and that Cotton voted along with his own party much more faithfully last year than Pryor did.

— Robert Farley and Carolyn Fante