Sen. Mark R. Warner touts his bipartisan approach as the key reason he deserves a second term, and his Senate record confirms he regularly works with members across the aisle on his legislative priorities.
But when it comes time to vote, the record also shows Mr. Warner has been a reliable foot soldier for President Obama’s agenda.
The Virginia Democrat earned a perfect 117 for 117 voting record on the Senate floor to back Mr. Obama when the president took stances on legislation this year, according to reports.
That is a contrast with Mr. Warner’s pitch to voters, which centers on the bills he writes and sponsors — an area in which he has worked more with Republicans than all but six of his fellow Senate Democrats.
Mr. Warner began building his bipartisan record with his 2001 election as governor, after which he ended up in the middle of a bruising fight over taxes and spending.
As governor, he cut a middle ground between Republican factions in the legislature, cajoling enough Republicans to his cause in 2004 to pass a tax increase of $1.4 billion — more than conservatives in the party wanted but less than moderates proposed.
The money went to plug a massive budget gap and invest in items such as education and public safety, and it shored up a reputation for collaboration that followed him to the Senate and made him one of Virginia’s most popular politicians.
“I think Warner is so well-known in Virginia and [among] average Virginians that they distinguish between political rhetoric and a guy working up there in a fairly bipartisan way,” said L. Preston Bryant Jr., a Republican who served in the state House of Delegates from 1996 to 2006 and voted for Mr. Warner’s budget deal. “That is his brand, you know?”
In Washington, Mr. Warner has worked to enhance the image. He served on the bipartisan Gang of Six deficit committee, embraced limits to entitlement programs and made a point of seeking out Republicans to co-sponsor his legislation.
GovTrack.us ranked Mr. Warner No. 7 among Senate Democrats in eagerness to collaborate on bipartisan bills. Of the 98 bills Mr. Warner co-sponsored last year, 28 percent were introduced by someone other than a Democrat.
But many of those bills never reach the floor, where Democratic leaders, like their Republican counterparts in the House, have filled the schedule with partisan legislation. On those bills, Democrats count on Mr. Warner’s support.
Lockstep with Obama
A CQ Weekly reporter, compiling Democratic Senate voting records, noted this week that Mr. Warner cast votes consistent with Mr. Obama’s stances on bills 100 percent of the time he voted this year.
Overall, Mr. Warner has sided with the president 97 percent of the time since he entered the Senate in 2009, according to CQ Weekly’s rankings. The average for Senate Democrats is 95.4 percent.
It also has prompted Republicans to cry foul.
“He’s gotten away with being liked by both sides in Richmond and he likes to tout his bipartisan work, but he’s really been a pack mule for Obama and the Democrats,” Republican Party strategist Ford O’Connell said.
Attacks tying Democrats to Mr. Obama have been helping Republicans in a number of Senate races this year. Democratic incumbents regularly struggle with their level of voting support for the president’s agenda, and they have shied away from questions about Mr. Obama on the campaign trail.
Virginia’s Republican Senate nominee, Ed Gillespie, has tried the same attacks against Mr. Warner. Paul Logan, a spokesman for Mr. Gillespie, said Mr. Warner “isn’t the independent voice so many Virginians hoped he would be.”
The message hasn’t resonated much in the state, though, and Mr. Warner’s campaign said it’s because the numbers belie the attack.
The political spectrum
National Journal, which ranks lawmakers’ votes, rated Mr. Warner the 46th most liberal member of the Senate in 2013 — a measure Mr. Warner’s campaign said proves he is part of the Senate’s “sensible center.”
“Sen. Warner has a long record of reaching across the aisle to find bipartisan, common-sense solutions for Virginia,” campaign spokesman David Turner said. “As governor, he balanced the budget with a 2-1 Republican legislature, and in the Senate every major piece of legislation he has introduced has had a Republican co-sponsor.”
CQ Weekly based its rankings on a fraction of the roll call votes for the year. Most of them were on presidential nominations, perhaps painting an incomplete picture of Mr. Warner’s overall record.
Another vote tabulator, the Sunlight Foundation’s OpenCongress.org, said Mr. Warner votes with his party 92 percent of the time — which, compared with an average of 95 percent, puts him on the conservative end of Democrat rankings.
Among the areas where Mr. Warner has broken with most fellow Democrats is gun rights. He voted against a ban on military-style, semi-automatic rifles in April 2013. In 2009, he supported Republican-sponsored bills to allow visitors to carry loaded firearms in national parks.
Mr. Warner also opposed extending a $2 billion lifeline to the “cash for clunkers” stimulus program in August 2009 because of its cost.
Working with Republicans
The senator’s efforts to work with his Republican colleagues sometimes have fallen short of his intentions, though, demonstrating that bipartisanship can be easier on the front end of legislating than on the back end.
In April 2011, the Democrat teamed up with Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican and the Senate’s chief waste-watcher, on a nonbinding vote calling for the government to find $5 billion in savings from duplicative government programs. That measure garnered 64 votes.
But five months later, when Mr. Coburn offered an amendment to cut $7 billion in duplicative spending and use the money to offset emergency disaster relief, Mr. Warner and 10 other Democrats switched sides.
Mr. Warner’s office said Mr. Coburn’s amendment was political, and they balked at seeking the additional $2 billion in savings.
“He’s in a dysfunctional body. Has he tried to bring some semblance of order to the U.S. Senate? Hell yeah,” said Democratic strategist Dave “Mudcat” Saunders. “The record shows that. He’s trying to build bipartisan coalitions for the common good.”