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In Congress, the next election trumps all

Taylor Batten
Taylor Batten is The Observer's editorial page editor.

Is being moderate a virtue? If you’re a politician, that depends on where you sit – and what kind of reelection campaign you face. That was demonstrated by back-to-back announcements last week.

When the National Journal ranked North Carolina Democrat Kay Hagan the most moderate member of the U.S. Senate on Thursday, she trumpeted the news far and wide. “North Carolinians are more interested in commonsense solutions than in the D or the R after someone’s name …” Hagan’s campaign said in an email blast. “While others are more interested in playing partisan games, Kay is focused on finding bipartisan solutions and standing up for North Carolina families.”

Then a funny thing happened: U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, a Republican who represents the 8th District north and east of Charlotte, trumpeted his news – that National Journal named him the 12th most conservative of the 435 members of the House. “I am honored to be named one of the most conservative Members of the U.S. House …” Hudson said on his Facebook page. “I will always stand up for conservative principles” such as gun rights and low taxes.

Maybe Hagan is proud to be labeled moderate and Hudson proud to be labeled conservative because that’s what they consider themselves to be.

But their reactions clearly have as much to do with their circumstances in an election year. The rookie Hagan is one of the nation’s most vulnerable Senate incumbents. She is a Democrat closely linked to President Obama and Obamacare, facing millions of dollars in outside spending against her, and running in a decidedly purple state. A ranking of anything other than most moderate might have sealed her fate.

Hudson, on the other hand, is like almost every member of the U.S. House: comfortably ensconced in a safe seat drawn to ensure one party has little chance. Unlike Hagan, Hudson’s electoral calculations dictate that there’s nothing worse than being labeled moderate. If Hudson earned a ranking like Hagan’s, he’d face a primary challenge from the right faster than you can say gun control. He can wear his latest conservative merit badge proudly, with little fear of punishment from Democrats at the polls.

The nonpartisan National Journal uses a complicated analysis to arrive at its rankings, but essentially they are based on how members voted on issues that show ideological distinctions – 117 votes in the Senate and 111 in the House.

Everything’s relative, though. Around the same time National Journal found Hagan to be the most moderate, Congressional Quarterly said she had voted with President Obama 96 percent of the time in 2013. That’s more than liberal former Rep. Mel Watt did.

Here’s what’s revealing: Though Hagan almost never crossed Obama, only three Democratic senators did so more than she did. That illustrates the truth about Washington these days: Pretty much every elected official is blindly loyal to party. Even the most moderate senator in the nation backed her party’s president 96 percent of the time.

Do you get the feeling that what’s best for America is an afterthought to these folks? On most any issue – immigration, entitlements, health care, and on and on – the politician’s first thought seems to be: Where do my party’s leaders stand? Oh, for a Congress that focuses less on the next election and more on keeping America great for generations to come.

Reach me at tbatten@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tbatten1.

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