WASHINGTON — Legislative report cards by special-interest groups say Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, is just as conservative as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. is liberal.
That may be news to the right wing in Utah, which this year has blasted Bennett for not being conservative enough while it has always blasted Reid as a liberal icon. Seven conservative Republicans are challenging Bennett for his seat amid such criticism.
The Deseret News decided to see how both conservative and liberal groups in Washington view Bennett on social and fiscal issues. It chose a wide spectrum of groups that score senators on a scale of 0 to 100 for their voting records. The News normalized scores so the higher they are, the more conservative the member.
On social issues, scorecards the newspaper chose came from the conservative groups National Right to Live, American Conservative Union, and U.S. Border Control, and the liberal groups American Civil Liberties Union, NARAL Pro-Choice America, Americans for Democratic Action and League of Conservation Voters. (Their scores are listed on a website for The Hill newspaper.)
Combined, the groups gave Bennett an average score of 84 out of 100 on a scale where 100 would be the most conservative possible, and 0 would be the most liberal possible.
Bennett ranked as the No. 22 most conservative in the Senate out of the 84 incumbents there who have been in office long enough to be rated by most groups.
The good news for Bennett (at least with conservatives in Utah) is that showed that most groups view him as very conservative. The bad news is that most still put him about in the middle of all Senate Republicans, so about half of his Senate GOP colleagues are even more conservative than he is.
For example, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, ranked No. 11 with an average score of 91. (The most conservative of all was Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., with a score of 98 out of 100.)
Other Republicans who had similar scores as Bennett included Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Lindsay Graham, R-Ga., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H.
Scores also reveal who is considered to be as liberal as Bennett is conservative.
Senators whose average score was 16 (which is essentially as liberal as Bennett's score of 85 is conservative) included Reid and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., both of whom have long been viewed by most as strong liberals.
Of note, Bennett received the most-conservative possible scores from NARAL, the National Right to Life and the ACLU. However, those three groups tended to give most senators either a most-conservative or most-liberal possible rating, with relatively few senators somewhere in between.
Tara DiJulio, Bennett's press secretary, said Bennett feels his scores would have been even more conservative if the Deseret News had included other groups such as the National Rifle Association (which gives letter grades instead of scoring on a 0 to 100 scale), the Family Research Council or Concerned Women of America.
"Senator Bennett is solidly pro-life, pro-marriage and pro-Second Amendment," DiJulio said.
The Deseret News also figured separate scores on fiscal issues in addition to social issues — and Bennett scored higher.
For that, the News used scores from the pro-labor AFL-CIO and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; and the pro-business groups the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Business Industry Political Action Committee, the Club for Growth and the National Federation of Independent Business.
Bennett's average score on fiscal issues was 92 — meaning he ranked No. 6 most conservative in the Senate (and among Republicans).
He received the most-conservative scores possible from four of the six groups used for that ranking: the AFSCME, BIPAC, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the NFIB. The AFL-CIO score was a 91 out of 100.
The only group that did not see him as a fiscal conservative was the Club for Growth, which has been spending big money against him, including $120,000 in the three weeks before the party caucus meetings in March. It gave him a score of 63 out of 100.
The Club for Growth has especially attacked Bennett for a health care reform bill he cosponsored for years with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., saying it would require Americans to buy health insurance, and it blames that for helping Democrats to include similar provisions in their new health care laws.
DiJulio said Bennett was not surprised at being rated as a conservative fiscally.
"As a former businessman, Sen. Bennett advocates for smaller government, lower taxes, free market principles and fewer regulations," she said.
And in a barb apparently aimed at the Club for Growth, she said Bennett's record "has been grossly mischaracterized by out-of-state" groups "trying to manipulate the elections and tell Utahns what to think."