GOP senators tread road less taken to the White House

Running for president as a sitting U.S. Senator has been a winning strategy only twice since 1960, but three members of Thursday’s prime time field seek to change that: Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL). Sharing the stage with a crowded field of 10, the three Senators will seek to distinguish themselves—likely by emphasizing their personal, individualized efforts on key issues important to prospective primary voters, rather than their reliably conservative voting records in the chamber.

Why shouldn’t we expect much discussion of the three’s voting records? Because they are remarkably similar. Consider the 109 “party unity” votes taken in the Senate since January for which all three were present. (Party unity votes are those on which a majority of Republicans vote one way while a majority of Democrats vote the other, and research suggests that these salient votes can have electoral consequences.) On 78 percent of them, all three voted identically. Taken in pairs, the similarities remain: Rubio and Paul voted together on 80 percent of these votes, Paul and Cruz did so 86 percent of the time, and Cruz and Rubio shared the same position on 90 percent. There have been key exceptions—Rubio supported, and Cruz and Paul opposed, the measure granting fast-track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership—but on the whole, their voting records won’t do much to help voters tell the three Senators apart.

Given these similarities, the three might be well-served to turn elsewhere to establish their credentials. Indeed, over the past several months, we have seen all three join their Senate colleagues in exploiting their procedural rights to achieve political goals—such as bolstering their presidential aspirations. Here are a few examples:

Rubio on Israel & Iran

In April, during the debate over the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, Rubio joined Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) in leveraging an open amendment process to jump the amendment line with a proposal that would have required Iran to recognize Israel for a deal to take effect. The maneuver left Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with two options. Allow a vote on the amendment, which would have jeopardized the bill’s overall chances, or cut off debate and forgo the consideration of the 60-plus amendments sought by other Republicans to improve the bill and/or score their own political points. McConnell chose the latter strategy, but not before Rubio generated evidence for his strong pro-Israel credentials.

Cruz & the Roads to Tehran

Not to be outdone, Cruz recently offered a similar amendment using an even more extreme procedural maneuver. Under Senate precedents, only two degrees of amendments are permitted—that is, an amendment to a bill, and an amendment to that amendment. During debate on the highway bill, however, Cruz tried to offer a similar proposal to Rubio’s as a third degree amendment. He failed (he was ruled out of order, and too few senators were willing to second his motion to vote on appealing the ruling) but not before aligning himself, in a public and high-stakes way, with a foreign policy position popular with Republican primary voters.

Rand Paul, Freedom Defender

Paul, meanwhile, has deployed several procedural tactics of his own in an effort to highlight one of his signature issues: surveillance policy. In late May, Paul spent nearly
11 hours
obstructing business in the Senate with a marathon speech focused on PATRIOT Act reauthorization. A week later, Paul helped ensure the programs in question would formally expire—albeit temporarily—by dragging out consideration of the measure; notably, he insisted that the
Senate wait the full time
prescribed in the chamber’s rules (two calendar days, plus one hour) before voting on the motion to end debate.

The three Senators’ efforts to leverage their role in the chamber certainly go beyond procedural maneuvering—and we may well see other examples cited on Thursday. Cruz, for instance, recently championed an amendment to the No Child Left Behind reauthorization allowing states to opt out of federal testing requirements—a cause very popular among conservatives.

But regardless of which specific issues—Iran, the NSA, education, or others—get brought up during the debate, Rubio, Cruz, and Paul have all established a record of using the Senate’s rules to score political points on issues important to key voters. Expect each one to bring up these efforts as they seek to differentiate themselves from each other and the field in the debate and beyond. Governors, after all, don’t get the chance to spend 11 hours on C-SPAN touting their policy credentials.