Rick Santorum is regarded by many of his supporters as the “real” conservative in the GOP presidential race, and most Democrats pay him the unintended compliment of considering him an arch-conservative. Undoubtedly, Santorum is a conservative of a certain type, but how far to the right was his voting record during the three terms he spent in the United States Senate?
To answer this question, I went to the American Conservative Union’s ratings archive for 2006, Santorum’s last year as a senator, and looked up the lifetime ratings of those who were in the Senate at that time. One could debate voting records endlessly, but most observers consider the ACU’s ratings to be a reliable and objective index of where a senator or congressman fits on the political spectrum.
In 2006, there were 50 Republican senators. (Jumping Jim Jeffords switched parties somewhere in that time frame; I counted him as a Democrat. The ladies from Maine, of course, counted as Republicans.) Santorum’s lifetime ACU rating as of 2006 was 88.1. That is a pretty good rating, but Santorum was not one of the most conservative senators. On the contrary: while 20 Republicans had voting records that the ACU rated as more liberal than Santorum’s, 26 had voting records that were more conservative. Four Republican senators had ratings with one percent of Santorum’s, which I regarded as equivalent.
Thus, by this measure, Santorum was actually in the more moderate half of Republican senators during his years in that body. Bob Dole [UPDATE: As a reader points out, Bob was gone by then; this was Elizabeth] had a more conservative lifetime voting record; so did Trent Lott, John Sununu, Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham, and Orrin Hatch, who is now facing a Tea Party challenge in Utah. Bill Frist, not generally known as a fire-eater, had a record almost exactly as conservative as Santorum’s, at 87.8.
The explanation for these numbers is evident: while Santorum was a reliably conservative senator on social issues, he was not very conservative, for a Republican, on economic and fiscal issues. All of the four remaining contenders in the GOP presidential field are conservatives, but they are conservatives of different stripes. It is not accurate to describe Santorum as the most conservative of the four, or as the only “real” conservative in the group.