This switch happened even as the Democratic party appeared to shift leftward in the presidential primaries, and also after the election of the four outspoken progressive members of “The Squad,” Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. All four scored near the bottom of the Bipartisan Index rankings for 2019. 

When the Democrats won control of the House, they flipped some 41 seats that had been held by Republicans.  Many of those new Democrats will face tough GOP opposition in the general election this fall. It stands to reason, therefore, that they would strike a more bipartisan stance to woo swing voters. And that’s just what appears to have happened.   The Democrats from flipped districts had a strongly positive BPI score of +.207, while the average for all freshman Democrats was -.022.

For instance, two newly elected Democrats from southern states, Joe Cunningham of South Carolina and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia (who won a seat once held by conservative stalwart Eric Cantor), were the fifth and sixth most bipartisan Democrats, ranking #15 and #16 overall in the House.  Five other freshman Democrats finished in the top 40: Jeff Van Drew (NJ, #20), Anthony Brindisi (NY, #22), Dean Phillips (MN, #27), Antonio Delgado (NY, #33), and Elaine Luria (VA, #39).

The House Republican score for 2019 might have looked a bit worse if it weren’t for the performance of Pennsylvania’s Brian Fitzpatrick, whose +5.385 was by far the highest score recorded by any House member in the history of the BPI.  The Republicans were hurt by the departure, through defeat or retirement, of such high scorers in the 115th Congress as Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL, ranked #1 in the 115th), Leonard Lance (NJ, #8 in the 115th), Carlos Curbelo (FL, #9), Ryan Costello (PA, #12), John Faso (NY, #13), Frank LoBiondo (NJ, #14), Tom MacArthur (NJ, #15), Mike Coffman (CO, #16), Ed Royce (CA, #17), Dave Reichert (WA, #21), Walter Jones (NC, #23, who died in office in early 2019), Ted Poe (TX, #24), Pat Meehan (PA, #25) and Charlie Dent (PA, #26). In sum, of the 21 highest scoring Republicans in the 115th Congress, 14 did not return (or only returned briefly in the case of Rep. Jones) in the 116th.

The Republicans’ score also was hurt by the fact that the nine lowest-ranking members of the House in 2019 were all Republicans. They all had lower bipartisan scores than The Squad members. 

In the Senate, although Democrats have outscored Republicans in 7 of the 13 full Congresses examined by the Bipartisan Index going back to 1993, Republican Senators have dominated the highest rankings of the Index during the first three years of the Trump era. 

As we have written before, this phenomenon is unlikely to be a coincidence. Most Republican Senators face potential threats to their re-election both from elements within their party and from their Democratic opponent.  Before the Trump era, Senators rarely experienced this type of dual vulnerability.  With their party being led by a polarizing President whose public approval percentage has usually hovered in the 40s, Republicans from competitive states have concerns about his potential impact on their general election prospects.  The Republican loss of the House in 2018 underscored the risk to individual Senate seats.  Yet verbally distancing oneself from the President or voting against one of his priorities or appointments carries extreme political risks for any Republican legislator.  Such members may be the object of angry presidential tweets, draw a primary challenger, lose election funding, or suffer other forms of political excommunication.

In this atmosphere, the details of legislative work have offered Republican Senators an avenue to express subtle independence and broaden their appeal without reference to the daily media focus on President Trump.  As long as their legislative efforts avoid contradicting Trump on the few topics receiving his close attention, such as immigration and trade, they have substantial room to engage with Democrats on bipartisan legislative approaches that might appeal to the political center.

The overall Republican performance also benefits from a few consistent performers at the top of the Index rankings.  These are members from purple states whose identity is grounded on a foundation of bipartisan work and who tout their partnerships with the other party as a fundamental concept.  Three GOP Senators have sat in the top five rankings of the Bipartisan Index for the last three years.  Chief among these is Susan Collins (R-ME), who has topped the Index for seven consecutive years with record-setting scores.  Rob Portman (R-OH) finished in second place in the 115th Congress and fourth place in 2019.  Cory Gardner (R-CO), currently facing a tough re-election battle in a state carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016, ranked 5th in the 115th and 3rd in 2019.  The recent Democrat who habitually inhabited a top-5 spot in the Index was Joe Donnelly (D-IN), but he was defeated in 2018.  These three Republican members account for about a quarter of the positive cumulative score of their whole caucus.

Although Senate Democrats trailed their Republican colleagues, the 2019 cumulative Senate Democratic score was slightly above the historical average (0.00).  That is especially significant given that seven Democrats (about 15% of the Democratic caucus) spent much of 2019 running for President.  Primary candidates are usually focused on gaining a share of their party’s base and are less likely to entertain bipartisan legislative approaches that might not excite those voters.  So the effect of a presidential primary on one side of the aisle generally is to weaken that party’s overall score.

The good news, in both the House and the Senate, is that rank and file members are still working with the other party, especially at the early stages of legislation, regardless of the partisan machinations occurring at the leadership level or between the President and Congress.  The political atmosphere remains intensely partisan on high profile votes and anything related to the Trump presidency.  Despite that, or perhaps because of it, many individual members of Congress are keeping an undercurrent of bipartisanship alive in their own legislative work.