Senator Mark Udall has played golf with the president. He has also been a critic. 

Lies, Damn Lies and Incumbents

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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Why has the incumbent senator voted with the unpopular president "98 percent of the time?" an outraged challenger asks.

In 2006, the charge was leveled at a Republican, Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and the unpopular president was George W. Bush. The Democratic challenger, Bob Casey, won the seat.

This year, the refrain is being trotted out against Democratic senators in competitive races. In Virginia, the ads for the Republican challenger, Ed Gillespie, lambaste Democratic Senator Mark Warner for backing President Barack Obama 98 percent of the time. In North Carolina, the incumbent Democratic senator, Kay Hagan, is accused by her opponent, Thom Tillis, of backing the president 95 percent of the time. Crossroads GPS, the outside big money group run by strategist Karl Rove, says its 96 percent.

Regardless, these claims are as bogus today as they were when Democrats resorted to them eight years ago. The percentages are based on a Congressional Quarterly vote analysis. In 2013, CQ used 108 Senate votes, but more than 65 percent of those were nomination votes, in many cases routine events.

For example, Colorado Senator Mark Udall is accused of backing the president 99 percent of the time, even though he has been a tough critic of the administration on national security and secrecy issues. By comparison, Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas seems like a steadfast Obama foe. Pryor's Republican opponent, Tom Cotton, says the Democrat has backed the president on 90 percent of votes. Never mind that Pryor has voted against the president more often than any other Democratic senator in the past few years.

For that matter, it's safe to assume that Bush wouldn't have considered Santorum one of his reliable allies.

A similar kind of misdirection is at work against Democrats this year. Warner has a reputation as an independent-minded moderate Democrat, and the southerners accused of being in lockstep with Obama -- Hagan, Pryor or Mary Landrieu of Louisiana -- have been among the first to bolt when the president has taken a controversial position. But as in 2006, the insurgent party wants to make the midterm elections a national referendum on an unpopular president. Tossing out statistics, no matter how dubious, still seems to do the job.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Albert R Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net