What Do Voters Want? Legislators or Ideological Voting Machines?

February 23, 2010 · 8:00 AM EST

What do voters want — Members of Congress who approach every issue as if it were an ideological litmus test that reflects the ultimate battle of good versus evil, or Members with the experiences and character to bring less rigid perspectives and problem-solving skills to almost any issue?

Former Rep. J.D. Hayworth’s primary challenge to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is an obvious test case, much as Ned Lamont’s challenge to Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID) was in 2006.

Hayworth is running an issue-oriented, purely ideological challenge to McCain, arguing that the four-term Republican Senator’s voting record is wrong on taxes, bailouts, amnesty for illegal aliens, the federal marriage amendment, cap-and-trade, campaign finance and terrorism.

On his Web site, Hayworth, who is described as “the consistent conservative,” says that he would have voted differently than McCain on all these high-profile issues, as well as on the confirmation of Eric Holder as attorney general.

McCain, of course, calls himself a conservative and has a case to make.

McCain’s CQ Party Unity score for 2009 was 96 percent, the same score as Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas). Even Hayworth isn’t likely to dismiss Cornyn and Sessions as moderates.

Admittedly, many votes are relatively noncontroversial, party-line votes, so a high party unity score doesn’t mean that a Member might not have defected from the party’s orthodoxy on a number of high-profile issues. And McCain’s party unity scores have been much lower: 93 percent in 2008, 76 percent in 2006, 86 percent in 2003 and 67 percent in 2001, for example.

But the Arizona Republican has the support of conservative darling Sarah Palin, and newly elected Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who has come to symbolize to many both the energy of the “tea party” movement and opposition to President Barack Obama, is traveling to Arizona on McCain’s behalf.

Even more important, McCain has spent years establishing a reputation for fiscal responsibility, particularly in his opposition to pork-barrel spending and the deficit. McCain voted in 2003 against final passage of the now-unpopular bill creating a new prescription drug benefit, calling it fiscally irresponsible. Hayworth supported passage of that legislation.

McCain’s record on spending is sure to resonate with Republican voters in Arizona. And this year, fiscal restraint will be a huge issue with GOP primary voters.

Of course, it’s also true that McCain is not as conservative as Hayworth.

McCain’s association with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) on campaign finance and with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) on immigration reform sends some conservatives into a frenzy, as has his vocal opposition to “enhanced” interrogation techniques.

Hayworth’s 2004 scores (to pick a year when both Republicans were in Congress) from the AFL-CIO and the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, for example, were much lower than McCain’s, and Hayworth’s ratings that year from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Conservative Union were much higher than McCain’s.

Issues are, of course, extremely important to voters. And most people would say that it’s far better that people judge candidates on their positions on issues rather than their looks or their TV ads.

But don’t many voters want Members of Congress to bring something more to their job than merely a list of issue positions? In fact, to many voters, the person matters.

Hayworth’s Web site describes him as “a radio and television personality, business management consultant, and public policy advocate” who served in Congress. It notes that he attended North Carolina State University on a football scholarship.

McCain, on the other hand, graduated from the U. S. Naval Academy and became a Navy aviator. He was taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese in 1967 and was tortured while being held in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton.”

McCain was elected to Congress in 1982. Four years later, he was elected to the Senate, eventually chairing the Senate Commerce Committee.

Hayworth is a “personality.” McCain is a war hero and one-time Republican nominee for president.

Hayworth’s Web site notes that he is an Eagle Scout. McCain’s notes that he has been awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Legion of Merit, Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

The comparison is pretty clear.

The question for Arizona Republicans, then, is whether McCain is conservative enough for them.

If they want an utterly predictable conservative, they’ll vote for Hayworth. If they want someone who is generally conservative but can be quirkily independent and thoughtful, who has had a full life and a broad range of international and domestic interests, and who understands that the legislative process takes some give and take, they will stick with McCain.