JACKSON -- If you doubt Chris McDaniel's conservative credentials, the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation can back them up.
McDaniel, according to an analysis that compares his votes to those of others in the Mississippi's Senate, is the third-most conservative of the 52-member chamber. To the Ellisville Republican's right, by a slight measure, are only Republican Sens. Michael Watson of Pascagoula and Angela Hill of Picayune. They and McDaniel are members of the state Senate's Conservative Coalition, which sometimes opposes legislation pushed by other Republicans as not sufficiently conservative.
McDaniel, of course, has made his conservative purity the centerpiece of his primary challenge against U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran.
His relative position is just one aspect of the Sunlight Foundation's analysis, a take on Mississippi's 174 lawmakers, how they've voted and how successful they've been in getting bills passed three years into the current four-year term. Thom Neale, who plotted the data for the nonprofit said the analysis doesn't look at liberal and conservative, but just which lawmakers vote like others.
Separate research from two professors, Boris Shor and Nolan McCarty, has shown that partisan polarization has grown in Mississippi. From 1996 to 2013, Mississippi had the ninth-least polarized legislature because Democrats were almost as conservative as Republicans. But the typical Democrat has become more liberal as conservative Democrats have lost seats or switched to the GOP.
Not all bridges burned
There are still some bridges in Mississippi. The Sunlight data show the Senate Republican closest to Democrats is Nickey Browning of Pontotoc, who was himself a Democrat until 2013. In the House, the left-most Republican is Trey Lamar of Senatobia.
Senatobia also boasts the most conservative Senate Democrat -- Steve Hale. The most conservative House Democrat is Bennett Malone of Carthage. Malone scuffled with fellow Democrat Bob Evans after Malone was among representatives who shifted their votes in 2012 to pass a bill limiting workers compensation. Evans measures as the House's fourth most-liberal Democrat.
Each end of the House spectrum is occupied by outliers who vote far to one extreme. On the Democratic end, it's Omeria Scott of Laurel, who at times has voted against popular bills to make political points. Opposite her are Republicans Steve Horne of Meridian and William Shirley of Quitman. They often oppose bills that other House members favor because of their opposition to borrowing and taxes.
The data show Senate Republican leaders are grouped together and are less conservative than most Conservative Coalition members. House leadership is more spread out. Some key House GOP members are on the right wing, like Rules Committee Chairman Mark Formby of Picayune.
The analysis also examines how often members get bills passed. Not surprisingly, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville and Senate counterpart Eugene "Buck" Clarke, R-Hollandale, are the most successful. They sponsor dozens of budget bills each year.
The most successful Republican who doesn't chair a committee is Rep. Toby Barker of Hattiesburg, known for thorough preparation. The most successful Democrat is freshman Tom Miles of Forest, who lobbies hard for his proposals. The second-most successful Senate Republican behind Clarke is Terry Burton of Newton, while the most successful Democrat is David Blount of Jackson.
Neale acknowledges the measure of success has limits. "All bills are not equal and a lawmaker might spend all session toiling on a big bill that affects everyone," he said, while another might pass many bills doing minor things.
For example, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, didn't pass a single bill, but he's clearly more influential than other lawmakers with that profile.