Is Santorum too close to big labor?

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Byron York

As the Republican presidential race heads to a crucial contest in Michigan, supporters of Mitt Romney have accused Rick Santorum of being too aligned win organized labor to win widespread support in a Republican primary.  Other than social issues, Santorum is "a member of the liberal wing of the Republican party," former Sen. Jim Talent told reporters on a conference call this week, adding that Santorum supported union-friendly bills that "intrude on employer rights."

Critics point to Santorum's Senate votes against a National Right to Work Act, in favor of Davis-Bacon wage rates, and in favor of raising the minimum wage to show that Santorum was overtly pro-union.  But in his speech to the Detroit Economic Club Thursday afternoon, Santorum had an answer ready when asked how he would handle organized labor as president.

"I've been attacked as the 'big union' Republican in this race," Santorum said.  "I went back to look at my AFL-CIO scorecard, and I had a 13 percent rating.  If that's 'big union' in the Republican party, I guess we've narrowed the field quite a bit, haven't we?"

A look at the AFL-CIO's ratings shows that Santorum is correct about his record.  The union group's website has posted ratings for senators going back to 1996, Santorum's second year in office.  And for most years his rating was indeed quite low, indicating that big labor did not particularly like the way he voted.  In some cases, Santorum's rating was lower than some conservative stalwart lawmakers, and even Jim Talent himself.

Santorum's highest rating came in 1996, when the AFL-CIO gave him a score of 21.  (In comparison, Santorum's liberal Republican colleague from Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter, earned a rating of 65.)  These are Santorum's ratings for the rest of his time in office: 1997, 19; 1998, 15; 1999, 17; 2000, 14; 2001, 14; 2002, 14; 2003, 12; 2004, 12; 2005, 11; 2006, 13.

For some comparisons, in 2004, 2005, and 2006, Sen. Talent's ratings were 16, 15, and 22 -- all higher than Santorum's.  (In 2006, Talent was in a tough, and ultimately losing, re-election battle.)  To make one more comparison, in 2005, Santorum's AFL-CIO rating of 11 was lower than Sen. Jim DeMint's rating of 14.  In 2006, Santorum's 13 rating was lower than DeMint's rating of 17.

Santorum's votes on issues like right to work are part of his record.  But so is his rating from the AFL-CIO, and it suggests that big labor did not see him as an ally.

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Byron York

Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner