For whatever ratings are worth from “conservative” organizations – and they’re not worth a lot, except to provide a snapshot of legislative action -- I must give props to the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s Wayne Hoffman.
There were some howls of protest from the Statehouse earlier this year when Hoffman issued his “Freedom Index” rating that gave 51 lawmakers (almost half the Legislature) failing grades on his conservative scale. Some legislators pointed out that in 2015, the American Conservative Union listed Idaho as one of the most conservative states in the country. Rep. Luke Malek of Coeur d’Alene, one of Hoffman’s favorite targets for attack, had a 91 percent rating by the ACU and was just a single percentage off from being Idaho’s most conservative House member.
The ACU’s recently released rankings for 2016 were not so flattering for the Gem State’s politicos – giving substance to Hoffman’s claim that the Legislature is not as conservative as people think. The ACU gave 42 legislators marks at 60 percent or below, which isn’t far off Hoffman’s scorecard. Overall, the House and Senate scored in the low 60s and Republicans were in the low 70s.
Those numbers will hardly create excitement with the tea party crowd. The Indiana House, by contrast, had a 75 percent overall conservative rating and Republicans in that chamber averaged 88 percent.
So, take a victory lap, Wayne. “Just because you’re a Republican doesn’t mean you’re a conservative. We’ve been saying that for a few years now, and it’s starting to get through to people.”
Hoffman grades on hundreds of bills that apply in some fashion to free-market issues. The ACU selected 15 issues for the Senate and 16 for the House. As the ACU describes, “this wide range of issues are designed to give citizens an accurate assessment that conveys which of Idaho’s elected leaders best defend the principles of a free society: Life, Liberty and Property.”
Issues change every year on the ACU scorecard, and so do the rating numbers. Social issues, where Republicans typically vote a party line, can inflate numbers in any year. “In 2015, legislators voted on social issues, guns, abortion and capital gains taxes,” said Ian Walters, an ACU spokesman.
What do these rankings mean in the real world? Not much in most places. Legislators with lofty conservative ranking might slide those high numbers in their campaign brochures, and Democrats will ignore the scorecards because they rank toward the bottom of any conservative scale. But ratings and rankings do provide some buzz in the legislative arena – especially when Wayne Hoffman’s name is part of the conversation.
“What Wayne thinks matters not at all to me,” says Sen. Shawn Keough of Sandpoint, who co-chairs the Legislature’s budget committee. “Why does Wayne get all the attention? Do we feed him and his organization by giving him that attention? What if we ignored him? On some scorecards I am perfect, others not so much, and on many I’m in-between – good and bad, subjective of course to those who are doing the grading.”
On the American Conservative Union scale, Keough gets a 53 percent rating – which is in line with Hoffman’s F- for the Sandpoint Republican. Last year, Keough was at 83 percent with the ACU. So according to the rankings, she’s somewhere between being RINO (Republican in name only), or tea party conservative.
“The ultimate scorecard comes at election time, and that is what matters,” says Keough.
Malek, who never walks away from a fight with the Idaho Freedom Foundation, may be more conservative than Hoffman thinks. He graded at 71 percent this year, 20 points below last year, but he’s still on the conservative side. This year’s mark puts Malek just behind House Majority Leader Mike Moyle of Star and Rep. Judy Boyle of Midvale, and a pinch above Reps. Tom Loertscher of Iona and Lynn Luker of Boise. No one – except maybe Hoffman – can seriously contest the conservative credentials of those four.
“I don’t take what Wayne Hoffman says into account because I don’t view him as a credible source as I am making decisions about policy,” Malek says.
But the American Conservative Union lends some credibility to Hoffman’s “freedom” scorecard, which is more important to him than winning popularity contests at the Statehouse.
Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly and an editorial writer with the Idaho Press-Tribune.