DES MOINES — Republicans in the Iowa Senate were significantly more conservative in 2017 than previous years.
That’s according to the calculations of one national conservative group’s legislative scorecard, which was published recently.
But such a declaration would come as little surprise to anyone who followed the 2017 session of the Iowa Legislature, during which Republicans used their unfettered control of the state lawmaking agenda to pass a slew of conservative priorities, including restrictions on abortion, lawsuits and public employee collective bargaining, changes to state gun regulations and an identification requirement for voters.
Legislative scorecards are published by advocacy groups to show whether lawmakers vote with priorities declared by the groups. The groups hope these scorecards inform voters and perhaps pressure lawmakers to consider crucial votes.
But legislators and experts question whether the scorecards are effective to either of those ends.
High conservative marks
Such scorecards more commonly rate members of Congress. But the American Conservative Union Foundation also publishes an annual scorecard on state lawmakers. The group identifies conservative bills that were introduced during a session and then notes the vote of each lawmaker from all political parties.
The group’s scorecard for the 2017 session of the Iowa Legislature said all 29 Republicans in the Senate voted with the group’s priorities at least 89 percent of the time. And each of the 23 Republicans who also were in the Senate in 2016 showed a double-digit rating increase to this year.
Did Republicans in the Iowa Senate suddenly become more conservative in 2017? Or were other factors at play that influenced the scorecard’s results?
Some Senate Republicans made small jumps in the American Conservative Union Foundation’s scores from 2016 to 2017, while others made giant leaps. The scores of Sens. Mark Segebart, from Vail, and Dan Zumbach, from Ryan, each increased more than 40 percent.
Eight more GOP senators’ scores increased at least 30 percent.
It may boil down to opportunity. In 2017, Iowa Statehouse Republicans for the first time in 20 years had complete control of the state lawmaking process: majorities in the House and Senate to go along with a GOP governor.
“Given how long the Democrats held the Senate, it was not surprising that there was a buildup in the number of bills that Republicans would like to see passed,” said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. “The 2017 session was the Republicans’ first opportunity to get such legislation through, so there was a lot of it.”
Perhaps just as notable is the unity in the Senate Republican caucus. All 29 Senate Republicans were rated by the conservative group between 89 percent and 95 percent.
While the percentages varied in part because some legislators missed a few votes, the caucus’ voting was remarkably consistent: Of the 24 bills the American Conservative Union Foundation tracked, Senate Republicans voted in unison in favor of all 24. In terms of the foundation's ratings, however, the Iowa senators lost points, because the foundation wanted "no" votes on two of the bills.
“The rankings confirm the solidarity and conservativeness of the GOP in the Iowa Senate,” said Christopher Larimer, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa. “With the exception of one, all Republican Senators were in the 90th to 100th percentile. Given how far right the Legislature moved on certain tax and social issues this past session, the rankings were not particularly surprising.”
There was slightly more fluctuation in the House Republican ratings. The highest House GOP scores were in the low 90s, while the lowest Republican score was a 70 percent from Rep. Clel Baudler of Greenfield.
“There was a bit of a conservative wave this last election (2016), and I think the (Republican) House and Senate members are about where our base is,” said Jeff Kaufmann, state GOP chairman. “I think they’re where a vast majority of Iowans are.”
Even though the American Conservative Union Foundation pushes for a conservative agenda, it also graded Democrats’ votes on the same bills. And the Democrats actually had a little more disparity in their — obviously low — scores.
For example, there were Senate Democrats who scored in the low single digits; Sens. Joe Bolkcom of Iowa City and Janet Petersen of Des Moines voted with the group 4 percent of the time, on one of 24 bills. That bill was a reform of the state’s civil asset forfeiture process.
But the range of Democratic scores goes all the way to the 50 percent for Sen. Tod Bowman of Maquoketa. Bowman represents largely rural Jackson County in eastern Iowa.
Playing a role
Kaufmann, who is a former member of the Iowa House, said state legislators like to check out ratings such as the American Conservative Union Foundation’s, but he said that is motivated more by curiosity than to influence a vote on a piece of legislation.
Rick Bertrand, a Republican state senator from Sioux City, said he does not see legislative scorecards unless someone shows them to him.
Bertrand said legislators are more motivated to vote with the desires of voters in their districts than to cast a vote in order to obtain a higher rating from an issue advocacy group. As an example, he notes the vote he cast in 2015 in favor of a 10-cent increase on the state’s gas tax. At the time, the state transportation department said the tax increase was necessary to support its road repair and construction budget.
Bertrand said even though his vote in support of the gas tax increase betrayed his conservative principles, it was the right vote to cast for his district in order to help hasten the completion of a four-lane highway expansion.
“More legislators need to make decisions based on their districts, not strictly their ideology,” Bertrand said. “(With the gas tax vote) I understood the importance of Highway 20’s completion and what it meant to this side of the state. ... At the end of the day, it was a vote I had to take, and it’s a vote I’m proud of.”
Legislators also sometimes use scorecard ratings on the campaign trail. Especially if a legislator receives a challenge from within his or her party, a good rating from, for example, a conservative group can look good on a Republican candidate’s resume when making a campaign pitch to voters or prospective donors.
“I think legislators pay attention to such rankings to some extent, particularly when it comes to fundraising and touting conservative credentials in the lead up to a primary,” Larimer said. “Democrats may be even more likely to tout such rankings in their own primaries in 2018 as evidence of their rejection of the GOP agenda, particularly given how partisan the 2017 legislative session was in terms of votes and issues raised.”
Experts were more skeptical that legislative scorecards carry any weight with or influence voters.
“I think your average Iowa voter does not even know these scores exist,” said Kedron Bardwell, a political science professor at Simpson College. “These scorecards are mainly for activists and people who already get involved each year by contacting legislators on an issue or problem they care about a lot.”