Congressional scorecards lose punch in Trump’s GOP


Rep. Liz Cheney wasn’t the only one bruised in the House Republicans’ recent leadership dustup. Congressional scorecards also took a beating.

The voting scorecards that conservative groups have used for decades to keep GOP lawmakers in line proved of little utility in assessing the political standing of Rep. Elise Stefanik. Her voting record, which was at best tepid by conservative standards, couldn’t stop her promotion to the No. 3 leadership spot when measured against the backing of former President Donald Trump.

Another major test for conservative activists’ ability to play kingmaker in GOP politics will come in next year’s midterm elections.

Conservative activist groups once wielded the power to make or break legislation and political careers by announcing a vote would be part of their scorecard or by circulating a political pledge to prove ideological loyalty.

Those instruments lost steam in national politics during the 2016 Republican presidential primary when Mr. Trump refused to pledge support to the eventual nominee and voiced skepticism of advocacy groups.

In 2021, Mr. Trump’s blessing still trumps scorecards — at least in internal party politics.

The Club for Growth, however, is intent on maintaining its hold on the direction of the Republican agenda toward fewer regulations and taxpayer spending, lower taxes and smaller government. In the 2020 election, the Club grew from a group servicing the Tea Party insurgency into one willing to work with Republican leadership that the influential Koch network had increasingly distanced itself from.

The elevation of Ms. Stefanik, who voted against the 2017 tax cuts, was a battle lost by the Club. It is now evaluating primary challengers to Republican incumbents who it believes need to be replaced.

Ms. Cheney, Rep. Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio and Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — who all voted to impeach Mr. Trump — now are in the Club’s crosshairs, said Club for Growth PAC President David McIntosh.

He insisted the scorecard would include more than the one impeachment vote.

“How did they vote on the issues, what’s their scorecard if a challenger comes in who’s more conservative, or in an open seat we’re going to look for people who would score well on the scorecard once they get here. Basically, improve the quality of the Republican conference so you get real Republicans,” said Mr. McIntosh.

He is looking to make his group’s pitch to Ms. Stefanik but ultimately wants candidates that campaign between the two poles of Ms. Cheney and Ms. Stefanik: Republicans who appeal to Mr. Trump’s supporters while supporting a traditional conservative policy agenda. In its new scoring unveiled earlier this week, the Club showed that the grade of the average House Republican dipped 10% in one year to 69%, driven mostly by votes taken to increase government spending in response to the pandemic.

Some hand-wringing about congressional scorecards is the result of a misinterpretation of how conservative groups’ scores should be understood, according to American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp.

ACU has graded members of Congress since 1971 and Mr. Schlapp said the disparity in House Republican leadership was attributable to Ms. Cheney representing an “overwhelmingly conservative” district while Ms. Stefanik hails from a “marginal district.”

“One of the problems with rating systems is it is not just the conservatism in their rating, it also matters how solid their district is back home,” Mr. Schlapp said.

“It’s not as easy as just the scorecard,” he added.

Others, including the conservative grassroots activist group Heritage Action, view scorecards as an educational tool rather than a political one.

Garrett Bess, Heritage Action’s vice president of government relations and communications, said his group does not necessarily generate political activity surrounding the scorecard. Instead, it uses the scorecard to get information to its activists about what the organization cares about and a way to show lawmakers what they want.

“It is a tool of education [and] Ms. Stefanik, just like every other member, knows what our position is on a bill before it goes on a scorecard,” said Mr. Bess. “We’re not trying to blindside members, we don’t play ‘gotcha’ with members.”

Heritage Action launched its first-ever state advocacy campaign earlier this year and is considering expanding its federal scoring system into state politics.

Seth McLaughlin contributed to this story.

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