Moderate GOP lawmakers exist in name only, study finds

Ben Giles//October 20, 2017//

Moderate GOP lawmakers exist in name only, study finds

Ben Giles//October 20, 2017//

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The following story is the third of five to be published over two weeks based on voting data the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting pulled for the 2017 legislative session. The nonprofit group analyzed the number of floor votes that each lawmaker cast the same as every other lawmaker. The result is a first of its kind look at voting patterns between Arizona legislators, revealing alike votes and disparities – some known anecdotally, others not seen before – between lawmakers, at times regardless of party affiliation. Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting set a minimum threshold of 230 alike votes in the House of Representatives and 435 alike votes in the state Senate to gauge how often lawmakers vote alike with one another.

The threshold could be expanded or shrunk, but think of the analysis like a microscope: zooming in too close, or not far enough, won’t reveal anything of interest. Finding the right magnification, or in this case, the right threshold of alike votes in each chamber, produces significant results and visualizes alike votes among legislators.

So-called “moderate” Republican state legislators in Arizona aren’t so moderate after all.

Only a handful of Republican senators and representatives vote alike with a few Democrats in their respective chambers, according to an analysis by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting. Most of the time, they’re still reliably conservative and mostly cast votes in a similar fashion to their Republicans colleagues.

Collectively, four GOP senators voted with seven out of the chamber’s 13 Democrats at least 435 times. That’s about 52 percent of the 841 votes cast on the Senate floor in 2017.

Find the interactive data tool below. (Data by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting; Graphic by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Find the interactive data tool below. (Data by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting; Graphic by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

[Use the interactive data tool created by AZCIR to discover the alike votes between each senator HERE.]

Those same four Republican senators voted just as many times with most, if not all, of their Republican colleagues.

In the House, 18 Republican representatives collectively voted with five of their chamber’s 25 Democrats at least 230 times, or 20 percent of the 1,126 floor votes cast this year.

Every Republican in the House also voted at least 230 times with the rest of the GOP caucus.

[Use the interactive data tool created by AZCIR to discover the alike votes between each representative HERE.]

Few bipartisan votes not enough

The way some Democrats see it, those few bipartisan votes aren’t enough to make these Republicans moderates. A majority of the time, they’re still loyal votes for the GOP majorities in the House and Senate, and when it comes to issues of great importance, they’re becoming less likely to break ranks.

Some Republicans say the analysis doesn’t tell the whole story. By treating all votes equally, patterns emerge that gloss over a select group of bills that divide lawmakers on ideological and partisan lines, and it’s those few votes that matter most.

Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, embraces the label. McGee represents a moderate district – she won a closely contested race last fall against a popular Democrat – so a moderate voting record is only natural.

Others, like Sen. Karen Fann, pointed to the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting analysis as a means to reject the stereotype. The Prescott Republican voted at least 230 times with only one Democratic senator, but she voted just as many times with each of her Republican colleagues, too, making her the least-likely swing vote of those considered to be moderate senators.

Whether it’s conservative or moderate, Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, called the labels “a bunch of crap.”

“Your analysis will show that if you have an ‘R’ after your name or you have a ‘D’ after your name, you’re voting with your caucus most, if not all of the time,” Shope said.

Defining vote

Sen. Kate Brophy McGee (R-Phoenix)
Sen. Kate Brophy McGee (R-Phoenix)

Brophy McGee has worn the moderate label since at least 2013, when she voted for what’s still considered to be the most volatile piece of legislation among Republican circles in years: Medicaid expansion.

Most of the lawmakers identified by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting analysis as moderate voted for the Medicaid expansion during former Gov. Jan Brewer’s final term in office.

Brophy McGee pointed to the bill, which expanded access to health care, as one that makes her proud to be a legislator. Legislative District 28, with its roughly 43,000 independent voters, doesn’t want legislators who will treat the Arizona Capitol like a “do nothing Congress,” Brophy McGee said.

“The moderate label, the way I apply it, is the way I think my constituents think of it. They elect people to go down to the Legislature and get things done, and they expect us to come up with solutions,” she said.

For certain votes, that means bucking the majority of the Republican caucus, like her decision to vote this spring against a bill to dramatically expand access to private school vouchers. Brophy McGee was the only Republican senator to vote against the voucher bill, and she called her failure to defeat the bill “my greatest disappointment” of the 2017 legislative session.

That sentiment isn’t popular among some of her 16 Republican colleagues, but the vote shows the difficult waters Brophy McGee navigates as a Republican. While she votes with her caucus a majority of the time, she’s held to a different standard based on an issue or two.

“I am constantly working with my colleagues in less competitive districts and in leadership so that they understand there are going to be issues where I will not be a yes, and they need to be prepared for that and they need to count their votes,” she said.

Red meat

It’s those kind of votes that result in moderate Republicans having their party loyalty questioned, something that irks Shope, the speaker pro tem in the Arizona House.

“I think it’s crap,” Shope said of criticism Brophy McGee took on the voucher bill vote. “I think that Kate does a good job representing her district. I’m happy that she’s there. She’s a million times better than the alternative in my opinion. I wish the folks who criticize her or others for a vote here or there would just take the time to take a deep breath and realize that we’re all, for the most part, 95 percent of the time working towards the same goals.”

Shope was one of those “moderates” who voted for Medicaid expansion in 2013, and despite figurative calls for his head, he has been able to carve out a productive legislative career. To Shope, there aren’t really moderates at the Arizona Legislature on either side of the aisle, just varying degrees of liberalism and conservatism.

Find the interactive data tool below. (Data by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting; Graphic by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Find the interactive data tool above. (Data by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting; Graphic by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Now that he serves in a GOP leadership role in the House, Shope said he has grown even more appreciative of his fellow Republicans, be they far right or right of center, and how they represent their constituents. The perspective has made him protective of his fellow Republicans, and lawmakers in general, of labels such as moderate, Shope said.

“I think the labeling of those kind of words often, and I think your analysis will bear this out, often highlights more style differences than voting differences,” he said. “The fact that I don’t use red meat type of language, whether at the Legislature or at home in the district, or I’m not confrontational, I think probably lends more to that idea that I am not as conservative as someone else.”

Local ties

Moderate is an unfair label to Republicans like Fann, who has a better record of voting with the Senate Republican Caucus than other senators perceived as more conservative than she. She voted alike with all of her 16 GOP colleagues at least 435 times. The same cannot be said for four Republicans who have a penchant for butting heads with their own caucus.

Sen. Karen Fann (R-Prescott)
Sen. Karen Fann (R-Prescott)

Fann said it’s important to identify the issues on which she crosses party lines, noting that she, unlike her more “moderate” colleagues, voted against Medicaid expansion in 2013.

“When we talk about a plethora of things, generally I am more conservative than the ‘moderates,’” she said. “But now let’s look at the categories for what I do vote against some of my more conservative people, and those would be the city and town things.”

Fann said her previous election to a local office gives her and other Republicans a unique perspective, one she shares with Shope and Brophy McGee.

Fann served as a councilwoman and mayor pro tem in Prescott. Brophy McGee served on the Washington Elementary School District Governing Board until 2007, while Shope still serves as president of the Coolidge Unified School District Governing Board.

Except in cases of extremely egregious behavior by local governments, “90 percent of the time, I support my cities and towns,” which explains her so-called moderate streak, Fann said.

Battle lines

A few bipartisan votes here or there doesn’t make a moderate anyway, according to Sen. Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix.

Like Shope, the Senate minority leader said there aren’t truly any moderates left among legislative Republicans since the Medicaid expansion vote in 2013. That bloc fell apart the following year, she said, since it was only held together by the Republican leadership of Brewer.

It was Brewer who truly stuck her neck out for Medicaid expansion, giving legislative Republicans a leader to follow, Hobbs said. Now the voting bloc once considered moderate has shrunk, Hobbs said. In the Senate, that’s Brophy McGee and Fann, Sens. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, and Frank Pratt, R-Casa Grande.

“They kind of divided on what they would vote with us on, and it was never enough to stop something,” Hobbs said.

Even if the moderates aren’t as influential as they were years ago, it’s still fair that they be judged not by their collective votes, but by the votes that truly matter to the Republican Party, according to Constantin Querard, a GOP political consultant.

Querard said it’s a flaw to give equal weight to every vote taken on the House and Senate floor when so many are simply housekeeping bills – nonpartisan measures that are approved with nearly unanimous consent that don’t inspire any sort of ideological battles. Republicans should be judged on bills that create fault lines within the party, he added.

“If you’re trying to demonstrate graphically the degree to which someone crosses some sort of battle line, you should only consider bills where there’s some sort of battle,” Querard said.

Such a method would only highlight the different value sets some in the Republican Party have over others, according to GOP lobbyist Gibson McKay. Whether its health care or abortion, it’s all a value judgement to individual lawmakers and Republicans, and such clearly drawn lines don’t allow for the nuance of lawmakers who aren’t representing the Republican Party, but are instead representing their constituents.

“That doesn’t serve the black and white purposes of those in the chattering class who like to interpret these things,” McKay said.

For instance, Brophy McGee’s vote against the voucher bill may not win her the approval of some Republican legislators, but it was likely appreciated by her district’s moderate electorate, said McKay, who lives in LD28.

“Do I agree with her 100 percent of the time? No, but I don’t agree with my wife 100 percent of the time,” McKay said. “Sometimes we have to consider that Kate has represented her constituency pretty well for the decade or so she’s been around.”


Find out more about your lawmakers’ voting patterns below:

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House Dem leader crosses aisle more often than party colleagues

Small group of Republicans buck their party, vote their conscience

Some GOP lawmakers vote solid red, support caucus bills