In the last decade, some well-known Republican lawmakers have been ousted for not being conservative enough.
Everyone recalls former U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s shocking defeat in 2014. And in Michigan, moderate Joe Schwarz suffered a narrow loss in 2006 to ultra-conservative now-U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton).
At the state Legislature level, Rep. Frank Foster (R-Pellston) was toppled two years ago by now-Rep. Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) after championing LGBT rights.
These instances are few and far between, but they’ve left a mark. The conventional wisdom is that amassing the most conservative voting record possible is the best insurance against being primaried. And it’s worth noting that many Republicans occupy safe seats (above a 55 percent GOP base) in the Legislature, so the only real threat usually comes from within –– in a GOP primary.
Inside Michigan Politics has been tallying legislative votes for several decades to determine the “Most Liberal and Most Conservative” members of each chamber. We pore over every vote that calendar year and determine every lawmaker’s record.
Needless to say, I start getting anxious queries about this in summer during even-year elections, especially from Republicans and conservative activists. Although lawmakers love when they make “They Said It” with a clever quote, I’d guess most Republicans would rather earn the “Most Conservative” mantle, given how frequently it pops up in their campaign literature.
There typically aren’t many surprises on the list –– and there shouldn’t be when you’re looking at hundreds of votes. This year, IMP examined 28 record roll-call votes for social, economic, taxation, environmental, civil rights, and public health/safety issues by the 109 members of the state House. For the rankings, 100 percent is the gold standard for a representative who voted the liberal position on these votes. The full list is in our Sept. 9 edition.
The 2016 “Most Liberal” member is freshman Rep. Robert Wittenberg (D-Oak Park), who scored a 92.9 percent liberal voting record. His predecessor, Ellen Cogen Lipton (D-Huntington Woods), took that honor in 2011.
In fact, those who took the top three slots for liberal voting records in 2016 all hailed from metro Detroit. There was a second-place tie between Reps. Brian Banks (D-Harper Woods) and Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (D-Detroit), who each voted liberal 89.3 percent of the time. The two-way tie for third place was between Reps. LaTanya Garrett (D-Detroit) –– who was the 2015 “Most Liberal” champ –– and Kristy Pagan (D-Canton), who both posted 85.7 percent liberal records.
The 2016 “Most Conservative” member was another freshman, Rep. Lana Theis (R-Brighton), who had just a 10.7 percent liberal rating. Theis, who was third in 2015, was a well-known figure on the right before taking office. She headed the unsuccessful 2012 constitutional amendment Proposal 5, which would have required a two-thirds legislative vote for tax increases.
The second-place tie was between Reps. Triston Cole (R-Mancelona), Laura Cox (R-Livonia) and Aaron Miller (R-Sturgis), who voted liberal 14.3 percent of the time. Coming in third were Chatfield and Gary Glenn (R-Midland) took third prize with their 17.6 percent liberal voting records.
Sometimes the IMP rankings can go down in infamy, as they did last year. The disgraced duo of now-former Reps. Todd Courser (R-Silverwood) and Cindy Gamrat (R-Plainwell) tied for the “Most Conservative” honor. Of course, that’s probably little comfort, as Gamrat was expelled and Courser resigned at the last minute amid colorful accusations they abused their offices.
Taking a look back even further, the “Most Conservative” title went to several Republicans who may be out of office now, thanks to term limits, but they’re still fighting the good ideological fight.
In 2014, current Rep. Ray Franz (R-Onekama) tied with both Tom McMillin (R-Auburn Hills) and Pete Lund (R-Shelby Twp.). McMillin, a well-known culture warrior, lost his bid for the open MI-8 in 2014 to now-U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Rochester), but successfully won a GOP nomination to the State Board of Education this year. Lund now runs the Michigan chapter of the nationally influential, free-market group Americans for Prosperity.
Both Franz and Lund were part of a six-way tie in 2013, which included current Reps. Ken Goike (R- Ray Twp.), Tim Kelly (R-Saginaw) and Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt Twp.). Rounding out the list was now-former Rep. Bob Genetski (R-Saugatuck), who fought public universities on LGBT rights and embryonic stem cell research, and has launched a comeback as Allegan County’s soon-to-be clerk and register of deeds.
And, not surprisingly, then-Rep. Dave Agema (R-Grandville), did back-to-back runs at No. 1 in 2011 and 2012, before he made headlines as Republican National committeeman for his frequent anti-gay and anti-Muslim musings.
Given the history, it’s a safe bet that the current roster of “Most Conservative” medalists will stay active in Republican politics long after term limits kick in.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.