Senator Hatch and the Club for Growth

By Sarah Binder

A reporter asked me yesterday about Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah)’s effort to forestall a challenge from his right at the Utah Republicans’ state party convention next year.  (Is it still called being “primaried” if you might first be “conventioned”?  Former Senator Robert Bennett to the white courtesy phone, please.)  I see that Aaron Blake is also writing about Hatch’s battle with conservative critics today.

Senator Hatch of course has compiled a long legislative record over his career in Congress—most notably including his collaboration with the late Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) on issues ranging from health care, AIDS, disability rights, national service, and far more.  Even with this bipartisan legislative legacy, Hatch has achieved a marked increase in his conservative credentials, as measured by the Club for Growth.  (Ironically, the Club for Growth is spearheading the drive to deny Hatch renomination.)  Out of curiosity, I plotted Club for Growth voting scores over the last several years for both Bennett (red) and Hatch (blue).

Club for Growth Scores for Utah Senators (2005-2010)

Subject to important caveats about the selectivity of interest groups and the artificial extremism of vote scores (see Jim Snyder’s classic piece here), it’s worth noting two aspects of Senator Hatch’s and Bennett’s vote scores.  First, Hatch’s apparent conservative turn  started before Senator Bennett’s party refused to re-nominate him for his re-election campaign in 2010: Based on the Club for Growth measure, Hatch has been on a steady rightward march since his 53% showing in 2007.  Second, both Hatch’s and Bennett’s more favorable Club for Growth ratings in recent years are likely in part a function of the arrival of unified, Democratic control in 2009.  If you burrow into the Club for Growth’s spreadsheets that detail the votes and the Club’s scoring system, the selected votes run the gamut from health care to Dodd-Frank, tax cuts, EPA regulatory authority, and so forth.  Votes on these issues of course represented the front-line of GOP resistance to the Obama White House’s policy agenda.  Not surprisingly, Hatch found little ground on which to collaborate with the Democratic opposition and strong pressure from his colleagues not to cross the aisle.

Interest group ratings—particularly those from groups with a vested (literally) interest in the outcome—are of course hardly a reliable metric for discerning a legislator’s ideological disposition.  If we turn to DW-NOMINATE scores that include nearly every non-unanimous vote cast in the Senate each year, Orrin Hatch’s ideological journey (in red) looks quite different—especially when mapped against the movement of the average Senate Republican (in blue) over the same period.

Senator Hatch’s voting record revisited

Judging from his broader floor history, Hatch does indeed have a strong conservative record.   It’s just that he’s been left behind as the Senate Republican Conference has marched steadily to his right.

Sarah Binder is a professor of political science at George Washington University.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]