Updated at 2:15 p.m.
National Journal's yearly vote ratings always inspire a fair amount of discussion and pushback. This year was no different, and the collection of brewing member-versus-member primaries added an extra dash of intrigue. One of those primaries is in Arizona's 6th District, where freshman GOP Reps. Ben Quayle and David Schweikert are locked in fierce competition to be seen as the strongest conservative in a strongly conservative district.
Quayle tied for first in NJ's conservative ratings, while Schweikert came in at 66th -- still at the rightward edge of the Republican conference, but without the vaunted title "most conservative," one that's likely to show up in Quayle's campaign. Schweikert, a tea party favorite, argues that he's the true conservative in the race. A look at two votes that accounted for most of the men's separation in NJ's rankings cuts to the core of an argument over the very meaning of "conservative."
Last February, the House passed two bills extending surveillance provisions in the Patriot Act. Quayle voted for both; Schweikert voted against both. Since most conservatives in the House voted in favor (over 210 Republicans voted for each bill), Quayle's vote boosted his conservative score, while Schweikert's lowered his. (See National Journal
's full methodology here
But to many Republicans, including more than a few in the libertarian-infused Arizona GOP, the Patriot Act is a government power grab, the opposite of conservatism. That brand of tea party thinking is Schweikert's calling card. "I was conservative before it was cool," Schweikert told Hotline On Call
Monday. "Many of us have been involved in the conservative freedom movement forever."
Though the Patriot Act votes lowered his NJ
conservative rating, Schweikert sees them as a key part of his bedrock conservative ideology. The same goes for other roll calls where Schweikert voted against his party from the right. The ratings are an index of party loyalty, or even party leadership loyalty, he says, and the GOP establishment is not always a paragon of conservatism in his eyes. That's his pitch to voters in Arizona's 6th District. "Looking at how this election shapes up," Schweikert says, "it becomes a clarion call. Where is the soul of the Republican Party? Is it the establishment or generational conservative change?"
Now consider how Quayle is branding himself as his primary against Schweikert heats up. From Politico
There's Rep. Ben Quayle, an establishment favorite with the famous last name, who told voters in 2010 he would "knock the hell out of" D.C. but has spent his first year in Washington out of the spotlight, learning the ins and outs of the Capitol while becoming a favorite of leadership.
Quayle's House-best conservative rating reflects his relationship with leadership. The rating shows that Quayle is in line with the bulk of the GOP, while Schweikert occasionally goes his own way. Which member emerges triumphant from their primary depends on how the Republican voters of the Arizona 6th define conservatism itself. Will they see it better personified by Quayle, who is furthering the goals of the conservative party, or by Schweikert, who deviates from the party to tug at it from the right? How voters answer that question will sway not only the Arizona 6th's primary, but a number of other GOP-versus-GOP contests throughout the country.
Quayle has pushed back against the notion that his rating is indicative of stronger support for leadership. "The 'leadership' support theme is a complete hoax," Quayle said. "I scored significantly higher than leadership in conservative voting record, and the game around here is not for them to influence me, but for me to influence them."
Quayle has a point: As Susan Davis wrote
in National Journal
in September (subscriber), the story of the freshman class hasn't just been about dissenting from the establishment -- it's been about pushing the leadership's final legislative products to the right. But the point about sticking more closely with the GOP stands across measures, including CQ
's party unity scores.