Who are the most conservative and liberal members of the Utah Legislature?

Written by Bob Bernick, Contributing EditorCategory: Today At Utah Policy

Close watchers of the 104-member Utah Legislature probably have pretty good guesses on which members are recognized liberals, which are hard core conservatives.

But BYU political science professor Adam Brown, who does a lot of cool statistical stuff on his blogs and analyses, is using a tried and true comparison method called “NOMINATE score” to rank members of the Utah House and Senate.

Here are Brown’s charts, with plenty of discussion on how the data should and should not be used/compared.

The 2017 29-member Senate.

The 2017 75-member House.

We’ll let Brown handle his own warnings and “don’t-use-these-words” to describe the legislators’ respective ideologies.

UtahPolicy will cheat (hey, it's our website, we can do what we want) and use common declarations of political nomenclature.

The most liberal members of the Senate:

-- To the surprise of almost no one who watches or listens to senators during a general session, Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake, gets the largest negative (liberal) score among the 29 members.

Brown’s analysis has Dabakis at -96.1 ideological score. (-100 would be a perfect score, it appears to me.)

The other four Democratic senators are also on the negative side of the ideological line – meaning among the 29 they are liberal.

But here is an interesting ranking:

-- GOP Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, is also on the negative side of the scale. He has a -22.5 ideological score.

All other Republican senators are on the positive side of the scale, or more conservative by and large.

Shiozawa’s ranking does make sense to a political observer like me.

His Cottonwood Heights district used to be held by a Democratic senator. And Shiozawa, an emergency room doctor, is known for his moderate views, compassion and compromises.

The more moderate Republicans after Shiozawa are (in 2nd, 3rd and 4th positions) Sens. Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City (28.6); Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal (32.6); and Ann Milner, R-Ogden (34.4).

Knudson, the assistant majority leader, has always been a moderating influence in the Senate, but as some hard core conservatives have come and gone, over the years he’s seemed more reasonable.

Milner, a retired president of Weber State University, is clearly pro-education and more moderate than some of her fire-breathing GOP colleagues.

The surprise to me is Van Tassell, a banker. He’s seemed a bit more conservative just from my observations.

Down (or at the top, depending on how you see it) on the other side is Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, with a plus rating of 89.9 – the highest “conservative” ranking in the 2017 Senate.

Just under him are Sens. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem (87.4); and Allen Christensen, R-N. Ogden (84.8).

No surprises here. Dayton has always been considered one of the most conservative lawmakers, with Harper not far behind.

But with Christensen, more conservative, and Milner, more moderate, both coming from the Ogden area, it appears geography – at least among the GOP senators – doesn’t make that much difference when ideology is considered.

The largest group of GOP senators (9) fall in the 40-50 point range – you could call them the “mainstream” conservatives if you wish.

And there in fall Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy (41.6); and Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton (43.4).

It would make sense that GOP leadership would fall into this group – as compromisers among the Republican caucus.

The House is a bit more cut and dried, at least it appears to me, in Brown’s analysis.

The most liberal in the House – in the negative range – are all Democrats.

The most conservative – in the positive range – are all Republicans.

But with 75 members, the House’s members are more varied within those groups.

For example:

-- The most liberal member is Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake (-98.7).

Brown insists his scaling does not allow comparisons between House and Senate members – the rankings ONLY are among each bodies’ members.

Still, can Romero be more liberal than Dabakis? One would wonder.

Next in line on the liberal scale are Reps. Rebecca Chavez-Houck and Joel Briscoe, both D-Salt Lake, (-96.2) and (-96.0), respectively.

Rep. Susan Duckworth, R-Magna, is the least liberal of the Democrats (-45.6). That makes sense, as Magna has been changing from Democratic to Republican in recent years.

The “least conservative” Republican House member is Rep. Becky Edwards, R-Bountiful (7.5).

But she is still 38.1 points away from Duckworth, the least liberal Democrat.

While a very Republican county, over the years Davis County GOP legislators have been some of the more moderate among the Republican House caucus. An odd quirk, but still there.

The next “least conservative” Republicans are (in order) Reps. Raymond Ward, R-Bountiful (8.4), that Davis County thing again; Ed Redd, R-Logan (15.3); Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy (15.9); and Mike Winder, R-West Valley (16.2).

Spendlove, a brainy mainstream Republican, keeps his head down and doesn’t often speak on the floor. Tough to place him by ideology.

Winder is understandable where he is in Brown’s analysis, for his seat has gone back and forth with Democrats for several elections. Winder clearly has to watch his votes.

One surprise in Brown’s rankings is Rep. Bruce Cutler, R-Murray (33.2). Cutler’s district has, also, been Democratic in recent history. And on Election Night, Cutler trailed his Democratic challengers, only to sneak ahead when the final canvas is taken.

One would think Cutler would be more clearly a “mainstream” GOP representative.

But, then, he is in the 30-40 point range. And that is the largest group of GOP lawmakers in Brown’s rankings – with 15 members falling in that grouping.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, falls into this category (37.5). Like Niederhauser in the Senate, it makes sense for the GOP leader to be in the largest group of Republicans in his body.

Who is the most “conservative” House member?

For me, this is a surprise.

Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, comes in with a -88.5.

McCay, from my point of view, is a problem-solver, not an ideologue. And he co-sponsored SB54 in the House back in 2014 – which has caused him all kinds of trouble with his party’s rightwing ever since.

Just behind McCay are three guys I WOULD have labeled as the most conservative in the House: Reps. Marc Roberts, R-Salem (where I think they still burn witches) (88.3); Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove (85.8); and Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan (78.7).

Because of his high profile on public land issues and occasional outbursts against everything liberal, one might think that Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, would be one of the most conservative voters in the House.

But 29 other Republicans are ranked as more conservative in their 2017 House votes than Noel, who comes in with a ranking of 41.7, or just above the largest group of Republicans (30-40 points).

Noel, in my experience, can be a pretty reasonable guy when you get him off of the public lands issues.

Brown says his analysis is only valid within one general session – you can’t compare the House and Senate members, and you can’t compare previous sessions’ rankings to another session’s.

Still, some interesting results.