For a tea party Republican in the Texas House, being certified as having the most conservative voting record of any member is like Olympic gold. It is a feat that demands single-minded ambition, a firm grasp of conservative constitutional and free-market principles, and the cool discipline to apply those precepts with relentless consistency, day after day, vote after vote, come what may.
In December 2012, Jonathan Stickland, freshly elected at age 29 from Tarrant County, told the American-Statesman, “I plan on having the most conservative voting record in the entire House of Representatives.”
And so he did, in the 2013 edition of the vaunted liberal-conservative index produced by Rice University political scientist Mark Jones.
In 2015, Matt Rinaldi, an intense and brainy 40-year-old rookie lawmaker from Irving, taking advantage of Stickland’s weakness for so-called right on crime criminal justice reform, zoomed past him for a narrow victory, leaving Stickland with the silver.
And in the regular session that ended Memorial Day, there was a three-way photo finish by Stickland, Rinaldi and Briscoe Cain, a baby-faced 31-year-old freshman from Harris County who came to Austin with the twin ambitions to be desk mates with Stickland — which he fulfilled — and ace the Jones index.
“It was a mission to be at the top of the list,” Cain said. “I didn’t know if we could make No. 1, but it was a goal.”
In fact, while Jones called this year’s contest a three-way tie, for political sabermetricians of this race to the right, if you go enough decimal places, Cain actually eked out a small if statistically meaningless victory over Rinaldi, followed by Stickland.
Why is being recognized as the most conservative member of the Texas House so coveted?
“This is Texas,” Cain said.
For Jones, already one of the most quoted political scientists in Texas politics, his biennial index has made him an often-cited source by conservative activists.
“It generally tends to get used by movement conservatives in Republican primaries,” Jones said.
“He’s very well-known. He’s very well-respected,” Rinaldi said. “I think he’s come up with a system that’s better than any other I’ve seen, that takes into account thousands of votes on different topics without bringing into account human bias.”
“It’s even better than the interest group scorecards because it doesn’t pick and choose,” Rinaldi said. “The interest groups pick the votes that are most important to them. What this does is to give you a more complete picture by taking the hundreds of votes on little items that we do constantly.”
This year’s index was based on 1,460 roll call votes in which the losing side got at least 2.5 percent of the votes — usually four votes.
The focus on the index among Republicans, who hold a 95-55 seat advantage in the House, reflects the political climate in Texas. No one is competing to be the most liberal, though Jones’ rankings show that as well.
Jones will update his index after the 30-day special session that kicked off Tuesday. He doesn’t expect to see much change in the rankings, though it will offer Cain, Rinaldi and Stickland opportunities to burnish their reputations on behalf of a conservative agenda, set by Gov. Greg Abbott and pressed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, that faces an uncertain fate in the House.
Jones’ rating passes the obvious test of confirming what most professional observers of the Legislature already think.
Notably, the 12 most conservative members of the House are the 12 members of the House Freedom Caucus, a new entity this year, which is just how they would have it.
But Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, who was elected along with Stickland as part of the Tarrant County tea party wave in 2012 but lurched toward the center of the index in his second term, has suspicions about the soundness and utility of Jones’ methodology.
“One way to think about this, it looks at how everyone votes compared to how everyone else votes, compared to what the overall dynamics of the vote were. And it takes all that information to locate people on a dimensional plane going from the left to the right,” Jones explained.
“This is the established methodology that is used by everyone to study the Congress, U.S. legislatures across the states and legislatures around the world,” Jones said. “This is effectively the gold standard for political science. All credible political scientists would agree that this is the methodology that is optimal for studying roll-call vote behavior and ideological dimensions within legislative bodies. It’s simply where we are. There’s no one that’s arguing otherwise.”
Except, of course, Capriglione, who, while not a political scientist, is a politician who has been programming since he was 10 and has a background in physics, engineering and private equity drenched in statistics.
Jones’ metric, Capriglione complained, is blind to content.
“It does not matter at all what the bill says, what the bill does. It doesn’t matter whether you voted for this because it’s for your district or what have you. All it says is who you are voting with, and who you are voting with helps determine where you are on this index,” Capriglione said.
“To me, and others, how is that a legitimate way to determine whether you are liberal or you are conservative when you are not really looking at whether the bill is liberal or conservative?” Capriglione said.
“And what it sets up is, if 12 members decide they are going to vote ‘no’ and they are the Freedom Caucus, then everybody else according to this program is more liberal,” he said.
Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, believes that beyond the Freedom Caucus, most House members have come to view the rating with “ ‘Oh, brother’ eyerolls.”
“It’s meaningless,” said Villalba, who, as the 16th-least conservative Republican in Jones’ ranking, finds himself somewhere near the center of the House overall and in close proximity to much of the House leadership.
“There is no real meaning in the scale other than your ability to vote opposite the body,” Villalba said.
“It’s not conservatism that that measures. It measures your opposition to consensus,” he said. “What it should say is this is the scale for people who are most likely to be in opposition to common sense.”
“These people trade in being outliers, and that’s not good,” Villalba said. “In fact, if it’s good policy because everyone supported it, that’s the best time to say ‘no’ because that’s when you get more points.”
Contrary to what some of their colleagues might think, the Freedom Caucus don’t always vote in lockstep.
According to an American-Statesman analysis of data provided by RecordVotes.com, a legislative analytics firm that tracks every vote in the Texas Legislature, there were 259 votes in the regular session on which Cain, Stickland and Rinaldi all participated but did not all vote the same way.
Of those votes, Cain voted differently from the other two in 66 cases, Stickland in 84 cases and Rinaldi in 109 cases.
If you add in Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, the fourth-most conservative member on the scale, and Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, the fifth-most conservative, the top five conservatives did not vote in unison 483 times. Schaefer, at 161 votes, was the most likely to be in the minority among the five, followed by Stickland at 148, Cain at 111, Tinderholt at 105 and Rinaldi at 103.
“We’re independent thinkers, man,” Cain said.
Gaming the system?
Of lawmakers gaming his system, Jones said, “Now, I guess you could if you had a group of individuals who always voted the same way and only they were voting that way.”
But, he said, “it would be incredibly difficult to do, and then you would have to contort your whole voting record; that would have to be your sole goal in voting, and I don’t think anybody has that goal.”
Also, because it is based on every vote on which there are four or more legislators on the losing side, no single vote or even handful of votes matters all that much. Instead, it rewards the lawmakers who, with a handful of other GOP colleagues, take a lonely stand on countless bills that few other members pay much attention to. For Stickland, Rinaldi and Cain, that means meticulous preparation and an exacting application of their criteria that the bill not grow government, raise taxes or encroach on personal liberty.
“It might be a hotel tax in El Paso, and I’m going to vote against it, and someone will be, ‘Why are you voting against it? It doesn’t affect you,’ ” Cain said. “Well, it’s a tax. For me, it’s just that simple, so I am going to vote against it, even though it doesn’t affect my district.”
Rinaldi said that “at the end of the session, I always hear about the five or six big-ticket conservative items that we passed, and I’m thrilled that we passed those items.”
“However,” he said, “what I’m not thrilled about is the increase in regulation in bill after bill — the bills that were worked out on tiny little issues between competing lobby groups that actually hurt consumers, and I see more of those bills come up; I see hundreds of those bills come up, and it’s usually the bills where you see 10 to 30 people voting against — and those are just as important to Texas voters, I think, as the big-ticket items.”
Rinaldi believes he was able to overtake Stickland in 2013 because the criminal justice reform Stickland favors, while gaining traction on the right, is still more popular with Democrats than Republicans, hurting Stickland’s score.
“I tend to be a little bit more retributive and harsher on penalties,” Rinaldi said. “So those votes put me over the top.”
Stickland said it was his willingness to be one of a handful of Republicans to oppose the end of straight-ticket voting — in more than a dozen votes on amendments and final passage — that cost him sole possession of first place this session.
“I got scored as being liberal on that because I sided with the Democrats and voted against getting rid of straight-ticket voting,” Stickland said. “For me, in Tarrant County, that was the most conservative option.”
The ultimately successful effort to end one-punch voting was inspired in part by the experience of some down-ballot Republican judges in Harris County, including District Judge Ryan Patrick, son of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who lost re-election in 2016 because of party-line voting by Democrats for a ticket led by Hillary Clinton. The Democratic presidential nominee carried Harris County by 12 points while Patrick lost by less than 3 points.
But Stickland said of Tarrant, “It’s a very red county, and in my county we have a lot of minority judges at the bottom of our ticket, very diverse, lot of Hispanics, got some Asians, who are actually very conservative, but I think that may hurt them when an uneducated voter can’t go in there and pull a straight Republican ticket.”
“So I think that while getting rid of it may save the judges in Harris County, in Tarrant County the dynamics are it’s going to make people who are in safe Republican areas more vulnerable to Democrats,” he said.
Applying his usual tests to the issue, Stickland said, “No one’s liberty is going to be hurt. No one’s tax dollars are going to be spent. There were no principles at stake in that bill; it was just literally a preference. So once the Constitution wasn’t involved, and once no tax dollars were involved, I defaulted back to what’s the best thing for my district, which is vote against this.”
When Jones tweeted the release of his index in June, Capriglione tweeted in reply: “Contents of bill are not used in this score. Opposing training to stop child sex trafficking is considered a conservative vote for example.”
Rinaldi noted that referred to a bill by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat, “that required hairdressers to get training in how to spot human trafficking, a bill that regulates hairdressers to say that you can’t practice your profession unless you take training in how to spot trafficking — well meaning, like most of these are, but in the end increases regulation.”
“I don’t think turning hairdressers into sex trafficking vigilantes is really conservative. I think what’s conservative is, ‘I can provide a service, and you have money. How about we trade your service for money?’ ” Rinaldi said.
When Thompson tried to bring her bill to the floor, Rinaldi and four other members of the Freedom Caucus — not including Cain and Stickland — forced it back to committee.
But a week later, the resourceful and popular Thompson added the measure as an amendment to a broader bill she authored on human trafficking that has since been passed by the House and signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott.
As it turned out, Capriglione need not have fretted that he or anyone else would have their conservative standing undermined by voting for Thompson’s measure.
It passed 127-1 — the one being Rinaldi — a tally so lopsided that Jones wouldn’t include it in his analysis.
Additional material from staff writer Olivia Krauth.
American-Statesman chief political writer Jonathan Tilove offers his take on Texas politics mornings at the First Reading blog on mystatesman.com.