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The Heritage Foundation building in Washington, DC.
When the political partner of the Heritage Foundation alerts a “key vote” now, barely anyone blinks. Andrew Harnik/AP

Heritage Action Scorecards Used to Strike Fear in Republicans. Not Anymore.

“The teeth are not there in the way that they used to be,” a former senior official at Heritage said.

Not so long ago, if Heritage Action announced that it would be “key voting” a vote in the House or Senate, conservative lawmakers could be counted on to line up and do whatever Heritage Action demanded.

Now when the political partner of the Heritage Foundation alerts a “key vote,” barely anyone blinks. The organization’s once-powerful “scorecards” have been supplanted by a more important metric: the approval of Donald Trump. “The teeth are not there in the way that they used to be,” a former senior official at Heritage told NOTUS. “That’s because of the whole shift in conservatism. It’s like, you can be bad on the Heritage Action scorecard, but if, you know, Trump thinks you’re awesome … it doesn’t really matter.”

With a Heritage Action score of only 49% this term, Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly is currently one of the lowest-scoring Republicans in the House. But he’s a close ally of the former president, who calls Kelly “a great congressman” and helped him with his reelection campaigns. Kelly said he’s not stressed about his Heritage Action score, which is down from his lifetime average of 67% — and much lower than the 96% he got last session, the highest he has received in office. “I don’t follow any of it actually,” he told NOTUS.

Of course, few lawmakers would admit to robotically following the commands of a single outside group. As one conservative strategist put it, “No lawmaker would ever tell a reporter that they’re listening to an outside group.”

But Republican members say times have changed. Even conservative lawmakers who were once big Heritage Action allies now say there’s distance between the group and lawmakers.

“I appreciate Heritage Action,” said Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan (93% lifetime score), a staunch Trump ally who has credited Heritage Action with moving the party further to the right. But he added, “We don’t work as closely as we did maybe a few years back.”

Retiring Rep. Doug Lamborn (88% lifetime score), once a Heritage Action favorite, said that his colleagues don’t pay attention to the organization “as much as maybe people used to” because “they’re not that influential anymore.”

And National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Richard Hudson (84% lifetime score) said, “I don’t hear a lot about [the scorecard] anymore.”

Heritage Action acknowledges that Congress has changed but insists that its influence remains.

“I think that we influence decisions on Capitol Hill regularly,” said Ryan Walker, Heritage Action’s executive vice president. “I think it was a different environment then, certainly, in the way that grassroots were engaged with Congress, but no, I don’t think that the influence has waned at all.”

Under the leadership of Michael Needham, Tim Chapman and Russell Vought, Heritage Action was considered one of Washington’s most feared political advocacy groups. Republican members paid attention to the organization’s scorecard because the Heritage grades were — and still are — released in real time.

Going against a Heritage Action key vote in the 2010s would mean getting inundated with calls from “grassroots” members or, in extreme cases, a primary challenger. When Eric Cantor became the first sitting House majority leader to lose his seat, his opponent, the Tea Party-backed Dave Brat, cited Cantor’s 52% Heritage Action lifetime score as one of the reasons why he mounted a challenge. Brat had a 96% lifetime score.

“We wanted to put the information out in real time so [members] could hear from their constituents,” said a former Heritage official, who added that it just seemed more “honest” to do it that way.

“If somebody we considered an ally voted the wrong way — and that happened on many occasions — we weren’t tipping our scorecard to support them,” the staffer said. “We started doing that and, you know, over the years there were all sorts of flare-ups.”

Members of Congress would say in private meetings that if they ever ran into Needham, they’d rough him up because their score was lower than they wanted it to be.

“A lot of members wanted to do that,” said a former House GOP leadership staffer who was there during the height of Heritage Action’s power, when John Boehner was speaker.

“The reason why Heritage Action felt so good about [their scorecard] was precisely the reason why it pissed everyone off, because most [other] scorecards would just score the final vote on a piece of legislation — they were scoring the entire process,” the staffer said. He recalled that when the group started grading rule votes, it exposed leadership’s inability to control the floor. “Leadership was pissed because it was, essentially … you’re fucking with the locker room now.”

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A Heritage Action spokesperson told NOTUS that congressional staffers still reach out to find out which votes the organization plans to score. Some call out of frustration that their bosses missed a vote and lost a chance to boost their scores, the spokesperson said.

“We as an organization are lucky that we get to work with the Heritage Foundation,” Walker said. “I think, with that combination, people really view us as sort of the gold standard or the measure of conservative policy in Washington.”

And there are certainly some members who still seem to care.

Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley is the only senator with a perfect score this session. He said he makes his own judgments on legislation and doesn’t look “super closely” at scorecards. “I don’t think I’ve ever — this is probably not what you want to hear — I don’t think I’ve ever changed my vote. In fact, I know I’ve never changed my vote based on a score,” he said.

“But listen,” he added. “I’m proud of my rating. If you’re telling me that I’m at a hundred percent, that’s great.”

Oriana González is a reporter at NOTUS.