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A conservative he is not: Sen. Chuck Winder does not measure up

A conservative he is not: Sen. Chuck Winder does not measure up

Fred Birnbaum
June 9, 2021
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June 9, 2021

Last week, the leader of the Idaho Senate, Republican Chuck Winder, took aim at the Idaho Freedom Foundation, and it reminded me of a funny story that my father likes to tell. 

My father was drafted into the U.S. Army in the 1950s and reported to basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey. The drill sergeant asked the soldiers to line up by height and he started by asking all men over 6 feet, 4 inches to step forward. Not many did. Then 6 feet, 2 inches. Again, not many. But when the drill sergeant asked men 6 feet and over to step forward, many men clearly no taller than about 5 feet, 10 inches stepped forward. The sergeant barked, “Get back in formation, you are not 6-feet tall!” It was a thing back then to be 6-feet tall if you were a man of my father’s generation. But alas, not every man was or is that tall.

To be clear, Winder has never claimed to be 6-feet tall as far as I know. But he has claimed to be a conservative because it’s important to many voters that a Republican elected official in Idaho label themselves as conservative.  

During a recent City Club of Boise forum with legislative leaders, Winder called the Idaho Freedom Foundation “one of the biggest threats to democracy” in Idaho. 

Winder questioned IFF’s legislative scorecard, the Idaho Freedom Index, claiming it was not a true measure because the metrics are libertarian. He then described himself as a pro-life, pro-Second Amendment conservative. 

One could quibble with his support for some Second Amendment legislation that was weaker than what was originally sought like Senate Bill 1205 instead of House Bill 300. But the point here is not to dwell on one or two bills. We should examine the totality of Winder’s record against his claims of being a true conservative.

There are several rating indices to review Winder’s record that collectively look at his votes on hundreds of pieces of legislation. For the 2020 and 2019 legislative sessions, there are four published indices.

Winder is clear that he doesn’t agree with the implied liberalism of his 50% and 58% scores, on the 2020 and 2019 Freedom Index respectively. The Freedom Index is the premier bill rating system in Idaho. It is worth noting that only four Senate Republicans in 2020 had a lower rating than Sen. Winder, 23 had higher; e.g. more conservative ratings.

Winder didn’t specifically claim to be a fiscal conservative and perhaps that explains his even worse scores on the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s Spending Index. He scored 20% in 2020 and 14% in 2019. Winder rarely votes against appropriation bills, and any cursory review will show that he votes with the Democrats for bigger government.

A classic example is the ballooning Medicaid budget. Sen. Winder has voted on 13 Medicaid budgets, not including supplemental or extra appropriations. He has voted to approve every budget, with the exception of Senate Bill 1190 in 2013. The Medicaid budget has ballooned from $1.5 billion in Fiscal Year 2010 to $3.7 billion in FY22, nearly 150%, during Winder’s tenure. That’s more than inflation and population growth – hardly conservative.

There’s more.

The American Conservative Union (ACU) is a venerable conservative organization founded in 1964 and is well known for CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. The ACU presents Awards for Conservative Excellence and for Conservative Achievement and rates state governments, including the Idaho House and Senate. Winder has not met the 80% threshold for being considered a reliable conservative since 2015, scoring 49% in 2020 and 57% in 2019. However, 30 out of 105 Idaho legislators were in the ACU’s top two categories in 2020 and 25 out of 105 in 2019. It is doubtful that ACU founder William F. Buckley would consider Winder a conservative.

The Club for Growth Foundation, a group that promotes economic freedom, free markets, and de-regulation, debuted its own Idaho scorecard in 2019. Club for Growth  opposes additional health insurance mandates and supports allowing renewable short term health insurance plans, for example. 

Winder scored 45% in 2020 and 55% in 2019, meaning he generally voted for a larger role for government in the economy. Nine House members scored 100% in 2019 and 2020, but not a single state senator did. Perhaps this is why Winder looks askance at House conservatives – they actually vote like conservatives.

Winder is in the twilight of his career, and the shadows are gathering fast. It is unlikely he will reverse course and actually walk the talk by voting like a conservative. But he could. If he chooses to vote for bigger government while attacking those who point it out, he will end his career like so many other Republicans — those who entered politics with some vague notions of limiting big government and ended up embracing it.

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