No 'defenders of liberty'? The hell you say!

Where have all the conservatives gone?

That’s the question raised by the American Conservative Union’s biennial ranking of what the group erroneously calls the “Nevada General Assembly.” Of all 63 state lawmakers, not a single one was named a “Defender of Liberty,” or someone who voted the “right” way on the handful of bills selected by the ACU to grade lawmakers.

There were a handful of “ACU Conservatives,” or people who scored 80 percent or higher on the list: state Sens. Don Gustavson, R-Sparks, and James Settelmeyer, R-Minden; and Assembly members Wes Duncan, R-Las Vegas, John Ellison, R-Elko, Pete Livermore, R-Carson City, and Jim Wheeler, R-Gardnerville.

Of those top scorers, some came very close: Ellison and Wheeler scored 94 percent. Livermore and Duncan were at 89 percent.

Perhaps just as surprisingly, the group found no “true liberals of the Silver State” in the entire state Senate. (These are lawmakers who scored 0 percent on the group’s scorecard by voting the wrong way on bills.) But several Assembly members earned the “true liberal” sobriquet: Irene Bustamante Adams, D-Las Vegas, Olivia Diaz, D-North Las Vegas, Andy Eisen, D-Las Vegas, Lucy Flores, D-Las Vegas, Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, and Heidi Swank, D-Las Vegas.

The list of bills upon which the ACU made its calls contains some of the more controversial of the session, including bills to extend the supposedly temporary “sunset” taxes; to authorize Clark County to raise taxes on gasoline for roads and sales for police; to authorize Washoe County to raise sales and property taxes for school-building; to offer tax credits to motion picture companies to induce them to film in Nevada; to require prevailing wages for projects built in tourism improvement districts; to speed NV Energy’s exit from coal-fired power markets; to require background checks for all gun purchases; and to begin the process of legalizing gay marriage in Nevada.

It was Senate Bill 311 — by state Sen. Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas — that saved his fellow senators from 0 percent scores and the dreaded “true liberal” title. The bill would have allowed parents of kids in under-performing public schools to petition to change the school to a charter or empowerment campus, and every member of the Senate voted for it. Take that vote away, and Ford would have received a 0 percent, along with fellow state Sens. Kelvin Atkinson and Pat Spearman, both D-North Las Vegas, Mo Denis, Justin Jones, Ruben Kihuen, Mark Manendo, David Parks and Tick Segerblom, all D-Las Vegas, Joyce Woodhouse, D-Henderson, and Debbie Smith, D-Sparks.

That explains why a group that claims to cherish gun rights (and looked with disfavor on votes for the background check bill) could have avoided calling Segerblom a “true liberal” after he introduced a bill to ban the purchase, sale or transfer of assault weapons outright. (That bill never even got a hearing and was never on the ACU’s list.)

One bill that brought a lot of Democrats down was Flores’ measure to require chain restaurants with more than 15 locations to print calorie counts for meals on menus. That bill passed with party-line votes in both houses of the Legislature before Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed it. (Sandoval was not rated by the ACU, but he’d surely not be a “defender of liberty” either, since it was the governor’s idea to extend the “sunset” taxes, not to mention signing off on those bills to authorize tax increases in Washoe and Clark counties.)

Aside from bragging rights and fundraising appeals, the primary utility of scorecards like this one will come in inter-party primary fights, as Republican primary challengers seek to prove their targets are not as conservative as they could be. The two Republican leaders — Michael Roberson in the state Senate and Pat Hickey in the Assembly — scored a paltry 47 percent and 56 percent respectively. And both men now have primary challengers, which means you will probably see this material again.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or