Primary Preview: Moderate GOP Challengers Vie For Seats in Idaho's Panhandle

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Election watching in Legislative District 2 has traditionally been a pretty dull affair. Incumbents tend to stay that way and, like elsewhere in the rock-ribbed north Idaho Panhandle, those incumbents tend to stay Republican.

But this time around, things are different. Dogged by an epic, years-long fracas over back taxes—and with a penchant for headline-grabbing legislative stances like converting Idaho’s money supply to gold and silver—four-term Republican Rep. Phil Hart is facing not one, but four challengers, including three from his own party.

Ed Morse, a Hayden Lake real estate appraiser and active member of local Republican groups; former Republican Rep. Ron Vieselmeyer, a Kootenai County minister and marriage counselor who serves as president of Highway Evangelism; and Fritz Wiedenhoff, a Rathdrum firefighter, are all vying for the District 2 House Seat B safely occupied by Hart since 2004.

What’s more, the winner of the May 15 Republican primary will go on to face Democrat Dan English, a popular former Hayden city councilman, school board member and Kootenai County clerk. If elected, English would be the first Democrat sent to Boise by the district in 18 years—in fact, no Democrat in the district has even dared run for the statehouse since 2002.

Hart’s ongoing tax battles, as well as a much-publicized ethics investigation in 2010, have proved to be major political baggage for the candidate—but the dark clouds surrounding his political career have also been a primary factor in kicking up a fuss within the local Republican Party, prompting contested races for House Seat A and the District 2 Senate seat.

Vying for House Seat A are Republican Rep. Vito Barbieri of Dalton Gardens, and Hayden resident Mark Fisher, a self-employed benefits insurance consultant. Meanwhile, Sen. Steve Vick’s contest with former Sen. Mike Jorgenson, whom Vick defeated in 2010 after three terms in the Senate, is quickly turning into another hot race.

Indeed, the showdown between Vick and Jorgenson is emblematic of the split that defines Kootenai County’s staunch conservative community. Where in recent years, longtime incumbents were ousted for being too moderate, this election seems to signal a swing in the other direction.

Jorgenson announced in March that he had joined Fisher and Morse in a “coalition of independent, intelligent conservatives,” in opposition to the hyper-partisan and “fringe” (as Morse characterized it to Spokesman-Review reporter Betsy Z. Russell) ideology represented by tax protester Hart, nullifier Barbieri and Vick, who touts wolf eradication and ending the “tyranny of the federal EPA” as central goals of his service in Boise.

Vick’s conservatism earned him an endorsement from the Kootenai County Reagan Republicans, though the group notably snubbed Hart in favor of Ed Morse, who seems so far to be the leading contender against the four-term lawmaker. The Reagan Republicans characterized Morse as a “business leader who will bring ethics and commonsense conservative solutions.” That may not be too surprising, considering Morse is a member of the organization’s board.

But Morse, unlike Vieselmeyer and Wiedenhoff, has also been very direct in challenging Hart’s record. In an op-ed published in the May 2012 edition of the Capitalist Papers, a libertarian-minded newspaper based in Coeur d’Alene, Morse put it bluntly: “My opponent is the poster child for using his office for personal gain and special privileges. For years he has asserted legislative immunity to forestall paying his taxes. He has transferred assets to defraud creditors, and owes over $550,000 in back taxes. It’s time for a change!”

Jorgenson has also seized on the “throw the bums out” strategy, using Hart’s ethics investigation and tax troubles to put Barbieri and Vick on the spot—both of whom, and especially Barbieri, are seen as Hart allies.

On April 30, Jorgenson drafted, signed and sent a “Republican Principle Pledge” to candidates in the district, asking them to pledge to Kootenai County constituents that they would be “honest, have integrity, obey the law, honor Idaho courts and pay my taxes.”

When asked about the pledge, Vick told the Spokesman-Review that it was “grandstanding.” Nonetheless, Jorgenson, Morse and Fisher seem to be finding a receptive electorate, which is somewhat surprising given the fact that the vast majority of Republican campaigning this season has consisted of how “truly conservative” a candidate may or may not be.

According to recent campaign finance reports filed with the secretary of state, Morse’s war chest is more than double Hart’s, which was pegged at just more than $6,700, and Fisher has so far topped Barbieri’s fundraising total of around $10,300 by more than $2,500. Jorgenson, meanwhile, has come within about $2,800 of Vick’s current total of just under $17,000.

As Hart’s increasingly embarrassing political theater drags on and the far right-wing of the Idaho GOP becomes ever more obsessed with its internal ideological purity, it seems likelier this election than any other in recent years that North Idaho—long painted as the bastion of Idaho extremism—may turn a lighter shade of red.

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