To borrow (and mangle) a phrase from the Bard, Tuesday's Idaho Republican Primary was a classic example of “sound and fury signifying, well, something. Sort of.”
Election watchers around the state have reported record low turnouts for the first-ever closed Idaho Republican primary—according to some sources, fewer than 25 percent of registered voters cast ballots statewide—and that despite what pundits have gone so far as to suggest was a battle for the very soul of the Idaho Republican Party.
The “moderates vs. extremes” narrative was perhaps best exemplified in north Idaho’s District 2, which includes much of Kootenai County, where tax-protester Rep. Phil Hart ran for a fifth term in the Idaho House.
Hart, an Athol Republican much in the news for his longstanding fight with state and federal authorities over a bill amounting to more than $500,000 in back taxes and fines, was narrowly defeated by GOP challenger Ed Morse for Seat B in District 2.
Morse, a Kootenai County real estate appraiser, edged out Hart by fewer than 5 percent of the vote, with 35 percent of Kootenai County’s 70,000 or so registered voters. Hart took 31 percent, or 1,746 votes cast, making him the loser in a highly contested four-way primary fight with Morse (who gleaned 1,984 votes), Ron Vieselmeyer (with 20 percent) and Fritz Wiedenhoff (13 percent).
Those aren’t big numbers, but that typified this year’s GOP primary. As Kootenai County Elections Manager Carrie Phillips told Boise Weekly a few hours before polls closed: “This year’s kind of hard to tell because party affiliation is new with this election. I’ve had poll workers tell me that people just walk out.
“We’re not too surprised by that,” she added. “We knew that there would be some people who weren’t too pleased with the change."
According to the unofficial count, posted after midnight, 21 percent of voters in District 2 hit the polls—a total of just 14,811 ballots cast. But that was enough turnout to spurn Hart, who has become a lightning rod of controversy with a highly publicized ethics investigation that stripped him of membership on the powerful Tax and Revenue Committee.
But aside from Hart, there were few changes in the district. Republican Rep. Raul Labrador handily defeated challenger Reed McCandless with 81 percent of the vote, and Republican State Sen. Steve Vick beat former Sen. Mike Jorgenson for a second time, with 62 percent. Jorgenson garnered 38 percent.
The race was tighter between District 2A Rep. Vito Barbieri and Mark Fisher, though Barbieri ultimately won out with 57 percent over Fisher’s 43 percent.
Jorgenson had campaigned with Morse and Fisher as “independent, intelligent conservatives” against what they characterized as hyper-partisan, ideology-driven opponents Hart, Vick and Barbieri.
The pushback against hard-right candidates and incumbents was a feature of this year’s GOP primary, and is further evidenced by the number of Democrats who will face the Republican victors in November. Vick will square off with Senate contender Shirley McFaddan, while Morse goes head to head with Cheryl Stransky for District 2B and Barbieri will have to fight it out with Dan English for District 2A.
No Democrat has been elected from the district in 18 years and no member of the party has even run for state office in a decade, all of which attests to the hitherto unknown level of infighting that has characterized the Idaho GOP this election cycle. In Kootenai County, five candidates vied for one seat on the commission and three for another. Three candidates were in the mix for sheriff and two were on the ballot for prosecuting attorney.
All of which made for a lot of drama, but not much action.
“It’s pretty typical for a primary election,” Phillips said.