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Grand Old Punch-Up: Idaho Republicans Duke it Out Amongst Themselves

Infighting in the Idaho GOP ramps up charged political climate

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There's something rotten in the party of Lincoln.

For years now, a hard-right wind has been blowing through the Grand Old Party, and it has made for some strange currents in the traditionally stolid Republican weltanschauung. First, there was the great Tea Party uprising in 2008, followed by a long simmer fanned into a blaze by the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Flash forward to the debt-ceiling crisis of 2011, when the Republican Party literally held the U.S. economy hostage in order to wangle tax cuts for the rich, and then to 2012, when the party decided to time travel back to the 1960s and challenge women's reproductive rights.

Now, coming off the Republican National Convention in Tampa, it seems clear that the GOP is locked in a struggle for its own ideological identity, with a presidential candidate like Mitt Romney, who seems to have an inordinate amount of trouble not coming off like an ATM with a bouffant--forget his tax returns; more and more politics watchers want to see proof that Romney has DNA. And there's vice presidential hopeful Rep. Paul Ryan, an Ayn Rand apostle whose convention speech was a litany of self-serving fictions. Even Clint Eastwood in his octogenarian rant against an empty chair couldn't really find anything consistent to say about the direction of the party.

When Herbert Hoover's great-granddaughter wonders aloud, "What the *#@% is wrong" with the GOP--as Margaret Hoover, a CNN contributor, gay-marriage advocate and author of the book American Individualism: How a New Generation of Conservatives Can Save the Republican Party, did in August--you know something has gone deeply awry.

Lucky for us, we live in one of the most solidly Republican states in the union, so case studies are more than readily available. The prognosis, it seems, in the wake of a historically fractious primary and a state convention reaffirming a raft of policy planks that would have made John C. Calhoun proud, is that the Idaho GOP has circled its wagons and started shooting inward.

"It was a stunner. It was just a sad, sad thing, and I still don't understand it," said Rep. Maxine Bell, a 12-term Republican House member from Jerome, referring to a primary election wherein incumbents around the state faced a higher-than-usual number of challengers and some--including longtime sitting Republican lawmakers Sen. Shawn Keough of Sandpoint, Dover Rep. George Eskridge, Sen. Patti Anne Lodge of Huston, Rupert's Sen. Dean Cameron and House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts of Donnelly--were targeted by political action committees supported by their own party leadership.

"I don't understand why we take after each other," Bell continued. "We've always considered ourselves a large tent--I can remember them saying that. There was a place for the Smiley Republicans and there was a place for the George Hansen Republicans. ... I don't quite understand what their fear is in this very, very red state."

The Primary Party

In Idaho, where Republicans take the permanence of their long-standing political hegemony as an article of faith, any hint of inter-party rebellion--even a whiff of disunion--has traditionally been met with swift retribution or swift denial. You don't dominate every level of state government for decades without keeping the reins tight on the rank and file.

However, while the Idaho GOP prides itself on fronting a monolithic appearance, there are significant cracks in the facade--a fact made startlingly clear during the primary races. The Idaho Republicans' tent is big enough; it's just hosting too many circuses.

"I've been saying for a while that Idaho is now basically a one-party state," said Jeff Ward, who heads the Kootenai County Reagan Republicans, a grassroots organization that focuses on organizing local GOP volunteers.

It has clashed particularly with other groups like RallyRight and the United Conservatives of North Idaho, which Ward said are too preoccupied with purging the party of moderates, rather than electing good candidates.

"Anytime you have that kind of situation in history, in the South prior to the 1960s, basically, the dominant political party ends up having its own factions," he said. "It's the only game in town."

Hired hands at the party level are loath to admit that, of course.

"As we look at our system, it's made up to have differing opinions," said Josh Whitworth, a 30-year-old Mackay native who took over as executive director of the Idaho GOP after this summer's convention in Twin Falls. "I hope we have differing opinions and, as a party, that's what the primary is about: to come out with the issues that we really think need to be brought forward. ...

"After the primary, and as we go forward, it's about bringing us together and going forward," he added. "I think, as a whole, even though we may disagree and battle in the primaries, when we get to the generals we're a solid team altogether. ... I think there are some things we need to work on and build us up, and that's a very high priority for me: bringing us together. I really do see us coming together."

Ward agrees that the GOP is working to reconcile its primary season divisions, even going so far as to say that the healing process is going quicker this time than in election cycles past.

"People recognize the importance of things and the Democrats have put up a bigger fight this time than last, other than in the Congressional race," he said. "If we don't want to take some losses, we have to unify and sort of circle the wagons."

Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Larry Grant doesn't quite see it that way. He said Republicans are doing enough damage to themselves with legislation, while most people couldn't care less about their intra-party spats.

"It's no secret that there's an internal struggle in the Republican Party, basically between what I'll call the Raul Labrador group--the old Bill Sali, Lou Esposito group--and the governor's group," Grant said. "One of the things that the ultra-conservatives, the extremists, want to do is close the primary, supposedly to keep Democrats from hijacking their candidates. ... It's just more of this ideological purity that the extremists in the Republican Party are attempting to enforce [on] the party as a whole. This was not about Democrats, this was about Republicans purging Republicans. ...

"I'm not ready to say that the infighting in the Republican Party is helping the Democratic Party," he added. "I certainly think the closed primary is an issue that has hurt Republicans from the standpoint of the general public. I think the Luna Laws--the education issue--is another issue that has caught people's attention, especially with school starting now. I think the ultrasound issue is another one. Not only are they not running away from their mistakes, they're doubling down on them. ...

"It's not the fight itself that's hurting us, it's that the extremists seem to be winning," he said.

The Idaho GOP's slide to the right and subsequent crackdown on Republicans deemed too moderate or too incompliant by certain factions was amply experienced by Rep. Christy Perry, a Nampa Republican running for her second term in the House. She, along with Keough, Eskridge, Roberts, Cameron and Lodge (who taken together have served more than 30 terms), found herself on the business end of a barrage of PAC money intended to make sure she didn't return to the statehouse for the 2013 legislative session.

"How I think that happened goes back to a divide in the Legislature: How should we really be operated and the direction of the state. It's a matter of opinion on how leadership should operate," said Perry, who won a four-way primary race for the newly redrawn District 11B House seat against Matt Dorsey, Ronalee Linsenmann and John Gough. She is unopposed in the November election.

"It should not be operated on the good ol' boy system. Legislation should rise and fall based on its merits--not who brought it or who supports it or not," she added. "I was verbal about these things. I did not follow suit."

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