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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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Defending against repeated charges that she is a "Republican in Name Only," Keough bemoans the trend toward political rigidity coming from the far right wing of the party.

"One person's measure of purity is different from the guy across the street," she said. "I think it's unfortunate that we get tied into these litmus test-type things because we lose sight of the ball: making sure we're maintaining the government and the republic that we all value. We win the battle but we lose the war."

We Have Met the Enemy, and the Enemy is Us

The acrimony of the primaries and attempted purge by party leaders are just symptoms of larger tensions within the GOP--both in Idaho and nationally, said Jasper LiCalzi, chair of the Politics-Economics Department at the College of Idaho and a 20-year observer of Gem State politics.

"There are political subcultures in the country and two of them are in Idaho and they are split. One is an individualistic side--that's your northern Idaho Libertarians. Then there's the moralistic side, and that's more eastern Idaho," LiCalzi said. "We want the government out of our life, but we want the government to make people do the right thing at certain times. That's where you get the split."

For instance, he said, while the individualists are by nature opposed to measures like mandating invasive ultrasounds before an abortion can be performed, it fits with the moralists' point of view. Likewise with things like loyalty oaths and closed primaries--institutions that play to moralistic politics by enforcing ideological purity over inclusivity. Since 2008--when conservatives lost control of Congress and the White House, and everyone lost control of the economy--the Grand Old Party has been flooded with fire-breathing ideologues whose zealous hatred of liberals is outmatched only by their angst over infiltration by moderate Republicans.

On the national stage, this tension reveals itself in situations like Ron Paul delegates walking out of the RNC convention in a huff, but the national Republicans have actual Democrats to contend with. Not so in Idaho.

"This is what you get when you have more of a single-party state," LiCalzi said. "There's always going to be competition, and if it's not going to be between two parties, it's going to be within the party. They're going to break down into factions ... [and] that's politics; there's going to be conflict."

The result, according to LiCalzi, is that compromise and moderation are sidelined in favor of expanding and maintaining the party's grip on power. Keough, and others like her who eschew purely ideological decision-making, increasingly find themselves on the firing line.

"You used to have more comity amongst them--the legislators," LiCalzi said. "You would see more, 'I might not like you but we're all senators or representatives.' Now there seems to be more desire for competition; that you're trying to beat the other guy more than say, 'OK, well, instead of trying to beat Shawn Keough, I'll work with her and find some kind of compromise.'"

Likening it to the attitude of "I'd rather be right than president," LiCalzi added that when a dominant party starts to devour itself, the institutions that it controls inevitably break down.

"Because you know that you could lose and have to protect your flank--your right flank, basically--you can't be pragmatic and come up with a solution because you'll be penalized for that," he said. "It's like Oprah Winfrey politics: whatever's important right now, boom, that's what we're upset about. ... No one's looking long term."

According to Grant that super-partisan mentality will do more to help Democrats in November than any amount of infighting.

"We're working hard, and all I can say is, if they want to shoot themselves in the foot, we're happy to supply the bullet," he said.

Bell, as well as Perry, also lamented the Legislature's increasing fixation on measures meant as red meat for the right wing.

"Let's face it, I don't think any of us are able to take that long-term outlook that we should do because there's the now. You're there. You've got 90 days, you have those people who sent you and they have those issues that are really short term; it's that pothole in the road that's the issue, not a whole other road," she said, adding that while Idaho's Legislature is more functional than that of most other states, lawmakers should be careful not to follow the example of the Congress.

"I think that what may help us is when we see the debacle in the United States Congress and realize that we can't allow that to happen here," she said. "They've drawn those lines in the sand and no one's willing to step over it."

The lines in the sand are getting deeper, though; the hardening of the Idaho GOP's ideology is amply evidenced by its platform, adopted in June at the party convention in Twin Falls. Among the usual language about small government and property rights, the party's planks include traditionally fringe issues like the abolition of the Federal Reserve and nullification of federal laws and mandates that Republicans deem unconstitutional under the 10th Amendment.

"What we're really seeing is an influx of Libertarian-leaning Republicans. Libertarians and Republicans are different creatures, really, and I think that's creating a divide," Perry said, adding that ending the Fed and calling for the repeal of the 17th Amendment, among other stands, are "types of things that aren't normally Republican mantras."

"Some don't sit right and feel right," she said.

Ultimately Perry said the leadership struggle in the House--and the "vindictive" tactics used to either punish independent-minded lawmakers or those who support other candidates for positions of power within the caucus--are most damaging to the Legislature.

"You can look at the people next to you and know they tried to unseat you, and you can either act the way they acted or you can be a better person," she said. "If I could change it, I would like to get the GOP in Idaho as a whole to focus on the best interests of the voters. I think there is that faction of the GOP that has begun to focus solely on their ideology, and they've lost sight of the best interests of Idaho and Idahoans, and they need to get back to that. ... You can't lead in a vacuum."

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