Lawsuit Limbo

Republicans wait to see fate of closed primaries


Since a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit attempting to limit participation in Republican Party primaries, the group of 72 rogue Republicans who brought the suit is left wondering what comes next.

The options cover a range of legal and legislative choices: from filing a new lawsuit, this time with the state Republican Party as a plaintiff, to waiting to see what the state Legislature does.

The path the issue will ultimately follow is unknown, but that fact isn't discouraging those who want to see primaries limited to party members.

"It's a minor setback," said Rod Beck, who represents the group. "It delays the process somewhat, but it's going to happen."

Judge Mikel Williams dismissed the suit on the grounds that the 72 individual party members lacked the standing to represent the party as a whole. The written ruling went on to say the group failed to meet the demands of a derivative lawsuit since they did not to show they made sufficient demands of the party leadership.

"A vague 'discussion' about a lawsuit with random party members and an invitation to the party chairman to join in a lawsuit already under way is not equivalent to the formal demand required," Williams wrote.

But rather than being disheartened by the ruling, Beck said it offers a clear road map for what the group would have to do to be successful in the future.

The first step along any path for Beck and his group is to bring the issue before the Republican Central Committee meeting in January. At this point, Beck and his supporters can ask the governing body of the state party to sign on to the lawsuit in an effort to formalize the demand and gain legal standing.

But the party has previously been hesitant to consider legal tactics. This approach raised the ire of Beck's group.

"If a vote had been taken in June, [the party] would have demanded legal recourse," he said. "It's not just a cooked-up scheme.

"We are sick and tired of allowing those who oppose us to participate in the selection of our quarterbacks," he said.

Party chairman Kirk Sullivan has repeatedly come down on the side of allowing the issue to be resolved by the Legislature, going so far as to co-sponsor a bill that would have limited primaries to party members, but still allowed independent voters to participate.

Keith Allred, president of Common Interest, a nonpartisan political think tank, said he doubts the party will elect to join any lawsuit just as the Legislature is starting its new session.

Many lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, and Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, have said the issue will be addressed during the next session, but Beck isn't so sure.

"I'm not confident they will [consider the issue]," Beck said. "Members don't seem too inclined to consider these proposals.

"If the Legislature fails to enact legislation that will implement the rule, we have all kinds of other options available to us," he said.

Beck believes the ruling may force the Legislature's hand. "It just upped the ante," he said.

But even attorney Christ Troupis, who represents Beck's group, suggested during the most recent hearing that the group would consider delaying action until the Legislature has its chance to enact new policy.

"It's just something that our attorney suggested," Beck said. "He got the read from the judge that he wasn't going to go our way. [He was] just reading tea leaves and seeing what the judge was saying."

Plans are already in the works to present legislation during the 2008 session. Allred said his group has revised a draft bill written last year with the help of Sen. Brad Little, R-Emmett.

This bill forwards the idea of a modified-closed primary, in which independent voters could anonymously participate in one primary or the other.

Allred believes a modified-closed primary is the ultimate outcome.

"There are many forks in the road now, and they all lead to a modified-closed primary," he said. "The only real question is how much time and chaos and lawsuits will pass before we get there."

Of course, Beck doesn't share Allred's opinion. "We won't accept some watered-down version of the same old stuff," he said.

Last year, Beck supported a version of the modified-closed primaries idea, but one that would officially record which primary an independent voter participated in.

But not all of Beck's fellow party members share his opinion. Among them is former House Speaker Bruce Newcomb.

"If you're going to have [a modified-closed primary], that's as far as you want to go," he said. "It makes sense to me. In one of the most Republican states in the nation, why do you have to make it even more so?"

Newcomb calls the attempt to force a fully closed primary an attempt to skew party results so that "some who haven't been able to get elected will be elected."

"They're deluding themselves," he said. "[It's] for those who want to get rid of the RINOs [Republican in name only]."

Additionally, Newcomb said a closed primary risks alienating independent voters, who make up a large portion of the voting block and usually vote Republican.

Davis said the modified-closed primary shows some potential. "It still allows Idahoans to still participate and still feel they're independents," he said.

He added that he feels the majority of the state's Republicans would prefer to see the matter solved out of the courts. "Republicans would prefer the Legislature to weigh in and decide these issues than ask the court to decide what the laws for the state will be."

Allred believes something will be done in this legislative session, but it's tough to predict what the outcome will be. Part of the problem is that legislators are feeling pressure from both sides, he said.

"If the Legislature doesn't act, party activists are going to be pretty upset," Allred said. "As you go into an election, those are the people you turn to."

But pushing in the opposite direction is the fact that independent voters can be credited with much of the Republican Party's success in Idaho. "They're between rock and hard place on this," he said.

Allred believes there is a 50-50 chance of a decision, but added that a modified-closed primary is the only thing that stands a chance.

"Beck is wrong if he thinks he can ultimately get a closed primary," he said.

In a worst-case scenario, Beck said the party still has the option of challenging the result of a primary if the state does not change election law to align with party rules.

While Williams said a challenge by Beck's group would be difficult, the party as a whole may have a better chance. But Beck is quick to add that a challenge is highly doubtful. "I'm not saying it would be a good idea or they would even do it," he said.

Beck still holds tight to his faith that primaries will be closed—one way or another.

"It's just a matter of when," he said. "There's too much support in the grass roots of the Idaho Republican Party for this to just slither up and go away."