Idaho has long been a Republican state. In a prior post I chronicled Idaho’s turn from pink to ruby-red. But with one party dominance come issues and the Idaho GOP has them. Today’s Idaho GOP is divided among libertarians, constitutionalists, the establishment, moderates and the Tea Party. The divide among the GOP can easily be seen by looking at the races for Governor, the 1st Congressional District and Second Congressional District primary races.
The race for Governor has attracted the most statewide attention for several reasons. Governor Butch Otter, seeking a third term, was the only GOP Governor with a GOP legislature to create a state Healthcare exchange (GOP Governors in NV and NM did so with Democratic legislatures). The move angered the libertarian and Tea Party wing of the party and state senator Russ Fulcher, a vocal opponent of the exchange in the legislature, is challenging Otter. Most analysts peg Otter as having the advantage but Fulcher is sure to cultivate grassroots anger against the move. Fulcher and Otter also differ on usage of federal lands as well as the closed primary.
Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District race between Congressman Mike Simpson and challenger Bryan Smith is a case-study in both the Idaho and national GOP divide. Smith and Simpson largely agree on the issues; oppose the EPA, cut spending, shrink government, but they differ over strategy. Simpson, a strong ally of John Boehner, believes compromise is a necessary part of governing as long as it does not sacrifice one’s principles. Smith believes no compromise is necessary and Simpson by voting for TARP in 2008 and recently the government shutdown ending CR has sold out conservative principles. This is not the first challenge of this kind that Simpson has faced. In both 2010 and 2012 Simpson faced Tea Party inspired challengers, the most notable being Chick Heilson. In the crowded 2010 primary Simpson garnered a mere 58% but in 2012, matched up one on one against Heilson he garnered over 70%.
The GOP’s 1st Congressional District primary features the exact opposite contrast. Sophomore Raul Labrador, not as willing to compromise as Simpson and often viewed as a face of the Tea Party, faces a a libertarian challenger who supports hemp legalization and Michael Greenway. Greenway, a BSU graduate, argues that the GOP needs to moderate and work with Democrats on key issues. In this mold he is more similar to Simpson and favors compromise (though Simpson’s rhetoric is far more conservative).
Other races in Idaho showcase the party divide. Lt. Governor Brad Little, sure to be reelected, faces Jim Chmelik, who favors the state taking over federal lands. In the Attorney General’s race, Lawrence Wasden faces challenger Chris Troupis whose campaign is contingent on his successful litigation of the state party’s effort to close the primary. The crowded field for Superintendant of Public Instruction race features four candidates that agree on many issues but the field is divided on support for Common Core. Three candidates, Andy Grover, Randy Jensen and Sherri Ybarra, favor Common Core while John Enyon opposes it. A slate of legislative primaries also feature incumbent vs. libertarian/Tea Party Republican challengers.
These divides have spilled over into public discourse among party members. Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has described himself and other incumbents as “Sane Republicans.” The inference being libertarian/Tea Party challengers to statewide Constitutional officeholders are whackjobs. Former Idaho Governor Phil Batt argued the Tea Party is holding back anti-discrimination legislation for the LBGT community (never-mind most of the party establishment opposes it). At the Shoshone County Lincoln Day banquet in April, Otter got in the face of state party chairman Barry Peterson regarding precinct committee races. Yet another series of races that feature the divide within the party. Precinct committeemen sit on the State Central Committee and have guided party policy towards closing the primary and opposing the state exchange.
I got to see the divide firsthand at a Boise State Public Radio event featuring Democratic strategist Betty Richardson (her bile spewed far and wide), BSU Professor Emeritus Jim Weatherby and retiring Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. One would expect Betty to argue the GOP is off its rockers but it was striking to see Ysursa speak so disrespectfully of his fellow party members (Russ Fulcher in particular). Perhaps it is a good thing he is leaving.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly when this divide within the party began. Dirk Kempthorne’s successful gas tax initiative in 2005 certainly did not help. Nor did Governor Otter’s 2008 effort to stack the State Central Committee with his handpicked chairman. After Otter’s failure the State Party voted to close its primary. Ben Ysursa actually sued his party and lost in court in 2011. Since that time Otter, Little and Ysursa have all been publicly opposed to the closed primary. The state party openly opposed a state exchange but the legislature and Otter moved ahead with it regardless.
It is clear one party control has helped divide the party on ideology. If a party wins election after election it is only natural that the political debate within the state be over ideological distinctions. Democrats since 1994 have long been irrelevant in the state for reasons mentioned in prior posts. Perhaps that might be the real reason Betty is so bitter. The best her party can come up with this year is a nobody Senate candidate and a Moscow legislator who is far from moderate to challenge Labrador. Their Constitutional office candidates are more appealing but far from centrist (Holli Woodings anyone).
Tonight’s primary results will go a long way in showing where the party is heading. It is likely that even if the GOP overreaches it will maintain strong control of the legislature and most, if not all, Constitutional offices. In 2012, despite seeing all three elements of the Students Come First Laws repealed by referendum the GOP did not lose a single seat in the legislature. Hence, the party can afford to have these primary skirmishes to chart its future. In time it could backfire on the party and the more establishment or Tea Party/libertarian wing of the party could be humbled. But even so, the Idaho Republican Party’s divide will go on well into the future.