The Idaho Republican Party is either one of the shrewdest political operations in the nation or it's incredibly lucky--maybe a little of both.
When Gem State GOP top brass announced they would close the party's primary system to only those registered as a Republican, the move was considered politically risky given that hundreds of thousands of Idahoans who, while considering themselves conservatives, had, for the most part, not formally tagged themselves as Republicans.
But then something unexpected happened--a raucous, drawn-out competition for the Republican Party's top prize: its presidential nomination.
Because there is still no clear frontrunner, all of the top Republican presidential contenders have brought their efforts to the state, looking to win precious delegates in the totally up-for-grabs Super Tuesday Idaho GOP Caucuses. Because of the robust interest in the crazy quilt that is the presidential contest, tens of thousands of Idahoans are expected to participate in the Tuesday, March 6, event. And therein lies the bonanza.
"This is playing out to be pretty much the perfect-case scenario," said Jonathan Parker, executive director of the Idaho Republican Party. "There is no down side to this."
According to Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, as many as 750,000 Idaho voters weren't registered with any political party in 2011.
But to participate in the Super Tuesday Caucus and/or the Tuesday, May 15, GOP closed primary, right-leaning Idahoans will have to formally declare their allegiance to the Grand Old Party.
"I get calls every day from people saying, 'I'm a registered Republican.' Well, they're not," said Parker. "They think that simply because they voted in a dozen or so previous GOP primaries, and they were handed Republican ballots, they're a registered Republican. They actually weren't."
Parker confirmed that his party's internal polling indicated that the majority of Idahoans might consider themselves conservatives.
"But for whatever reason, they have wanted to stay as independents," he said.
But they can't remain "independent" if they want to vote on Super Tuesday for Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum or even Buddy Roemer (see sidebar).
"When we used to hold our presidential contests in May, it was too late in the game. Idaho was a fly over state for way too long. Candidates would come here to raise some money and then leave without campaigning for our votes or delegates," said Parker. "When we decided to go with a caucus and join the Super Tuesday group, it was a gamble, but that's playing out very well for us right now."
In fact, the timing couldn't be better. The Super Tuesday caucus is a scant three days before a Friday, March 9, deadline, which requires Idahoans to declare party allegiance if they want to vote in the Tuesday, May 15, closed-party primary, which will be chock-full of candidates running for the Idaho Legislature.
Running a Caucus
Each of Idaho's 44 counties will run their own caucuses. Because of rural challenges, some counties like Bannock, Bear Lake, Bonner and Elmore may run more than one caucus location so participants won't have to drive extended distances.
Closer to home, Ada County Republicans will gather in Boise State's Taco Bell Arena; the Idaho Center will host Canyon County's event; Blaine County will have Republicans gather in the Hailey Elementary School gym and Valley County will hold its caucus in Cascade Elementary School (see a complete list at boiseweekly.com).
Each caucus will begin at 7 p.m., including those in the Pacific Time Zone--in other words, those caucuses above the 45th parallel will begin at 8 p.m. Mountain Time.
1. The first rule is the most important. Voters must be registered as Republicans to participate. Those who have pre-registered will have an "express lane" to enter the caucus. Otherwise, participants will need to provide a driver's license or identification to register. Voters who are 17 years old may participate if they turn 18 before Tuesday, Nov. 6.
2. Participants must be inside the caucus location by 7 p.m.
3. Voting will take place in successive rounds. If a candidate receives a simple majority of at least 50 percent of the vote, plus one, the process is over and that candidate wins that caucus location.
But if no candidate has garnered 50 percent, the candidate with the lowest vote tally in each round is eliminated. Additionally, any candidate who receives less than 15 percent of the vote is eliminated.
4. The caucus vote continues until one of the candidates receives at least 50 percent of the vote, or only two candidates remain and a final vote is taken.
5. Votes from each of Idaho's 44 county caucuses are compiled. If any candidate tops 50 percent of the vote statewide, all of Idaho's 32 delegates will be bound to that candidate on the first ballot of the Republican National convention.
6. If no candidate secures 50 percent of the total vote, delegates will be apportioned at the Idaho State GOP Convention in June.
Trevor Thorpe may not be as well-known as Parker or Idaho Republican Party Chairman Norm Semanko but that's about to change. The 26-year-old political director for the Idaho GOP has been tasked with making sure that the Gem State's first-of-its-kind caucus runs as smoothly as possible.
"This is why we hired Trevor to come in a few months early," said Parker. "He was going to come on board to oversee our legislative races this spring, but the caucuses are his main assignment right now."
Thorpe has been spending his days, and more than a few nights, coaching Idaho's 44 county GOP central committees on the do's and do not's of caucusing.
"No. 1, we're really encouraging all of our county people to get out and pre-register people," said Thorpe. "Precinct chairs across Idaho are walking their precincts in the days running up to the caucus."
On the day of the caucus, GOP committee officials will visit their respective county clerk's offices and get a printout of every registered Republican in their county.
"Let's say you're a registered Democrat but you want to participate in the caucus. You have to change your party affiliation and that will hold true for the caucus as well as the May primary," said Thorpe.
One of the biggest differences between a caucus and a primary is that electioneering is allowed--and even encouraged.
"Each of the candidates will have someone speak on their behalf," said Thorpe. "We even have videos from the candidates that can be played at the caucuses. After the speeches, we'll go through the rules and the voting will begin."
Additionally, caucuses will serve as a primetime money machine for the party.
"A lot of the counties are getting sponsors for the event," said Parker. "They can even charge candidates to set up tables inside the caucuses. More importantly, when the evening is over, the party can follow up with all of the attendees by possibly sending fund-raising letters. Our primary purpose is to have a big say on who the nominee will be, but the real kicker here is that this is a huge opportunity to build our party."
The Future of the Party
One of tables set up at Taco Bell Arena will be manned by Domenic Gelsomino, the state chairman of the Idaho Federation of College Republicans. One need not look much further than Gelsomino and his colleagues to gauge the future of Idaho's GOP.
"In the days leading up to the caucus, we've been set up on the campus of Boise State, registering new Republicans," said Gelsomino, 19, a first-generation American descendant of a Sicilian-born immigrant.
Gelsomino is too young to remember Ronald Reagan, but he considers the 40th U.S. president as his political ideal.
"My father saw Reagan as the perfect American," said Gelsomino. "I've studied Reagan religiously."
That's why, he said, he supports Newt Gingrich, because "he is aligned closest with Reagan. He even got the endorsement from Nancy [Reagan] and Michael [the president's son]."
But Gelsomino said he's ready to support whoever the GOP chooses as its nominee.
"Let me put it this way, I'll support Romney if he wins the nomination. I won't be necessarily for him as much as I would be against Barack Obama," he said.
Gelsomino's organization is not to be underestimated. The Idaho Federation of College Republicans boasts chapters on the campuses of Boise State, Northwest Nazarene, Idaho State, the University of Idaho and BYU-Idaho. At Boise State, the organization counts 30 "engaged" members.
"As a chapter, we're not allowed to endorse a candidate until we have a nominee," said Gelsomino, who acknowledged that many of his colleagues had thrown their individual support behind Ron Paul.
"For some reason that I haven't quite figured out yet, I would say the majority of my contemporaries support Ron Paul," he said. "Not necessarily because they support Paul, but because they dislike the other candidates so much."
Gelsomino isn't shy about his criticism for members of his own party.
"The old-timers, those old Tuesday country-club Republicans need to get to the back of the line," said Gelsomino. "Their time has expired. We're tired of seeing moderate and liberal Republicans take over the mantle of our party. They're leading the party in a direction that is truly not the Republican way."
Gelsomino even has his own sights on running for the Idaho Legislature in 2014.
"I'll file paperwork as early as this November to run two years from now," said Gelsomino. "The Republican Party in Idaho can do a lot better. Idaho needs to step up its game. A lot of people from blue states like Oregon, Washington and California keep moving here and that's turning us from a red state into a purple state. Moderate Republicans are not a true representation of what true Republicans are."
On Super Tuesday, Gelsomino may be one of the most engaged campaigners at Ada County's Caucus. He may not be on the ballot in 2012, but he knows an opportunity when he sees one.
"This year, I'm part of a truly conservative Republican revolution," he said.