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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Turns out that being rebellious on the House floor is a good way to call down the wrath of the party bosses--specifically, Perry said, Speaker Lawerence Denney of Midvale and House Majority Leader Mike Moyle of Star.

"What I witnessed and went through was, 'Here's what we're going to do and you're supposed to follow,'" she said, referring to the 2012 legislative session. "I questioned things, I brought up issues on some occasions and I didn't vote with the Republican Party all the time."

In particular, Perry refused to vote with the GOP on House Bill 464, which drastically limited local governments' ability to block natural gas drilling. That legislation, co-sponsored by Denney, ultimately passed, but Perry, along with Eskridge, also broke ranks with the party to successfully kill another energy-related bill that would have established a moratorium on the development of wind power generation.

"My vote [on the natural gas bill] was not going to change the outcome by any means, but I did not vote with them, and I did tell the speaker, 'I cannot vote for this and here are my reasons,'" Perry said. "Well, it was his bill, and when their name is on it and you don't go with the speaker, I don't think that was appreciated."

Similarly, Perry said, the wind moratorium was also close to the speaker's heart.

"Again, that was a bill that the speaker wanted and some of us worked against it. We didn't think it was a good bill for Idahoans," she said.

Neither Denney nor Moyle responded to requests for comment, though it has become clear in the months following the primary that there was definitely something concerted going on to unseat very specific members of the Legislature, and those efforts were being paid for--at least in part--by the House Leadership Victory Fund, which Denney controls as speaker of the House.

According to press reports and campaign finance records released by the Idaho Secretary of State's Office this summer, Denney transferred $10,000 from the fund into a group called GunPAC in April. That follows $5,000 paid out to political consulting firm Spartac and $15,000 to the Free Enterprise PAC in 2011. Moyle also contributed $5,000 to GunPAC during the 2012 primary season. (Ironically, in targeting Perry and Eskridge, the pro-Second Amendment GunPAC was going after the co-owner of a gun store and a Vietnam veteran, respectively.)

Lawmakers routinely contribute to PACs and election campaigns, but this time around, it was different: GunPAC, the Free Enterprise PAC and Spartac, as well as the Idaho Land PAC and Greater Education Movement, are all owned by Lou Esposito, a Republican strategist picked by Denney to sit on the first--failed--2011 state redistricting commission. BW's voice message to Esposito went unanswered.

Looking at campaign finance reports, it becomes clear that there was a veritable whirlwind of money surrounding Esposito's various PACs: more than $13,000 from the Idaho Land PAC, $4,500 from the Greater Education Movement and $1,500 from GunPAC all went to the interconnected Free Enterprise PAC. Spartac, of course, reaped several thousand dollars here and there, and money was flying out the door for direct-mail fliers denouncing the targeted lawmakers and into the campaign coffers of their challengers.

All four groups funneled money--including cash from the House Leadership Victory Fund--to a slate of 40 candidates around the state, but most notably to the opponents of Cameron, Eskridge, Keough, Lodge, Perry and Roberts--the latter, as majority caucus chairman, is actually the treasurer of the fund but locked in a bitter contest for Moyle's majority leader position--a fact that Moyle has been clear was his motivation for donating to GunPAC.

"My goal is to make Ken's life miserable because he's making my life miserable," Moyle told the Idaho Statesman's Dan Popkey in a pre-primary interview in May.

In the same article, Denney, who is also facing a challenger for the speaker position in Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke of Oakley, said that he didn't know Republican incumbents were being targeted by Esposito's PACs and maintained he'd never involved himself with races involving senators, calling it "poor form" for House members to go after fellow GOPers.

Nonetheless, that's exactly what happened.

"Myself and others who were targeted remain astounded at what occurred, and we're still scratching our heads over that," said Keough, whose opponent, Danielle Ahrens, benefited from nearly $6,000 in contributions from sources including the Idaho Land PAC and Greater Education Movement, as well as Idaho Chooses Life, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, the unincorporated PAC Idaho Free Enterprise Association, Washington-based utility company Avista, and the Idaho Association for Good Government, which is owned by Republican Rep. Bob Nonini of Coeur d'Alene.

"It was like national politics come to the state level," said Keough, who despite the onslaught of negative campaigning still handily defeated Ahrens, "and I think--and I've heard people profess--that they don't like what's happening at the national level and it was frightening to see that at the state level."

Keough added that while she's optimistic lawmakers can move past the contention of the primary season, she still has some unfinished business with a few fellow legislators.

"My goal of serving in the Legislature has been to work to be professional and work with people I might disagree with and find common ground," she said. "I hope that my colleagues will do the same, but that all remains to be seen. There are continuing discussions that need to occur between myself and certain people about what they did in the primaries."

Bell was likewise dumbfounded at Republican leadership's full-frontal assault on its own colleagues but struck a less positive tone than Keough.

"I don't think any of us want to donate money to a situation like that," she said. "Why Lou Esposito--whoever he is--was given the authority and why that money was used in the primary that way I don't understand. ... I thought that we put money in our caucus to help those of us who have races in the fall against Democrats. That's what I always assumed it was used for, and I think there were a lot more like me out there."

What's worse, Bell added, the tactic of siphoning Victory Fund money through PACs to serve personal political goals bodes ill for the health of the Idaho GOP as a whole.

"When they're going after George, Christy, Shawn--Maxine Bell may very well be the next in line," she said. "I've never seen anything like it before. I think we all need to be very cautious and very careful and let the healing take place."

In the case of Keough, as with Perry, her willingness to buck leadership and vote against the party line has earned her the ire of those in power. Keough was among the very few Republicans to oppose the so-called Luna Laws, which enacted sweeping changes to Idaho's education system and proved so controversial that they may be repealed in referenda in November. She has also stood in favor, along with Perry, for anti-bullying legislation and against the controversial anti-abortion "ultrasound bill" fronted by Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder of Boise.

An eight-term senator and vice chair of the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, Keough enjoys wide popularity among constituents for her level-headed approach and willingness to seek compromise rather than score ideological points. And for that, she has run afoul of increasingly hard-line party leaders before, even earning a vote of no confidence from the state central committee for a reapportionment map she co-submitted with former District 2 Republican Sen. Joyce Broadsword of Sagle, who decided not to seek re-election after the redistricting map that was ultimately adopted put her in District 1, forcing her to face off against Keough in the primary. Opponents charged that the map prepared by Keough and Broadsword disadvantaged Republican candidates elsewhere in the state.

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