Grand Old Punch-Up: Idaho Republicans Duke it Out Amongst Themselves 

Infighting in the Idaho GOP ramps up charged political climate

There's something rotten in the party of Lincoln.

For years now, a hard-right wind has been blowing through the Grand Old Party, and it has made for some strange currents in the traditionally stolid Republican weltanschauung. First, there was the great Tea Party uprising in 2008, followed by a long simmer fanned into a blaze by the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Flash forward to the debt-ceiling crisis of 2011, when the Republican Party literally held the U.S. economy hostage in order to wangle tax cuts for the rich, and then to 2012, when the party decided to time travel back to the 1960s and challenge women's reproductive rights.

Now, coming off the Republican National Convention in Tampa, it seems clear that the GOP is locked in a struggle for its own ideological identity, with a presidential candidate like Mitt Romney, who seems to have an inordinate amount of trouble not coming off like an ATM with a bouffant--forget his tax returns; more and more politics watchers want to see proof that Romney has DNA. And there's vice presidential hopeful Rep. Paul Ryan, an Ayn Rand apostle whose convention speech was a litany of self-serving fictions. Even Clint Eastwood in his octogenarian rant against an empty chair couldn't really find anything consistent to say about the direction of the party.

When Herbert Hoover's great-granddaughter wonders aloud, "What the *#@% is wrong" with the GOP--as Margaret Hoover, a CNN contributor, gay-marriage advocate and author of the book American Individualism: How a New Generation of Conservatives Can Save the Republican Party, did in August--you know something has gone deeply awry.

Lucky for us, we live in one of the most solidly Republican states in the union, so case studies are more than readily available. The prognosis, it seems, in the wake of a historically fractious primary and a state convention reaffirming a raft of policy planks that would have made John C. Calhoun proud, is that the Idaho GOP has circled its wagons and started shooting inward.

"It was a stunner. It was just a sad, sad thing, and I still don't understand it," said Rep. Maxine Bell, a 12-term Republican House member from Jerome, referring to a primary election wherein incumbents around the state faced a higher-than-usual number of challengers and some--including longtime sitting Republican lawmakers Sen. Shawn Keough of Sandpoint, Dover Rep. George Eskridge, Sen. Patti Anne Lodge of Huston, Rupert's Sen. Dean Cameron and House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts of Donnelly--were targeted by political action committees supported by their own party leadership.

"I don't understand why we take after each other," Bell continued. "We've always considered ourselves a large tent--I can remember them saying that. There was a place for the Smiley Republicans and there was a place for the George Hansen Republicans. ... I don't quite understand what their fear is in this very, very red state."

The Primary Party

In Idaho, where Republicans take the permanence of their long-standing political hegemony as an article of faith, any hint of inter-party rebellion--even a whiff of disunion--has traditionally been met with swift retribution or swift denial. You don't dominate every level of state government for decades without keeping the reins tight on the rank and file.

However, while the Idaho GOP prides itself on fronting a monolithic appearance, there are significant cracks in the facade--a fact made startlingly clear during the primary races. The Idaho Republicans' tent is big enough; it's just hosting too many circuses.

"I've been saying for a while that Idaho is now basically a one-party state," said Jeff Ward, who heads the Kootenai County Reagan Republicans, a grassroots organization that focuses on organizing local GOP volunteers.

It has clashed particularly with other groups like RallyRight and the United Conservatives of North Idaho, which Ward said are too preoccupied with purging the party of moderates, rather than electing good candidates.

"Anytime you have that kind of situation in history, in the South prior to the 1960s, basically, the dominant political party ends up having its own factions," he said. "It's the only game in town."

Hired hands at the party level are loath to admit that, of course.

"As we look at our system, it's made up to have differing opinions," said Josh Whitworth, a 30-year-old Mackay native who took over as executive director of the Idaho GOP after this summer's convention in Twin Falls. "I hope we have differing opinions and, as a party, that's what the primary is about: to come out with the issues that we really think need to be brought forward. ...

"After the primary, and as we go forward, it's about bringing us together and going forward," he added. "I think, as a whole, even though we may disagree and battle in the primaries, when we get to the generals we're a solid team altogether. ... I think there are some things we need to work on and build us up, and that's a very high priority for me: bringing us together. I really do see us coming together."

Ward agrees that the GOP is working to reconcile its primary season divisions, even going so far as to say that the healing process is going quicker this time than in election cycles past.

"People recognize the importance of things and the Democrats have put up a bigger fight this time than last, other than in the Congressional race," he said. "If we don't want to take some losses, we have to unify and sort of circle the wagons."

Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Larry Grant doesn't quite see it that way. He said Republicans are doing enough damage to themselves with legislation, while most people couldn't care less about their intra-party spats.

"It's no secret that there's an internal struggle in the Republican Party, basically between what I'll call the Raul Labrador group--the old Bill Sali, Lou Esposito group--and the governor's group," Grant said. "One of the things that the ultra-conservatives, the extremists, want to do is close the primary, supposedly to keep Democrats from hijacking their candidates. ... It's just more of this ideological purity that the extremists in the Republican Party are attempting to enforce [on] the party as a whole. This was not about Democrats, this was about Republicans purging Republicans. ...

"I'm not ready to say that the infighting in the Republican Party is helping the Democratic Party," he added. "I certainly think the closed primary is an issue that has hurt Republicans from the standpoint of the general public. I think the Luna Laws--the education issue--is another issue that has caught people's attention, especially with school starting now. I think the ultrasound issue is another one. Not only are they not running away from their mistakes, they're doubling down on them. ...

"It's not the fight itself that's hurting us, it's that the extremists seem to be winning," he said.

The Idaho GOP's slide to the right and subsequent crackdown on Republicans deemed too moderate or too incompliant by certain factions was amply experienced by Rep. Christy Perry, a Nampa Republican running for her second term in the House. She, along with Keough, Eskridge, Roberts, Cameron and Lodge (who taken together have served more than 30 terms), found herself on the business end of a barrage of PAC money intended to make sure she didn't return to the statehouse for the 2013 legislative session.

"How I think that happened goes back to a divide in the Legislature: How should we really be operated and the direction of the state. It's a matter of opinion on how leadership should operate," said Perry, who won a four-way primary race for the newly redrawn District 11B House seat against Matt Dorsey, Ronalee Linsenmann and John Gough. She is unopposed in the November election.

"It should not be operated on the good ol' boy system. Legislation should rise and fall based on its merits--not who brought it or who supports it or not," she added. "I was verbal about these things. I did not follow suit."

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.

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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