The Primary Problem 

Idaho's dominant party struggles with success and change

It began so promisingly. In November 2006, after sweeping elections for every state Constitutional office, Republicans gathered with their new Governor, C.L. "Butch" Otter on the steps of the Capitol. Among them was Tom Luna, the newly elected state superintendent of public instruction, who proudly stepped to the podium to make some remarks. As he did so, a passerby in a car yelled "boo!"

"Get used to it, buddy!" Luna yelled back, to titters from the audience.

Virtually every candidate on the steps that day had reason to swagger. Otter had batted back a feisty campaign by Democrat Jerry Brady. Luna had decisively bested Democrat Jana Jones, in a race in which her experience was seen as superior to his, and Bill Sali had been elected to Congress despite a media saturated with images of him as dangerously unstable and radical. Mike Simpson was headed back to Congress, having barely broken a sweat in a campaign against Democrat Jim Hansen. And Jim Risch had coasted easily back into his old job of lieutenant governor, after spirited opposition from Democrat Larry LaRocco. And here we had Idaho, once again firmly in Republican hands, from the county commissions up to the hallowed halls of the Capitol.

In their more measured remarks, Luna, Otter and others spoke of a "new day" in Idaho. "We're all Idahoans," said many of the speakers. Presumably, they were trying to put the partisanship of the November elections behind them.

But in the months since that day, Republicans are finding themselves at a loss to recapture that sense of unity. As the Idaho Republican Party enjoys its most dominant position in state politics in many years, friction from within and without is making life complicated for the GOP. Whether the party is fighting among itself or facing increased pressure from outside forces, it's been a rough few months in power. Where once they stood locked arm in arm, giddy and successful, they now toss brickbats and barbs at one another, or quietly mutter about their party's elected officials.

And at least in one significant case, they have sued themselves.

What happened?

"Thomas Jefferson wisely observed more than 200 years ago that, 'The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave,'" Otter said at his inauguration in January.

Just as the beautiful Capitol has been stripped to its bones and is about to get the architectural equivalent of a root canal, Idaho Republicans are tunneling into their own base, and it's not pretty.

Watching on the sidelines are the hopeful, if thinly scattered, Democrats. Whether they can capitalize on the misfortunes of Idaho's dominant GOP is an open question they won't have a chance to answer for another full year.

The challenges to the GOP take many shapes and forms just now. From the presumably nonpartisan event that is the Boise mayor's race (the last significant piece of GOP hegemony that has eluded its grasp), to the bitter infighting that has marked the debate over closed primaries, to the looming races of 2008, the state's majority party is, to say the least, challenged.

"It's not anything that's new, it's just come to the forefront," said Rep. Max Black, a moderate Boise Republican who has watched the events unfold.

The Primary Question

The major challenge is in the form of the arcane, yet primal, argument over the closing of primaries in Idaho.

The push to shut primaries down comes from a self-identified "grassroots" wing of the state party. Rod Beck, a former state senator and an activist within the party who isn't afraid to cross swords with its leaders, wants to keep anyone who isn't a full-fledged Republican from voting in the state's political primaries. He's inspired, oddly enough, by tales of Democrats crossing over and voting within Republican primaries to help engineer a weaker candidate.

His evidence? Among other things, a column by Bill Cope, Boise Weekly's avowed liberal Democrat columnist. In May 2006, on the eve of the Republican primary, Cope wrote a typically anti-Republican screed, entitled "Clown Control," that made the following semi-shocking assertion: He was going to participate in the open Republican primary in order to vote for Sheila Sorensen, a moderate Republican whom Cope thought would make a better representative in Congress than Bill Sali. And, since Idahoans tend to elect Republicans in the general election, this, Cope declared, was sound thinking.

"When it comes to primary elections, I've probably voted Republican more often than Democrat. And I know I'm not the only one. There is somewhat of a tradition among Idaho Dems to go Rep in the primaries, and it goes back many election cycles," Cope wrote.

That was just about enough for Beck, the former majority leader of the state Senate who'd failed in some recent attempts to get elected to the Idaho Legislature. He began pushing for some form of closed primary system, to keep meddling Democrats out of Republican primaries.

But his efforts were coming too little, too late for the Legislature in 2007. He fussed and fought his way through committee hearings, and nearly got them to sign on to a modified version of closed primaries. He'd found a modified solution, brokered by the nonpartisan Idaho think tank The Common Interest, that even Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Richard Stallings agreed to. Then, at the 11th hour, Beck's efforts came to naught. The clock ended on the 2007 session, and the political landscape was left just the way it was before, with Idaho primaries open to anyone who cared to participate in either one, be they a stalwart Republican or a knee-jerk liberal pinko weekly columnist.

After getting a vote from the party's central committee in June to pursue the concept of a closed primary, Beck and 70 others filed suit in July to force Secretary of State Ben Ysursa (a Republican) to close the state's political primaries. The list of co-plaintiffs included State Rep. Lenore Barrett from Challis and Congressman Sali's spokesman, Wayne Hoffman.

The action wasn't unexpected; Beck is nothing if not tenacious and determined.

But some prominent party members have dismissed the lawsuit as a rear-guard action by a disaffected few, and suggested that the premise for this article is weak.

"This is an internal matter within the party," said Lt. Gov. Risch, in an interview. He has maintained that, with the party as successful as it is now, there's little need for change. Nor is there evidence of a widespread schism within the GOP.

"That would be wishful thinking," Risch said. "I view this as business as usual. The party's always challenged. The party changes constantly."

But the guy sitting in the governor's office now isn't quite so sanguine. At a party event in June, Otter reiterated his concern over the moves to close primaries.

"I think that has more potential damage to the (state) party than anything the president does on a national level," Otter told the Idaho Press-Tribune in June.

Likewise, other voices within the party have publicly stated the potential for damage.

Some members of the party began to notice that, if successful, the closure of Idaho primaries might alienate the thousands of Idahoans who consider themselves independent, never mind if they usually vote Republican. A survey released earlier this year by Boise State said 32 percent of Idahoans consider themselves independent, 44 percent Republicans and 18 percent Democrats.

Sen. Brad Little, an Emmett Republican, has already begun hearing from disgruntled constituents.

"Idahoans, by their very nature, are incredibly independent. They don't want somebody putting a gun to their head telling them they have to register," Little said. "They've told me that. Some of them were guys I thought would be delighted to register (as Republicans)."

Moderate Republicans such as Black might also have reason to be concerned. Such politicans "should just feel like they've got a target painted on their forehead," said Keith Allred, the director of Common Interest.

Shortly after it was filed, the party's leadership began a concerted effort to push the lawsuit back. When they did so, they ignited more spirited backlash.

Earlier this month, Kirk Sullivan, the chairman of the Idaho Republican Party, sent a letter to members of the party making sure they knew that, yes, there is a split within the party over the closed primary question. He wanted party members to know, he said yes, there were some party members who wanted to close Idaho's heretofore open primaries to ensure that only registered Republicans could participate in them. Those few, Sullivan said, were using the courts to force their agenda, when the Republican Party, he said, would rather see the change made in the Legislature.

To make his point, he added a resolution, passed by the Republican Party's executive committee earlier this month, stating that the party's will was to pursue a solution to the primary question in the halls of the Legislature, not in the courts.

"There was no directive from Republican leaders to pursue legal action for its implementation," Sullivan wrote.

Sullivan had, of course, already signed an affidavit to the lawsuit to state that the plaintiffs weren't representing the party. That alone angered some fans of the lawsuit. The letter was the next step, and it inspired swift reaction.

"Sullivan is declaring war with the grassroots leadership of the Party," wrote Adam Graham, a religious conservative and a prolific blogger. "This isn't good for the Idaho GOP."

Graham wasn't alone in the red-tinged blogosphere.

"One must conclude that Mr. Sullivan is carrying out an agenda that differs from the Party's selected direction or he must have some health concerns that are impairing his memory," wrote Rep. Marv Hagedorn, a first-term Republican state representative from Meridian, on his blog.

The plaintiffs have since amended their complaint to say that, yes, they do believe they are acting on behalf of the party. And they have demanded a retraction from Sullivan.

"Before, we were willing to let Mr. Sullivan speak for the party," said Christ Troupis, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, in an interview. "They're no longer speaking for the party."

The lawsuit is pending before state district court.

Other Fronts

But while headliner Republicans duke it out in court, other battlefronts are emerging.

Start with Boise, a city that has already become a Democratic stronghold in the state, with legislative districts increasingly switching to Democratic representation.

"It's perceived that the Democrats have taken over the city, even though it's supposed to be non partisan," said Sen. Black. "It's quite evident" that the Democrats are gaining momentum in Idaho's largest city.

Which is why the lackluster mayoral campaign by Boise City Councilor Jim Tibbs has been a disappointment to some. Mayor Dave Bieter, a Democrat, doesn't appear to be threatened by the Tibbs campaign. When Tibbs tried to highlight the troubling connection that Bieter had with the Gallatin Group, a company that both contracts with the city for lobbying purposes and whose principals work with the Bieter campaign, he was largely ignored.

Tibbs went into the race with, presumably, Republican support (he has not declared himself to be a Republican).

But Gov. Otter had made it plain in an April speech to Republicans that Tibbs' effort was one they needed to support.

"We need to resolve to make a difference in the next election," Otter said. "We need to take Ada County back because it belongs in the Republican portfolio."

(Democrat Paul Woods was recently elected to the board of Ada County commissioners.)

Since then, however, Tibbs has struggled to get headliners to come out in his favor. A recent Tibbs announcement was that Freda Cenarrusa, wife of the former secretary of state Pete Cenarrusa, had joined his campaign.

Asked if he was satisfied with the Tibbs campaign so far, Risch, an aggressive and adept campaigner himself, said, "ask me again on election night."

Although Risch was widely seen as giving Tibbs a boost by naming him Idaho's first-ever drug czar, he has not connected himself overtly with the Tibbs campaign.

"They haven't come to see me yet," Risch said. But, he added quickly, "I think Jim Tibbs is an outstanding candidate. He'd be a great mayor."

No, partisanship is not supposed to be overtly evident in a mayor's race. Potholes, buses and other city policy minutiae do not necessarily follow the dictates of one party or another. But no one is kidding themselves that Boise's top seat isn't a plum for the party that owns it.

"It's going to start with the mayor's race," said Black.

But it will continue on up the scale, to the federal races. Although Rep. Sali will be coming into 2008 as an incumbent, and therefore more difficult to topple, he's already distinguished himself in Congress with eyebrow-raising actions like introducing a bill against the pull of gravity (he said it was a joke to point out what he considered the folly of raising the minimum wage, which he said also went against "natural law") or his recent disparaging statements about Muslims in Congress, like Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat.

Already Sali has drawn a primary opponent, though possibly not the only one. Matt Salisbury, an Iraq war veteran who was named by President Bush in a 2005 speech in Nampa to honor the National Guard, announced his candidacy this summer.

"[Voters] deserve a better choice than the incumbent," Salisbury told BW at the time. "[The last election] left so many Republicans in that district unsatisfied and unhappy."

Recently, Salisbury announced that another name familiar to Republicans, Pat Takasugi, would be his campaign chairman.

Takasugi was the director of the Idaho Agriculture Department through three governors, from 1996 to 2006. Aside from his role in state government, Takasugi is well-known in Canyon County as a party stalwart and former chairman of the county party.

So he might have had reason to expect that he would get the nod from Gov. Otter when it came time to replace Rep. Bob Ring, a Caldwell Republican who left his seat because of frustration with the state party. But in April, Otter announced he would appoint Caldwell businessman Curtis Bowers to fill the seat.

"I don't know what I did to tick him off," Takasugi told BW at the time.

"I just assumed it would be Pat," Ring said. "There must be something between the two." Otter's spokesman Jon Hanian said only that it "wasn't a vote against Pat Takasugi as it was a vote for Curtis Bowers."

Salisbury may not ultimately be the only Republican in that race. Other Republicans, who have asked not to be named, have said privately that Salisbury's entry muddies the waters for campaigns they might take up.

Republicans watching the career of U.S. Sen. Larry Craig are also holding their breath for an announcement in the next month whether he will seek re-election. The Idaho icon has lately indicated a weariness with Congress's rancor but also a willingness to stay in the fight.

If Craig steps aside, Risch has already said there is "a high likelihood" that he'll step in and run for the seat.

"I think everybody's just waiting," Risch said.

An Opening, or Just A Moment

All of which might suggest an opening for the minority Democrats.

So far, however, the party hasn't made any major moves. And into that void have come two unsuccessful candidates, ready to try again. Democrat Larry Grant, the former Micron executive who lost to Sali in 2006, says he'll run again even though he's got primary opposition from Rand Lewis. And LaRocco, who lost badly to Risch in 2006 and who was tumbled from his seat in Congress by Helen Chenoweth, is already campaigning for his party's nomination for Senate.

The party's new executive director, former business journalist John Foster, has been watching the Republican infighting carefully. He's aware that his party will need to be more aggressive, but is also clearly still figuring out how to draw in the independent voters who might get turned off by closed primaries.

"When presented with the right candidates and the right issues, they'll vote for us," Foster said. "It's about making that line as clear as possible."

Sali will be key to that effort, Foster said.

"The Bill Sali wing of the Republican party in Idaho, is the Republican party in Idaho right now," he said. "We're not going to be afraid to point that out over and over again."

The suggestion, he said, that the primaries need to be closed to protect Republican primaries from Democrat crossover vote pollution, he said, was "hilarious."

"With all due respect to Bill Cope, that's a bit of a stretch," Foster, a former reporter for BW, said. "They've made it into something it's not. This is really a loyalty test."

It is also, to be sure, a national trend. Dozens of states already have closed primaries. An opinion issued in March from Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, a Republican, has already suggested the likelihood that things are bound for change.

"If one or more of Idaho's qualified political parties adopts rules requiring voters to register as party members before voting in the party's primary election, an Idaho court is likely to uphold the party's right to do so and to declare Idaho's open primary election system an unconstitutional infringement upon the party and its members' First Amendment right to freely associate," Wasden's office wrote.

In many ways, Idaho's Republicans may be feeling the pains of the national party, even though Idaho's GOP has tended to be more independent than its national incarnation.

But the similarities are tempting: a party that had gained power in the legislative and executive arenas, only to watch the political fortunes of both founder. With President Bush's approval ratings at all-time lows, some local Republicans have groused that they, too, are victims of an unpopular president and an unpopular war in Iraq.

"In my 30-odd years, I've seen this swing in and out," said Black. "It's going to be kind of an interesting year for both the Republicans and the Democrats."

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