Dave Johnston, the executive director of Idaho’s Republican Party, is only 27 years old, but he’s quickly mastering the art of herding cats. Those skills are handy in his line of work, where peace and harmony do not always prevail.
The GOP is the party of the Otter PAC, where pragmatism is not viewed as a dirty word, and followers of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, where “pragmatism” is another word for “liberalism.” It’s the party of legislators such as Rep. Maxine Bell of Jerome, who as a co-chair of the budget committee sees a legitimate role for government. It’s also the party of Rep. Heather Scott of Blanchard, who views government overreach as the root of all evil.
The different factions don’t always mix well, as demonstrated two years ago during a state convention that had everything but chains and brass knuckles. Republicans went home without agreeing on a platform or settling on major resolutions. The media had a field day, watching the state’s dominant party melt down before its eyes.
But Republicans managed to do something smart that year. They elected Idaho Falls businessman Steve Yates as the party chair, and he managed to put the broken pieces back together—enough to sweep the top-of-the-ticket races and keep the GOP’s large majority in the Legislature. Along the way, Yates hired Johnston, a Marine veteran whose personality is perfect … for herding cats. He is not intimidated by competing factions or big egos.
“I will work with anyone that is willing to work with me,” he said.
So with Yates and Johnston in charge, this year’s convention was different from two years ago. “There was a clear message that we wanted order, and not get headlines for doing stupid things,” Johnston said.
There were a few welcome changes in key positions, he said. “There are some people who are more interested in burning the house down, and some people who are happy being unhappy.”
As one Republican stated, “We reclaimed our party.” But it doesn’t mean conservatives are going away.
“Don’t take the relative quiet of the convention to mean that the grassroots of the party have stopped expecting Republican elected officials to hold true to the principles in their platform,” said Wayne Hoffman, director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation. “There are a lot of people out there who wonder why a state government with nearly all Republicans struggles so mightily to adhere to conservative policies.”
Conservatives continue to make the most noise in North Idaho. Rep. Sage Dixon of Ponderay, one of the young chargers in the GOP, credits former Congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul for paving the way for conservatives.
“He opened people’s eyes to things they didn’t like,” Dixon said. “I wasn’t a strong supporter of Ron Paul, but I agreed with some of the things he said about what is wrong with government.”
Generally, he says, people are concerned about spending and the government’s heavy hand. On the state level, he said, it’s frustrating that issues such as state insurance exchanges and Medicaid expansion are even discussed in a Republican caucus.
Idaho legislators, he said, “are not suspicious enough of some things. It’s easier to go along and get along rather than take a stand.”
But at least with Dixon, there is no conflict with the party’s structure. He supports Yates and thinks highly of Johnston. From Johnston’s perspective, issues can be bantered about in the Legislature; his job is to see to it that Republicans are doing the bantering.
“Our job is to keep folks focused on our core mission; getting Republicans elected,” Johnston said. “We’re focused on the work of the party, such as going out and registering new voters, engaging with the voters, convincing them to vote for our candidates and talking about why our nominees are better than the Democrats.”
As great as the challenges might be in his own party, he sees even more difficulties on the Democratic side. “Democrats are not going to beat us. I don’t say that arrogantly or condescendingly; it’s the reality of it,” he said.
But he also knows the dynamics can change if Republicans are consumed by infighting. “We are our own worst enemies,” he says. “Rome was not defeated by an outside force. Rome was defeated by itself.”