Idaho’s State Republican Party is about to select a new chair to lead Idaho’s dominant political party. Former chair Jonathan Parker stepped down a while back and the vacancy will be filled at the GOP summer meeting in late June.
The choice will be made by the state central committee consisting of Republicans from every Idaho county and region.
There are rumbles of a challenge for the top position by the hard right. Idaho Falls Attorney Bryan Smith’s name has been circulating. A successful run is less likely now given his very public spat with Republican billionaire Frank VanderSloot. Still, it would be surprising if the very conservative segment doesn’t field a candidate. The party’s elected officials may, or may not, push a candidate.
While the chair position is high profile, the real question is what role will the State Republican Party play in the future?
Some hints of possible direction can be discerned by looking to the south, to Utah.
Like Idaho’s GOP, Utah’s version is dominant, controlling most offices. But, the Utah party has been racked by infighting.
Utah has a caucus system where delegates to state and county party conventions are chosen in neighborhood meetings. The Utah GOP has had a rule requiring that a candidate can win the nomination outright by getting 60% of the vote at convention (Oddly enough, I actually drafted that provision in the early 1990s). The conventions are often dominated by hard right activists.
A few years a group was formed by political and business leaders (led by former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt), called Count My Vote. They took steps by ballot initiative to overturn the role of the caucuses in candidate nominations.
To head that effort off, the Utah Legislature passed SB54, which allows candidates to get on the ballot by gathering signatures, or going through the caucus system, or use both routes. It has changed the dynamics of Utah politics. Utah Republican delegates did choose two other candidates over Gov. Gary Herbert and now Sen. Mitt Romney in their most recent races. But both also gathered signatures and won thumping victories in their primary.
The state party central committee has been fixed on suing to overturn SB54 and has lost at every step, all the way to the United States Supreme Court. More importantly, major donors abandoned the state party, leaving it broke. To pull off their most recent convention, Gov. Herbert had to foot part of the bill.
The central committee has harassed the elected party chair (investigating him and censuring him for failing to throw candidates off the ballot in defiance of state law) such that he declined to run for reelection.
Polling shows the young people are bailing on the Republican Party in droves.
The state party was so focused on its internal troubles that winning elections has become secondary.
This chaos has created an opening for Utah Democrats, especially in populous Salt Lake County. Democrats now have control of most county offices, have made a little progress in the Legislature, and elected a new Democratic congressman last year, Rep. Ben McAdams.
What lessons for the Idaho GOP?
First, the purpose of a political party is to elect candidates, not provide a battleground for internal ideological clashes. Idaho Republicans should choose a chair who is geared to electing Republicans rather than pushing some sort of ideology.
Second, elected officials in your party are not the enemy. It is highly unproductive for party committees to denounce public officials of the same party, like the Idaho Republican State Central Committee did not so long ago (attacking Gov. Otter for backing a friend against a party nominee).
Third, narrowing who chooses candidates is unproductive. Idaho’s GOP currently picks candidates in a primary election where only affiliated voters can vote. Independents are excluded. Some want to move to an even more restrictive caucus system. A party can get away with some of this when they are dominant, but such steps can hurt if things become more competitive. Utahns reacted sharply negatively to similar efforts there.
Fourth, to be effective, a party must be able to raise money from a broad base of support and not be forced to beg (like the Utah GOP has been doing) to keep the lights on.
Fifth, look to the future. The Republican Party is facing a challenge nationally in attracting youth, minorities and women. There are some warning signs in Idaho with the Democratic dominance in Ada County, mostly recently taking over the county commission.