Stephen Hartgen

Although he won by only a two-vote margin, 111 to 109, former Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador has a good opportunity to lead the Idaho Republican Party away from the internal backbiting and the RINO-purging tendencies of some of its extremists. But it won’t be an easy task.

Since leaving Congress to run for Idaho governor in 2018, Labrador has generally appealed to the right wing of the GOP spectrum. He finished second to Lt. Gov. Brad Little in the governor’s primary race some 14 months ago, but has been said to be thinking about how to re-engage with Idaho’s Republican Party. Taking the GOP chairmanship gives him the opportunity to do that.

I served with Labrador in the Idaho House, where he was a thoughtful and vigorous member and an advocate for conservative values. At one point, he asked me to join his campaign for Congress to help with media relations. I declined, having my own race to run and not having any interest in going to D.C.

But the closeness of his party selection over another longtime GOP stalwart, Tom Luna, means Labrador will need to throw a lot of energy and sophisticated resolve into bridging the Idaho GOP’s factions.

It’s a common issue in many one-party states: fissures develop among competing wings of the dominant party. We see this in Democratic states where left-progressives and academic liberals contend with “lunch bucket” Democrats, many of whom have moved right to the GOP.

In conservative states like Idaho, the contests pit more centrist Republicans against more right-ideological partisans who, lacking much Democratic opposition and unpersuasive on a Libertarian ticket, turn on their fellow Republicans with vigor and calumny. The result is often thunderous name-calling and obstructionism in elected bodies, but little progress on the many practical aspects of state governance.

Over time, voters generally tire of such fumigations of the shrill, replacing them with more measured members who can get things done. Few of the ideologues last more than a few sessions; their constant complaining and close ties to extremist groups mark them early on.

Labrador’s has the experience to understand such divisions. In his time in the Idaho House, he attempted to craft some innovative bills on highway needs and, while in Congress, he was an often-outspoken member of the House Freedom Caucus, which offered a more robust opposition to Obama’s creeping, suffocating federalism.

But his “Drain-The-Swamp-In-Boise” campaign for governor didn’t connect statewide; he carried only small and remote Central and North Idaho counties where the Idaho GOP is more ideologically tilted to the right. Politics, as he knows, is crafting the possible and the doable. That means consensus building, not windmill tilting, a stance he’ll need to succeed in his new role.

If Labrador has an eye for running again for a statewide higher office, being party chairman can help position him to do better in the more populated Southern and Eastern Idaho counties where his 2018 opponents, Tommy Ahlquist and Lt. Gov Brad Little, were particularly strong.

The county-by-county returns in the 2018 GOP primary show that if Labrador hopes to leverage his new position into another statewide run, he’ll need to cut closer to the less-ideological breezes there.  In short, he’ll need to recraft his message, cut back on the stridency and look for solutions. That’s what leaders do.

And he’ll need to pick his election run carefully; running against formidable more centrist opponents like Alhquist and Little isn’t likely to be successful. Or, he may just have to bide his time for an open, statewide run. In any case, he’ll need to broaden his base beyond the North Idaho and Central Idaho counties where he did best in the primary.

In another outcome of the GOP mid-year convention, delegates wisely turned back, on an 86-120 vote, a proposed party rule change that would have allowed the party hot-heads to institute kangaroo courts and party show trials in an effort to enforce discipline to the GOP party platform. (Rule proposal 9).

This rule would have given Democrats a ready-made campaign issue, pushed even more GOP centrists away and surely would have been challenged both within the party, as well as in the courts.

It was an unenforceable effort to take away from the voters their constitutional right to pick their representatives, and it would have elevated the fluid, flexible, ever-changing party platform to the level of an oath-allegiance and Holy Writ.

Alt-rights want public officials to swear allegiance to a platform they write and re-write almost annually to suit themselves in their efforts to undermine Idaho’ elected representatives. But, as it should be, public officials pledge allegiance to Idaho’s and the U.S. Constitution. The platform document isn’t a constitution. It’s a guiding document, but not The Lord’s Word.   

Labrador, in his first speech as party chairman, acknowledged the divisions within the party, but emphasized the need for Republicans to focus their energies on defeating Democrats whose “bad ideas” infest the liberal agenda nationally as well as within Idaho. That’s sound advice.

As Idaho’s population expands, he said, newcomers would bring other views and Republicans would need to work harder to keep the state red. “You see what’s happening on that national stage, and that stage is moving to the state of Idaho,” he said.

While GOP hard-liners have shrill voices, recent election returns show most Idaho GOP voters prefer practical and common-sense solutions to complex issues. There’s an upside to these internal squabbles, to be sure, in that the American republic is stronger for the internal debates which can “let off” the steam of intra-party virulence.

Labrador is well familiar with both the practical and ideological strains of the Idaho Republican Party. Can he engineer a reconciliation, or at least an agreement not to let internal arguments drive the party? It’s a challenging task. We’ll see.

Stephen Hartgen is a retired five-term Republican state legislator from Twin Falls, where he served on the House Revenue & Taxation Committee and was chairman of the House Commerce & Human Resources Committee.  Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.