East Idaho is a great place to live. Fantastic scenery and superb recreation. Friendly people. And, a never-ending source of entertainment in the form of the Bonneville County Republican Central Committee.
Their latest push is to drastically limit the role of the governor in filling vacancies in the Idaho Legislature and other Idaho offices. Word is that the local driver is a possible resignation (or resignations) by Rep. Bryan Zollinger or Rep. Barbara Ehardt, both Idaho Falls Republicans. But, the Bonneville GOP’s goal is to make this change statewide.
I have been a Republican since my teens. But, the current group is not like the local GOP leaders I grew up with. The folks I knew were Reaganites, thoughtful and always worked hard to bring new people into the party. The late and revered Sheila Olsen (I still keep on my cell phone a voice mail she left for me the day she passed) was the epitome of that group.
Doyle Beck, Bryan Smith and County Chair Mark Fuller are the ringleaders of the current Bonneville GOP. Their style is to use the county party as a vehicle to attack their foes and exclude anyone who disagrees with them. Their current target of mistrust is apparently popular Republican Gov. Brad Little.
Since 1971, in the event of a legislative vacancy, Idaho Code § 59-904A specifies:
59-904A. LEGISLATURE — VACANCIES, HOW FILLED. In the event of a vacancy in the house of representatives or senate of the state of Idaho, such vacancy shall be filled as herein provided. The legislative district committee of the same political party, if any, of the former member whose seat is vacant shall submit, within fifteen (15) days, a list of three (3) nominations to the governor. The governor shall fill the vacancy by appointment from the list of three (3) nominations within fifteen (15) days. If no appointment has been made within fifteen (15) days, the legislative district committee shall designate one (1) of the three (3) nominees to fill the vacancy. The vacancy shall be so filled until the next general election after such vacancy occurs, when such vacancy shall be filled by election.
The resolution adopted last week would give the governor only a single name, substantively eliminating his ability to pick the replacement. The Bonneville County Party’s plan is to have this adopted by the state party central committee in January to apply to all future vacancy appointments.
Why this group does not want an Idaho governor to pick from three choices is rooted in recent local history. When former State Sen. Bart Davis stepped down to become Idaho’s U.S. attorney, the party nominated as its first choice Mark Fuller. The second choice was Rep. Zollinger and the third choice was Tony Potts. Gov. Butch Otter picked Potts, who later lost heavily to now-Sen. David Lent. Fuller also lost out when Rep. Ehardt was picked to fill another vacancy.
In their meeting approving the measure last week, the Bonneville County Central Committee members discussed suing the State of Idaho to overturn the vacancy statute if their approach is challenged.
Bryan Smith told Nathan Brown of the Post Register that this is akin to the 2011 case of Idaho Republican Party v. Ysursa. That was decided by Idaho federal district court Judge Lynn B. Winmill and overturned the mandatory open primary requirements then in effect in Idaho. The basis was the freedom of association right under the U.S. Constitution, basically affirming that a party can decide who it involves in its selection of candidates for the ballot.
But filling a vacancy is different because it involves choosing an actual elected official, not just a nominee to run. Tthe current process allows a political party to choose the candidates presented to the governor. I don’t see the impairment present in Ysursa.
The Bonneville GOP group may want to look south to Utah.
Utah’s Republican Party has a rule that governs nomination of candidates for office (I actually drafted it back in the 1990s). Utah elects party delegates at neighborhood caucuses. The rule specifies that a GOP candidate who wins 60% of the delegate vote at either the county or state convention (depends on the office), avoids a primary and is nominated.
Some years back the Utah Legislature created a second track where candidates could gather signatures and guarantee a spot in the primary election. The Utah GOP sued claiming they, not the State of Utah, could dictate the process. They lost at the federal district court level and at the 10th Circuit. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear their appeal in March. The bottom line was that state government can dictate rules involving selection of candidates to political parties. The party members get to do the actual picking.
That is the same principle that guides the current vacancy process.
If the vacancy proposal is litigated, the Idaho GOP could endure the same fate as the Utah Republican Party. They ended up deep in debt (until bailed out) and the party was rendered ineffective.