Idaho is one of the states that manages its political parties by a central committee system. Both Republican and Democratic parties have county central committees whose job is to coordinate party efforts and gather and develop local opinions, resolutions, and other party matters. These committees are all elected by local members and their meetings are generally public, but may be restricted to only registered members of the party. The committees can also meet privately to settle inter-committee matters.
In turn, all the county committees meet regularly with the state central committee to discuss each party's overall plans for state and local elections and other matters.
At the Idaho central GOP committee meeting, held in McCall over the weekend, a measure introduced by the state party chairman, Rod Beck, to give the central committees the power to decide who is allowed to run in the primaries. This measure was intended to prevent anyone who was not completely in line with the state party platform, or in full agreement with the party leadership, to run against another candidate.
The measure failed after over 60 prominent state GOP leaders of the past and present spoke out against it on Saturday, when it came to a vote.
Seeking to take control out of the hands of the voters is just the latest attempt of the far right wing of the party, and shows just how much the Repubs are at war with themselves in one of the most conservative states in the nation.
Follow me below the squiggle for the reasons why.
First, some peculiars about Idaho: During the settlement of the far west, the Idaho territory was the unwanted step-child. The Oregon, Washington and Montana Territories all owned a hunk of Idaho at one time or another and none wanted it very much.
Idaho is cut in half north and south by a belt of mountain ranges that stopped Lewis and Clark cold. It is further divided in the southern part by the Arco desert, a vast area of lava flows that restrict and interrupt easy passage from east to west. The Snake River also presents many obstacles, including a couple of gorges over a mile deep, that further divided the state.
The panhandle of the state is narrow due to these natural difficulties; it could not be reached without following rivers through narrow canyon passes like the Lolo pass, the only route Lewis and Clark could take.
The geography is extreme; Idaho's lowest city, Lewiston, is at sea level. It's highest city, Stanley, is 6,253 feet above sea level. There is only one road that lies within state boundaries going north to south, and it's a narrow 2-lane.
These extremes caused big differences in Idaho's culture. The northern panhandle was influenced by Spokane, and the south by Salt Lake City. The panhandle was populated by Catholics and southern Baptists, and the south by Mormons moving up from Utah.
Both north and south have always been suspicious of the federal government. President Buchanan went to war against the Mormons in Utah, and they have never forgotten it. Federal troops were sent in by Teddy Roosevelt to quell a bloody miner's strike in the north, and that hasn't been forgotten, either.
Boise, in the middle, is a mix of both and always has been. Because it is in the middle, it became the political, commercial and population center of the state. It is now the only metroplex in the state.
While the entire state is growing, Idaho's old divisions are still there. They are part of the reason why the Republican party is now so divided.
The panhandle's old industries have played out, but the area is still as beautiful as ever, full of rolling hills, lakes, forests and mountains.
The panhandle has become the new conservative paradise fantasy, especially the city of Coeur d'Alene, the only real city there. C d'A has been a popular Californian retirement area ever since some land speculators began advertising in metro California police gazettes and magazines in the late 1980's, and increasingly more disaffected Californians are moving there. Similar conservatives are also arriving from Illinois and points eastward.
Arizona's drought, making the heat hotter and longer, has made the panhandle attractive to the retirees who are finding Arizona too hot and too expensive. They, too, are moving to N. Idaho.
Another bunch, the American Reboubters, are also looking at N. Idaho. These are the folks who believe America is on the verge of social collapse and are looking for a redoubt, a place to hold and defend while everywhere else goes to hell.
While the GOP has swung rightward since 2008, most of the Idaho extreme conservatives were already there before the swing. Populism has always been popular, as has a belief in self sufficiency and a streak of libertarianism.
Southern Idaho's extremism best portrayed by former Rep. George Hansen
Cleon Skousen, a Mormon, was also a huge conservative influence in the south. While Skousen has passed on, his institute, the National Center for Conservative Studies (NCSS) lives on in its Malta, Idaho headquarters.
The panhandle was once the liberal heart of Idaho, but that changed in the 90's with the election of Helen Chenoweth. Helen was a Boisean, but her outlook was more popular in the north than in the sliver of the Boise area that's in the 1st District.
Chenoweth was followed by Bill Sali, an incompetent clown, and by a blue dog Democrat, Walt Minnick. Both served single terms. The 1st District's current Representative, Raul Labrador, is a chip off Helen's old block, but is pallid next to her personal and political history. Labrador is as extreme, but he's no clown like Sali was. He will probably win a second term.
But, by and large, S. Idaho has elected moderates from both parties. Cecil Andrus, former Sec. of Interior and Governor, lived in N. Idaho before entering politics, but was equally popular in all quarters of the state. he served as Governor from 1971 to 1977, then after his service in the Interior Dept., served again from 1987 to 1995.
Clinton was unpopular here, even though he made more stops in Idaho than any other state. Democratic favorability slid downward throughout his 8 years and the state Democrats have never recovered.
Obama's win in 2008 was a shock- Boise was one of the first of his big stadium appearances, and the Republicans were stunned when he drew 30,000 to Broncho Stadium on a bitter cold February day. This galvanized the far right as never before.
The far right has become entrenched as a minority. Most are staunch Republicans, but Libertarians, Constitutionalists, and Independents have also run under the elephant banner.
Much of the extremist Obama opposition is found in the 2010 party platform:
The platform was written at the time when Obama was thought to be an aberration who would not ever be re-elected. The leadership bet the bank on Obamacare's repeal by SCOTUS, and many of the other planks were based on 2010's hottest topics de jour.
But the voters, by and large, are more moderate than their leadership. For them, voting Republican is old family tradition, and they know most of the local officials personally.
Rep. Mike Simpson, an old-line conservative who brings home the bacon to the
2nd district and worked hard to develop a good wilderness compromise that made everyone happy (and is still tabled in committee) has held his seat since 1998, and has overcome all the far right challengers against him. The 2nd district encompasses all S. Idaho and part of Boise. He represents most of the people in the state.
The 1st district is full of retirees and refugees from California. They have elected more extreme candidates since 1978, but these days, as long as the elderly retirees' MedicCare isn't messed with and all the refugees can shoot the woods up with their guns, they're content enough. Northern Idahoans are more concerned about the lack of good jobs than politics.
While the far right made big inroads into the GOP moderates in 2010, in part due to the central committees having a lot of wing nuts in them, some of the committees over-reached in 2012 by endorsing their candidates. Idahoans do not want any party telling them who to vote for, and most of them lost.
The state legislature had become rotten at the core from extremist over-reach beginning in 2008 when Lawrence 'Boss' Denney became Speaker of the House. Denney protected some of the biggest extremists while banishing GOP moderates to the back bench.
The worst offender, and a close buddy of Denney, was Rep. Phil Hart from Athol, a small town north of C d'A. Hart refused to pay any taxes, either federal or state, and was caught illegally cutting commercial timber without a permit. Even after the IRS filed suit against him, Hart remained a member of the House state tax committee, a seat given to him by Denney.
When Rep. Eric Anderson complained about Hart, Denney removed him from the state Ways and Means committee.
There were many other instances of corruption and scandal. By 2012, the voters were fed up and voted Hart out of office along with several others, and Denney lost his position as Speaker.
But Idaho is one of 9 states where the politicians, not an independent ethics panel, police themselves. It is one of 3 states that don't require public officials to disclose their incomes and assets. For every scoundrel who gets the boot, there's another in the wings ready to take his place.
The voters are largely indifferent to the goings-on until things get bad, then they vote 'em out, sometimes en masse.
The only way the extremists had to get around this was the committee vetting measure, and that threatened a lot of the state leadership, including the Governor, Lt. Governor, Treasurer, and many of the senior Representatives and Senators who still make the state government work. It was one bridge too far in the extremist over-reach, and was voted down.
But down is never out in Idaho. I expect this fight to continue on until 2016 or even later. Much will depend on the newcomers of the future, who will be changing the state as much as they are changing many other states.