The fight over who will chair the party is a proxy for the ongoing battle between Gov. Butch Otter’s establishment wing and ultraconservatives and libertarians who think the GOP’s gone soft.
It’s also about positioning for 2014, when Otter may seek a third term and could face a challenge from a popular upstart, freshman Congressman Raul Labrador.
At least 15 names have been floated, including three bigfoots — Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, House Speaker Lawerence Denney and first lady Lori Otter.
Otter, Luna and Lori Otter all declined comment.
Denney, offered as a compromise candidate by Labrador, said he would be willing to give up running the House to shepherd the party — if Otter wants him.
“That’s kind of flattering to me, but without his blessing I certainly wouldn’t want to do it,” said Denney.
Denney said he hasn’t spoken with Otter and hasn’t tried calling. Denney’s contributions to a PAC run by a friend who targeted six GOP incumbents — all winners in last week’s primary — damaged his brand. Still, he’s been speaker for six years and knows the GOP territory well.
Labrador calls Denney a “great choice” though not the only one. “I have floated a lot of names because I want somebody who can be accepted by all camps,” he said. “I don’t want to go to the convention to have a floor fight. I want our party to be unified.”
NOT AGAIN, SAYS OTTER
Don’t take Otter’s silence as indifference. In an unguarded moment in January, he revealed he’s still upset that the State GOP Central Committee rejected his chairman pick in 2008.
“I was roundly criticized by all you guys that I couldn’t control my own party and I was probably the only governor in the United States that didn’t have his choice as party chairman,” Otter told me then. “I’ve been able to work with Norm (Semanko) but, you know, I just don’t want that to happen again.”
Semanko defeated four-year incumbent Chairman Kirk Sullivan, who had Otter’s backing and support from five other statewide elected officials and U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo, Jim Risch and Rep. Mike Simpson.
The leaders of the insurgency were Labrador, then a first-term state legislator; then-Congressman Bill Sali; former Senate Majority Leader Rod Beck; and Luna. All supported Semanko as a champion of the closed GOP primary that Otter opposed.
After last week’s record-low primary-election turnout, Otter said he wants to revisit the matter at this year’s state GOP convention June, when Republicans gather to write a platform, review rules and elect delegates to the national convention.
Re-opening the closed primary fight, said one of the leaders of the GOP’s Labrador wing, would be a mistake.
“He’s going to embarrass himself if he tries,” said Region 2 GOP Chairwoman LeeAnn Callear of Clearwater County. “He’ll lose.”
Callear is an influential and hard-working activist who said Denney’s her pick for chairman; she also would be happy with Elmore County Chairman Barry Peterson. She said she can’t understand why Otter won’t simply leave the matter to the rank-and-file.
“We support the governor, but we’re not going to be bullied,” she said. “We want the party run from the grass roots up, not the top down. I don’t understand why he has to have his person. To me, a guy that’s finally the governor of Idaho — that’s not enough?”
COMMAND & CONTROL
Otter wants his person because that’s the way politics works. Across the country, party chairmen almost always owe their allegiance to the governor. Plus, it’s a critical organizational job in an election year: The chairman directs a big organization, speaks for the GOP and is supposed to raise money.
Under a distracted Semanko — focused on a failed effort to get himself elected Eagle mayor and his lawyer/lobbying practice — fundraising has lagged. In a state where Republicans control 81 percent of the Legislature and all statewide and congressional offices, the Democratic party outraised the GOP in 2011 and 2012, $218,000 to $161,000.
The chairman will be elected by about 500 delegates at the convention in Twin Falls on June 23. By the close of this week, delegates will have been chosen by county and legislative district committees, with 94 from Ada County and 40 from Canyon.
Otter’s organization, including two-time campaign manager Debbie Field, worked hard to win precinct committee races to be able to control the convention. They captured Ada County 78-62, but as with all elections, turnout at the convention will be key.
Field is among the possible chairmen I’ve turned up. But Callear said she is unacceptable because of what Callear called a “deceitful” effort to win precinct committee races on Otter’s behalf by wrongly labeling Romney supporters like Beck as loyal to Ron Paul. Field also is wary, saying, “I know too much about what is required.”
Candidates who have withdrawn from consideration include former Senate President Pro Tem Bob Geddes, Sens. Russ Fulcher and Melinda Smyser and former U.S. Attorney Tom Moss.
DR. SORENSEN, STAT!
As of this writing, Otter seems to have his hopes on former state Rep. Dean Sorensen of Boise, the less-well-known spouse of former Sen. Sheila Sorensen.
“He approached me — and I’m sure he approached others before me — and asked if I’d consider running,” said Sorensen, 72, a plastic surgeon. “I told him I would. Since then, I’ve been trying to contact other people in the party because you need a broad base of support to win.”
Callear said Sorensen is black-balled because of his wife’s moderate views on abortion rights and gay marriage. “Dean is a very nice person, but, unfortunately, he’s married to Sheila Sorensen,” she said.
“I don’t think that’s unfortunate myself,” said Dr. Sorensen, laughing at the notion he could be disqualified by his wife’s ideas. “LeeAnn doesn’t know me or my views well enough and perhaps I should talk to her. I differ from my wife on social issues.”
Otter apparently asked the Grande Dame of the North Idaho GOP, Ruthie Johnson, to test the waters for Sorensen. Though she wouldn’t confirm vetting for Otter, she said the election is very much in doubt.
“People up here consider Dean too liberal,” Johnson said. “But I don’t know who they would support if they don’t support him. It’s a very confusing year, so I just don’t know what’s going to happen. I really don’t.”
Dan Popkey: 377-6438