Mainstream Republicans are pressing to reclaim their brand from the tea party-libertarian alliance that has pushed the GOP apparatus to the right since Ron Paul's 2008 presidential run drew new recruits to the party.
A top target is Idaho GOP Chairman Barry Peterson, who is defending his low-level party post in Mountain Home in the May 20 primary. Peterson's bid for re-election as chairman at the party convention in June also is at risk.
"It's all going to come down to how many precinct races are won and lost across the state," said Ryan Davidson, a former Idaho Libertarian Party chairman who defected to the GOP to boost his influence.
Former Sen. Tim Corder, of Mountain Home, is challenging Peterson for the bottom rung in the official party structure in one of 18 precinct committee spots in Elmore County and 924 statewide.
Precinct committee members make up the heart of the Idaho GOP Central Committee, which adopts policy positions, organizes party-building efforts, supports candidates and elects the chairman. The committee voted to oppose passage of Gov. Butch Otter's state-run health exchange and, later, for its repeal.
Corder's campaign is part of a push by Otter's allies to retake a party apparatus he lost control of in 2008, when his candidate for chairman was defeated.
"It's an awakening," said GOP Rep. Luke Malek, of Coeur d'Alene, a member of the mainstream faction. "People are realizing it actually does make a difference who is in charge of the party structure. Focusing on repealing the 17th Amendment and a whole host of issues that have nothing to do with what's going on in Idaho is not representing them."
Tea party activists and former members of the Libertarian Party also recruited heavily for candidates in the May 20 precinct races.
"You have a struggle to see who's going to run the Republican Party," said Rep. Ron Mendive, a Coeur d'Alene Republican from the tea party wing. "I am convinced the people in Idaho are extremely conservative. So, hopefully, at the end of the day, the Republican Party will reflect that."
'BUNCH OF NONSENSE'
Kootenai County's Republican Central Committee has been among Idaho's most divided, with factions with names such as Reagan Republicans, Rally Right/United Conservatives, Liberty Caucus, Republican Women, and Pachyderms representing the GOP spectrum.
Malek voted for the insurance exchange, prompting an attempt to censure him and two other yes voters, Rep. Frank Henderson and Sen. John Goedde. The move was denied on procedural grounds.
Should the division remain, it could open the door for Democrats in heavily Republican Kootenai County, which in the 1990s was closely contested. So says Ruthie Johnson, a GOP precinct committeewoman for 46 years who has drawn an opponent this year.
"When Republicans fight among themselves, it gets very foolish," said Johnson, a member of the Idaho Republican Hall of Fame who spent 24 years as an aide to U.S. Sen. Jim McClure. "I don't mind arguments in the central committees, but we should resolve those differences internally."
The state platform's call to strip voters of the power to elect U.S. senators and give it to legislators - part of the constitution since the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913 - is "such a bunch of nonsense," Johnson said.
Malek said voters want a party and candidates emphasizing concerns more practical than convincing three-quarters of the states to change the way U.S. senators are elected.
"I'd like to see a party chairman who's focused on issues that matter to Idahoans," Malek said. "We have economic issues to deal with; we need consensus on education; we need to make sure our businesses are living in a business-friendly environment."
HIGHJACKING THE GOP?
Peterson declined to comment for this story. "I've got to be even-handed and I don't want to give the appearance of being otherwise," he said.
Peterson did say he plans to run for a second two-year term. Even if he loses his precinct committee race to Corder, he would be eligible to serve as chairman.
But longtime precinct committeewoman Eva Gay Yost, a Republican volunteer from Meridian since President Dwight Eisenhower's campaign in 1956, says Peterson hasn't met his own standard because he favors the tea party-libertarian wing.
"He just hasn't turned out to be the honest broker and run that office in support of all Republican candidates," said Yost, a former aide to former Gov. Phil Batt.
Yost says former Libertarians and tea party extremists seek to steal a valuable brand. "They're trying to hijack our party and we're trying to maintain control of it with rational, sane, logical, reasonable-thinking real Republicans," she said.
'TEA PARTY BOB'
Yost's precinct committee opponent is Bob Neugebauer, who appears on 580 KIDO radio as "Tea Party Bob" and publishes The Gem State Patriot, an online newsletter.
With 14,000 subscribers, Neugebauer champions Sen. Russ Fulcher's challenge to Otter, as well as the most conservative candidates for lieutenant governor (Jim Chmelik), secretary of state (Lawerence Denney), attorney general (Chris Troupis) and controller (Todd Hatfield).
Among the infiltrators in Yost's eyes are Davidson, the former Libertarian chairman who advocates decriminalizing marijuana, and Gem State Tea Party founder Chad Inman.
In a March email titled "Take Back The GOP," Inman recruited "conservatives, libertarians and constitutionalists" for the "Precinct Committeeman Project," noting the success of having elected Peterson and other "pro-liberty" party officers.
"It has been the grass-roots Republican Party that has been standing up for principle while our elected officials violate their oaths," wrote Inman, a precinct committee candidate in Boise.
Davidson, of Garden City, helped defeat Otter-backed GOP Chairman Kirk Sullivan in 2008. In 2012, Davidson unsuccessfully tried to engineer a two-thirds vote at the state convention to shift 32 presidential delegates pledged to Mitt Romney to Paul.
Paul, who finished third, disavowed Davidson's effort.
NOTABLE OTTER ALLIES
Yost and Davidson agree that the 2014 battle for precinct posts is the busiest yet.
"The fact we've been able to compete with the big money for six years and even get the state chairmanship is pretty impressive," Davidson said.
In 2012, just more than 100 races were contested in Ada County. This year, 112 of 145 are contested, or 77 percent. That compares to 66 percent in Kootenai, 50 percent in Elmore and 22 percent in Canyon, a range that reflects the variation in Idaho's 44 counties.
The contests "pretty much run down ideological lines," said Davidson, adding that some Otter allies are easily identified as state employees or lobbyists.
Inman is opposed by Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna. Other Otter proxies facing the Davidson-Inman slate are Otter special assistants Claudia Simplot Nally and Tammy Perkins, and scheduler Bobbie-Jo Meuleman; Ada County Commissioners Dave Case, Jim Tibbs and Rick Yzaguirre; lobbyists Ken Burgess, Paul Jackson and Edward Lodge; and Peggy Moyer, secretary for the Senate Finance Committee.
A FAMILY FIGHT
Moyer, who lost in 2012 to Daniel Malloy, is in a rematch. "I am committed to helping lead the charge to make sure Idaho does not decriminalize marijuana," Moyer said. "Idaho needs to continue to be a safe haven for raising families."
In January, the state central committee rejected a resolution from Blaine County backing marijuana legalization.
Sometimes the GOP division is a family affair.
Chairman Peterson's brother-in-law, former Elmore County Commissioner Arlie Shaw, is one of Corder's allies and faces Larry Jewett in Mountain Home Precinct 7.
"Barry is just too far right," said Shaw, adding that they avoid talking politics at family gatherings. "Watch the money we spend, sure. But we've got to get education moving again. When you go to the extreme, you don't accomplish anything."
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics