Idaho GOP fractures linger after primary

Can Gov. Otter get the chairman and open primary he wants this time around?

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comMay 25, 2014 

Idaho Republican Chairman Barry Peterson, left, talks with Gov. Butch Otter.

At a post-election GOP Unity Rally at the Statehouse on Wednesday, Idaho Republican Chairman Barry Peterson, left, told Gov. Butch Otter he wanted to return as chairman. But Otter was noncommittal, saying he’s going to interview several candidates before making a recommendation.

DARIN OSWALD — doswald@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

  • DEMOCRATIC PROSPECTS?

    Gov. Butch Otter and his close ally, the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, had winning records in Tuesday's primary. Candidates endorsed by Otter and IACI won 16 and lost 8, though each list was slightly different.

    Most of the losses were to tea party-aligned candidates, particularly in North Idaho. But none of those races are considered good prospects for Democrats to increase their number in the Legislature, currently just 20 of 105 seats.

    Democrats are considered competitive for a handful of possible pickups, including challenges to incumbent GOP Reps. Cindy Agidius, of Moscow; Brandon Hixon, of Caldwell; and Steve Miller, of Fairfield.

    In an open House seat in Caldwell, Greg Chaney's nomination is considered problematic for Republicans. Charged in 2009 with misdemeanor domestic battery, Chaney pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace and malicious injury to property. He said in April he would withdraw and let a write-in candidate replace him. But after winning twice as many votes as the leading write-in Tuesday, he said he was keeping his options open. Leif Skyving is the Democrat.

    Democrats have high hopes for Jana Jones - who lost narrowly in 2006 to Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, who is now retiring - in her race against largely unknown GOP nominee Sherri Ybarra.

    GOP Rep. Lawerence Denney's nomination for secretary of state may open the door to Democratic Rep. Holli Woodings of Boise. Denney is a lightning rod with baggage from his six years as House speaker, a post he lost two years ago.

    On rare occasions, IACI has backed centrist Democrats. But President Alex LaBeau said any support of Democrats would be "very modest."

  • DAN POPKEY

    Dan has covered Butch Otter since he became lieutenant governor in 1987. In 2005, Dan's coverage of the Jack Noble ethics case prompted Noble's resignation, opening a Senate vacancy filled by Russ Fulcher.

It's not unusual for American politicians to seek divine guidance. In the matter of healing a divided Idaho Republican Party, it may take the hand of God to do the trick.

After Gov. Butch Otter's 8-percentage-point win over Meridian state Sen. Russ Fulcher, GOP Chairman Barry Peterson opened Wednesday's post-election rally by acknowledging the difficulty.

"We pray now that there might be harmony within our party - that we will be united in our efforts to promote smaller government, greater freedom, less taxes," Peterson said.

Meanwhile, the leader of the GOP's more conservative wing faults Otter for letting the disharmony continue - since 2008, when the state Republican Central Committee rejected Otter's choice for party chairman.

"I've never felt so much pettiness from a group of people," said 1st District Congressman Raul Labrador, who defied Otter and the GOP establishment in endorsing Fulcher.

Labrador pointed to the May 14 debate, where Otter complained that the GOP divide began over whether to limit the party primary election to registered Republicans.

"We were against the closed primary," Otter told Idaho Public TV's statewide audience. "And that's where the first big rift came - when they threw out my chairman. I was the only governor in the United States that didn't have my selection."

In all of the hubbub about the debate antics of fringe candidates Harley Brown and Walt Bayes, Labrador said, reporters overlooked the significance of Otter's continued beef over Chairman Kirk Sullivan's loss to Norm Semanko, a coup engineered in part by Labrador.

"That was a telling moment when he's still bringing up something from six years ago," Labrador said. "And that's why you have a party that hasn't healed yet. He never sat down with Norm Semanko, with the people that opposed him, and said, 'Hey, I lost. Let's talk and unite the party.' "

'IT'S NOT GONNA HAPPEN'

When Peterson replaced Semanko in 2012, Otter was neutral. Today, with his nomination for a third term secured, Otter doesn't sound content to step away again when the party elects a chairman at the convention June 12-14 in Moscow.

Otter said Wednesday he plans to speak with a half-dozen candidates and consult with legislative leaders. "Some of those candidates that were not successful may be interested in running the party," Otter said. "That's not unheard of."

Peterson, who wants another term, suggested to Otter they were "together" on the chairmanship. But Otter brushed him off: "I'm not endorsing anybody today."

Otter and Peterson disagree sharply on the closed primary - which the state Central Committee has the power to rescind. The pair clashed nose-to-nose at a Lincoln Day dinner in Wallace last month, when Otter confronted Peterson about a report he'd intimidated candidates for the 942 precinct committee posts that make up the core of the committee.

The day before the election, Peterson co-signed a letter with nine GOP legislators and 17 Central Committee members condemning Otter for getting Brown and Bayes invited to the Republican debate when they didn't meet criteria for participation.

"Gov. Otter's actions have led to national ridicule and embarrassment of not just the Idaho Republican Party, but all of Idaho," they wrote. "To save himself, Otter chose to make a circus out of the serious business of informing Idaho voters on differences between two viable candidates for governor - himself or Sen. Russ Fulcher."

Given Otter's public distress over not having an ally leading the party apparatus, it seems unlikely Peterson will win his support.

One high-ranking GOP elected official pointed to Monday's letter as the last straw. "It's not gonna happen," said the official.

ENTER FULCHER?

Labrador told the Statesman Friday that Otter can't risk a continued split in the party and should strike a deal on the chairmanship as he prepares to face Democrat A.J. Balukoff in November.

"My advice to him is to work with me and work with others like me to actually have a strong, unified party," Labrador said. "If he does that, I believe he's going to win overwhelmingly. And if not, he's going to have a hard time getting the grassroots excited about his re-election."

In 2012, Otter said he could support Fulcher as party chairman, although Fulcher withdrew after being elected Senate GOP caucus chairman.

"I was OK with him (Fulcher)," Otter said Wednesday.

How about now, after a bruising campaign?

"I want to talk to all the other candidates and see where they want to lead this party," Otter replied.

On Friday, Fulcher told the Statesman that "a lot of people" have approached him about seeking the unpaid job. He added, "It is just too early to make a decision like that."

Fulcher said he wouldn't challenge Peterson. "I am motivated to help my party prevail in November, but not in a way that adds strain to an already tenuous situation," he said. "I would need to believe my involvement would be broadly embraced as a catalyst to bring all conservatives together."

Another highly regarded prospect is Premier Technology President Doug Sayer of Blackfoot, brother of Otter's Commerce Director Jeff Sayer.

RE-OPEN THE PRIMARY?

The 942 precinct people elected to the Central Committee will select the party chairman and vote on the platform at the convention.

Otter tried to win enough of the slots to control the Central Committee.

Peterson won his precinct committee race against former Sen. Tim Corder in Mountain Home, 150-120. But until county central committees organize in the coming days, the picture will remain fuzzy.

Former Sen. Rod Beck, a powerful Peterson ally, lost his Boise precinct race 108-103 to Lori Rouse, the daughter of former Sen. John Andreason. Asked which faction won control, Beck said, "I'm not sure."

Debbie Field, who ran Otter's 2006 and 2010 campaigns, won her race 188-50 over Robert Scott Ramella (who spent Election Day in the Ada County Jail in lieu of $1 million bond pending trial on six felony sex charges, including sexual battery on a child).

Field said Otter allies appear to have the edge in Ada County, but couldn't gauge the statewide result.

Canyon County GOP Chairwoman Melinda Smyser declined to speculate. "I'm not going to get into what-ifs. We're going to go to the convention and come out strong. Unify and move on."

If Otter regains control, he could move to rewrite the platform that calls for repealing the direct election of U.S. senators, abolishing the Federal Reserve Bank, returning to the gold standard and nullifying federal law.

He scolded Fulcher in the debate for his wholesale support of the platform. "Leadership requires a heavy dose of reality and not to mislead people into thinking they can achieve something that they can't," he said.

Otter also aims to lift the closed primary. "Why would you take people's access to the polls away from them by closing your primary?" he asked during the debate.

Labrador warned against such a move.

"That has been decided by the party," Labrador said. "If he wants to continue to divide the party, I think he's going to have a difficult time in November."

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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