Gov. Butch Otter engineered a "coup" to control the Idaho Republican Party apparatus in order to punish opponents of Otter's Your Health Idaho insurance exchange, GOP Chairman Barry Peterson said Friday.
Peterson said his informing lawmakers of the party's formal opposition to the exchange is the root of their differences.
"In so doing, we've incurred the wrath of the governor," Peterson told 580 KIDO's Kevin Miller. "From my perspective, and it's mine alone, this onslaught is because the party would not bend over relative to the health care exchange."
The GOP-controlled Legislature passed the exchange law last year, with 45 Republicans voting for the measure and 40 voting no.
Otter won the May primary over a leading exchange opponent, Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, 51 percent to 44 percent. That divide prompted the biennial GOP convention to adjourn in chaos June 14, without electing officers or passing a platform.
Republicans loyal to Otter won control of the Ada, Bannock, Canyon, Elmore and Twin Falls county GOP committees in the primary and say Peterson's two-year term is over. They have set an Aug. 2 meeting of the Republican State Central Committee to elect party officials. Peterson has set an Aug. 9 meeting of the same group, which governs the party.
Asked for comment, Otter Campaign Manager Jayson Ronk provided a letter emailed Friday to Otter's entire campaign mailing list — tens of thousands of addresses statewide. Otter urged recipients to "join me in agreeing to let our Central Committee resolve this dispute over the chairmanship."
"Let's stop looking for reasons to disagree," Otter wrote. "Let's stop looking past good Republicans in pursuit of perfect Republicans."
Otter noted the GOP's record of success in Idaho, which he attributed to volunteers "and the unanimity of opinion we have enjoyed on most major issues of the day. Now that unanimity is very publicly unwinding — not for the most part in regard to public policy, but rather over our own party processes."
Otter said the party should focus on common goals of "less government, lower taxes, less regulation, more freedom. Our differences are matters of degree, not substance. But they must not be allowed to fester. They must be resolved, because none of us in Idaho will be better off with Democrats in office."
In Friday's radio interview, Miller called Peterson "our great friend," and asked, "What is it like to have the entire might of the establishment plus their acolytes in the press against you?"
Peterson said he and his wife have received "innumerable" letters and phone calls from supporters, "indicating that they're praying, that they hope we have the strength to stand up against this onslaught and that we can be a representative for the people in the party."
Added Peterson: "There is a reservoir of people and I'm sure they represent pretty close to 50 percent of the people in the party who are very supportive and I'm grateful to be a participant with them in the process."
Peterson said Otter told him he would stay out of the chairmanship race, but said the governor's allies did otherwise in working to elect precinct committeepersons across Idaho.
"So, he, in effect, has stolen the grassroots, if you will, from their regular position," Peterson said, calling Otter's effort a "marvelous coup."
"He did it legally, the campaigns were honest, but there was a kind of a misconception like the Republican Party was recommending the candidates he chose," Peterson said, adding that Otter's support is regional. "Most of the state, they're still willing to stand up."
Peterson said he doesn't know what will happen with competing Central Committee meetings. "This is collision course designed for a split in the party if we both ride the horse out to its fruition," he said.
He blamed Otter for not agreeing to a deal at the convention that would have made Fulcher chairman.
"With one word of participation from the governor all of this would have gone away," Peterson said.
"Several times, before the convention, I was willing to step aside. During the convention me and the other candidates were willing to step aside. And even at this date, I'm willing to step aside. But the people — the people in the party — they have a reasonable expectation that they get to have a voice in this election. So it has to be a willingness to change course, if you will."
Peterson told Miller Wednesday's resignation of finance chief Mary Tipps Smith was intended to embarrass him, citing her sharply worded resignation letter. Smith has declined comment, but Peterson said her resignation letter criticized Peterson's role in last week's departure of former Executive Director Trevor Thorpe.
"In her resignation she made it sound like it was a vicious event," said Peterson, who has repeatedly said Thorpe left to attend graduate school. Thorpe has not returned messages from the Statesman seeking comment. On Thursday, Peterson hired Fulcher campaign aide Judy Gowen to replace Thorpe.
"The only thing I could think of why her letter was so aggressive in that regard was because somebody had put her up to it, and the purpose of it was to get another opportunity to throw spears and arrows and darts at me in the press," Peterson said.
Miller assured Peterson, "you've got a good friend here," and asked how he was "holding up personally."
"I did get my 8 hours sleep last night — I've had two of those in the last three weeks," replied Peterson, 66. "But this morning I feel much fresher 'cuz last night I did get a good night's sleep."