Capitol & State

As Idaho's Otter seeks to emulate Iowa's Branstad, letter pleads for GOP unity

Five-term Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad accomplished over the weekend what Gov. Butch Otter has aimed for since 2008 — a Republican Party chairman loyal to him as the elected leader of the party.

In a Saturday vote by the Iowa Republican Central Committee reported by the Des Moines Register, Branstad completed his "take-back of the party apparatus and the final pieces of the rejection of liberty-movement control."

Chairman Danny Carroll — an advocate of God-given rights as opposed to government- and court-given rights — was ousted on a no-confidence vote of 14-2. He was replaced by former legislator Jeff Kaufmann, who is allied with Branstad and the state's senior U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley.

"If being part of the establishment means I'm a supporter and continuing to work with Gov. Branstad and Sen. Grassley, then I'm a part of the establishment," Kaufmann told reporters. "What I said is I'm part of the establishment, and a part of liberty, and a part of evangelical Christianity, and a business conservative, et cetera et cetera."

Aiming at a similar unity message, Otter loyalists had hoped to elect businessman Doug Sayer of Pocatello to replace Chairman Barry Peterson at the June 14 Idaho GOP convention.

But a coalition of tea party, libertarian leaning and evangelical Republicans led by Congressman Raul Labrador wanted Sen. Russ Fulcher to be part of GOP leadership. A deal broke down when Otter declined to offer his backing to a deal involving Fulcher. Seeking a third term, Otter defeated Fulcher in the May 20 GOP gubernatorial primary, 51 percent to 44 percent.

The division in the party lingers, prompting Otter to send a 'Dear Friend' Letter to tens of thousands of recipients on his email list urging GOP unity.

"Our differences are matters of degree, not substance," Otter wrote Friday. "But they must not be allowed to fester."

Competing dates have been set for the Idaho Republican Central Committee meeting: Aug. 2 in Boise by committee members loyal to Otter who want to settle the matter in time for the Aug. 6-9 meeting of the Republican National Committee in Chicago; and Aug. 9 by Peterson at a time and place yet to be named.

In Friday's letter, Otter asked Republicans "to join me in agreeing to let our Central Committee resolve this dispute over the chairmanship. Let's please focus on the core mission of the Idaho Republican Party — electing Republicans. That's the only way we all win, and remember that there's no substitute for victory!"

But Peterson seems determined to keep poking Otter in the eye. On Friday, he said Otter was angry with him because the GOP apparatus "would not bend over" and support establishment of the state-run Your Health Idaho insurance exchange backed by Otter and a slim majority of Republicans in the Legislature.

On Thursday, Peterson hired Fulcher aide Judy Gowen as executive director of the party. She replaced Trevor Thorpe, who plans to attend graduate school. Until now, Thorpe had declined comment on the circumstances of his departure, which included Peterson changing the locks at GOP headquarters.

Thorpe told the Statesman that he and Peterson had agreed his last day would be June 27. But, Thorpe said, on June 18, "Barry asked me to leave. On Thursday, June 19th, I cleared out the rest of my personal items" and departed.

The day before the GOP primary, Peterson cosigned a letter condemning Otter for his role in insisting all four GOP candidates be invited to the only TV debate in the race.

"Gov. Otter's actions have led to national ridicule and embarrassment of not just the Idaho Republican Party, but all of Idaho," wrote Peterson. "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."

Other signatories were nine lawmakers and 17 Central Committee members critical of Otter.

Otter lost control of the state party in 2008, when Norm Semanko was elected to replace then-Chairman Kirk Sullivan. Peterson replaced Semanko in 2012, when Otter said he was neutral in the race. This spring, Otter supporters worked hard to elect precinct committeepersons to regain control of the party from the libertarian-tea party-conservative Christian wing.