Eye On Boise

GOP convention skirts closed primary fight

Idaho State Republican Party convention delegates in Twin Falls likely skirted a renewed, potentially messy internal fight over their party's closed primary by recommending the issue be studied, not addressed head-on, reports AP reporter John Miller. According to a resolution that cleared a convention committee Friday, state leaders will be asked to scrutinize the 2012 closed primary's consequences on turnout and Republican success before deciding if changes are necessary for 2014. The Republican Party limited its May 15 primary election to registered GOP voters; click below for Miller's full report.

GOP convention punts, avoids closed primary fight
By JOHN MILLER, Associated Press


TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) — Idaho State Republican Party convention delegates in Twin Falls likely skirted a renewed, potentially messy internal fight over their party's closed primary by recommending the issue be studied, not addressed head-on.

According to a resolution that cleared a convention committee Friday, state leaders will be asked to scrutinize the 2012 closed primary's consequences on turnout and Republican success before deciding if changes are necessary for 2014. The Republican Party limited its May 15 primary election to registered GOP voters, due to concerns that Democrats were crossing over and skewing results.

Some Republicans, including Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, want to undo it.

But instead of taking up a resolution pushing an open primary at their Twin Falls confab, delegates agreed to study the matter, on grounds that rehashing the old question would re-ignite feuds.

Trent Clark, a delegate from Soda Springs who authored the compromise plan, said he'd normally push for an open primary, but tackling the issue now, just weeks after the first closed primary, would only deepen the divide between entrenched factions and make the Republican Party appear divided.

"We would just ask our central committee to watch what's happening now," said Clark, a former Idaho GOP chairman, before near unanimous agreement on the plan. "We need to watch carefully what we've done."

Rod Beck, a delegate from Ada County and one of the drivers behind closing Idaho's primary election, said he backs the plan to study the issue, but thinks the central committee would have been reviewing it, even without a non-binding directive in the form of a resolution from the convention.

Since 2006, hardly any other issue has so publicly divided the state party in Idaho as the question of how to nominate candidates for the general election. In 2008, disagreement over the primary election contributed significantly to the ouster of the former GOP state chairman. Closed-primary advocates among the GOP's leaders sued the state in federal court to force the closure.

Last month, however, just 24 percent of registered voters turned out for the election, the lowest turnout in Idaho primary history.

There are plenty of potential explanations, but Otter, along with Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, contend that the closed primary contributed to driving independent voters away from the polls because they didn't want to participate in an election where their party affiliation would become public.

The governor and Ysursa, both Republicans, want to see the old system restored.

At the convention Friday, Otter told The Associated Press he's satisfied with Clark's plan to study the impacts.

"You're not going to change it between now and November," the governor conceded, adding that he's told potential allies in a fight to reopen the elections. "Let's not do anything this year. I don't think it's smart. I really think we need to take a good hard look at it."

Both candidates to replace outgoing GOP Chairman Norm Semanko — Gayann DeMordaunt, of Eagle, and Barry Peterson, of Mountain Home — favor the closed primary.

The Idaho State Republican Central Committee, the highest GOP decision-making body, has been adamant about preserving the closed election. Nothing convention delegates might say this weekend would immediately change anything, since it's the state panel that controls the decision.

All that would have been at stake was a recommendation, and Clark said it wasn't worth the fight — at least not until there's more information about how the closed primary is affecting the state's dominant political party.

According to the compromise, the central committee will spend the next two years studying participation rates from 2012 elections before deciding on possible changes designed to make sure the party doesn't lose its appeal with new voters, youth and unaffiliated voters.

Before the vote, the divide over the best course of action was on display, as delegates to the three-day Republican convention made their opinions clear.

"We voted to have a closed primary. We need to leave it that way and not open the box and do it again," said Greg Romriell, a Pocatello dentist and delegate from Bannock County. "It's in extremely poor taste to invite the opposition into our elections. They're not being disenfranchised. It's a choice they made to not become a Republican."

Others were fearful that the Idaho GOP's historic successes — the party controls four-fifths of the Legislature, all federal elected offices and all statewide offices — would be undermined by not letting people choose their primary ballots in secrecy.

According to an Idaho secretary of state report, Republicans were beat on fundraising by Democrats in 2011, something some blame on the closed primary.

"I think this year, our poor showing maybe as a state party in fundraising maybe is indicative of our efforts to disenfranchise people from our party," said Sandy Patano, a Kootenai County delegate and former aide to Sen. Larry Craig. "I encourage all of you, let's move forward, let's make every effort to study this, and at least come back with a recommendation in the future."


Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

 




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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Russell covers Idaho news from the state capitol in Boise and writes the Eye on Boise blog.

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