SANDPOINT - The Idaho Republican Party has a new leader and a new direction on how to vote in primaries, the result of a dramatic convention that revealed the division of the party and, perhaps, a shift from the GOP establishment.
In an upset, Norm Semanko, a Kootenai County native who lives in Eagle and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2006, was elected party chairman by secret ballot Saturday, 227-169. The delegation demanded a secret ballot to stave off potential retaliation. Semanko promised to uphold conservative Republican principles.
Initially, Sen. Bart Davis of Idaho Falls, who was elected to run the convention, refused to reveal the vote count, but relented after ousted party Chairman Kirk Sullivan gave him the go-ahead.
The vote went against Gov. Butch Otter and others in the party establishment who supported the two-term chairman and former Boise Cascade executive and lobbyist. After the vote, Sullivan told supporters he planned to largely withdraw from politics.
Sullivan was opposed by an odd coalition of Ron Paul supporters, social conservatives who believed he was hostile to family values and critics upset that he delayed the state Central Committee’s call for closing the primaries.
In an odd twist, the same delegation narrowly voted to recommend keeping the GOP primary open to Democrats and independents. The Central Committee has final say on the issue; in his first action as party chairman, Semanko held a brief meeting of the committee to approve the convention findings. He said the next Central Committee meeting is tentatively scheduled for October.
“This issue is crying for leadership,” said Semanko, who is the executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association and an Eagle city councilman. “My goal is to bridge the gap and come up with a compromise.”
He also wants to improve communication with the GOP grass roots, raise money and get Republicans elected to Congress.
In April, the state GOP filed a federal lawsuit over Idaho’s primary elections. Semanko said leadership must discuss how to proceed.
“I wish Norm nothing but the best because we have a tough job ahead of us,” Sullivan said, referring to the November general election. His advice to Semanko:
“Work hard, get up early and stay up late,” he said.
The Ron Paul supporters, many of whom are newcomers to the Republican Party, were thrilled when the delegation voted to dissolve the U.S. Federal Reserve and return to a gold and silver standard.
“Freedom,” screamed Rick Martin, pumping his fist in the air. Martin is a Paul supporter from Twin Falls who didn’t participate as a delegate.
Paul, who took 24 percent of the vote in the May Idaho GOP primary, supports closing the Reserve because it could lead to the abolishment of the Internal Revenue Service, the nation’s collection agency.
The delegation also passed an anti-marijuana resolution, adding two new paragraphs to encourage alternative treatments for rehabilitation and to encourage young people to enjoy a drug-free life.
Earlier in the day, it appeared the open primary vote would bolster Sullivan’s chances for re-election.
Yet at the time, Sullivan maintained the decision was up to the delegates. He said he still felt like there was unity in the party to fight for the election of Republicans. As for all the close votes, he said there is always room to debate issue at a convention.
“That’s politics,” he said.