An internal battle between mainstream Republicans and a conservative insurgency has divided the Spokane County Republican Party and may influence the primary election race for District 2 county commissioner.
The sides are battling for control of the local party through elections of precinct committee officers, a scenario mirroring those playing out across the country, some with tea party overtones.
The primary race for commissioner involving two Republicans – Shelly O’Quinn and Rob Chase – and Democrat Daryl Romeyn may be in the balance.
Only two of those candidates can advance to a general election showdown in Washington’s “top-two” primary system, in which the top vote-getters advance regardless of party affiliation.
O’Quinn expects that a core Democrat vote of about 39 percent will allow Romeyn to earn a spot on the November ballot.
If that prediction holds true, O’Quinn and Chase would be vying for the second ballot spot. A strong turnout by Republicans looking to back precinct committee officer candidates could be the deciding factor.
One longtime Republican Party official, however, said neighborhood precinct committee candidates working to get their supporters to cast votes could lead to O’Quinn and Chase advancing to a general election showdown.
“It will energize people to vote,” said Diana Wilhite, a supporter of O’Quinn.
Said Chase, “If it’s a close race, it could make a difference.”
Contested precinct committee officer races are on the ballot during the primary. There are 44 contested GOP precinct races in commissioner District 2 out of 101 contested GOP races countywide.
District 2 includes southeast Spokane and Spokane Valley, where libertarian and tea party forces are more concentrated.
Competition for control of the local Republican Party dates to 2008 when libertarian Texas congressman Ron Paul ran for president as a Republican and brought new faces to the party organization, said Chase, who is in his second year as county treasurer and is among Paul’s supporters.
County election records show that interest in serving as a precinct committee officer began to increase in 2008 following presidential caucuses that year. Precinct committee officers select local party leaders, who in turn have influence over party policies and platforms.
In 2006, Republicans had 123 precinct committee officer candidates compared with 103 Democratic candidates.
Since then, Republican precinct officer filings have climbed from 210 in 2008 to 303 in 2010 and 389 this year.
Democrat filings have remained about the same over the past four elections.
Mainstream Republicans responded to the competition by finding more candidates this year, Wilhite said.
During presidential caucuses earlier this year, supporters of Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich agreed to back the winning candidate as the party’s nominee, she said. Paul forces, however, have not joined them, she said.
“The Ron Paul people keep telling us we are not conservative enough,” Wilhite said.
They criticize mainstream Republicans as “RINOs,” shorthand for “Republicans In Name Only.”
“If you don’t agree with them 100 percent you are the enemy. They don’t allow us any wiggle room,” Wilhite said.
She pointed out that some of Chase’s ideas are far from conservative.
As treasurer, Chase has proposed allowing the county to invest in stocks, bonds and precious metals with tax funds that are collected and held for a range of local government services, including schools and fire districts.
Chase acknowledged in an interview that he has proposed allowing the county to add a small amount of diversity to its portfolio, but is limited to conservative investments by state law.
Matthew Pederson, chair of county Republicans, said he believes that the competition within the party is healthy.
“It’s brought a lot of people to the party,” he said. “We have a much larger number of engaged Republicans than we have had in the past.”
The surge of grass-roots involvement may help Chase neutralize O’Quinn’s campaign funding advantage.
O’Quinn is director of education and workforce development for Greater Spokane Incorporated, the local chamber of commerce, and is aligned with mainstream Republicans.
The latest public disclosure reports showed that O’Quinn had raised $41,000 through July 17 compared with $5,600 for Chase and $900 for Romeyn.
O’Quinn has $1,800 in contributions from Avista, the Kalispel Tribal Economic Authority and James Cowles, a member of the family that owns The Spokesman-Review and other business interests.
Chase has a $900 donation from businessman Duane Alton, a former Republican congressional candidate.
Romeyn received $500 from Rich Cowan, who is running as a Democrat for Congress this year. Romeyn is a former television newsman and small-scale organic farmer.
The struggle within the Republican Party may also influence the four-way race to replace Republican John Ahern in the 6th Legislative District where Republicans Jeff Holy, Larry Keller and Ben Oakley are competing with one another and Democrat Dennis Dellwo, a former state representative.
Holy has said he is the more conservative candidate among Republicans.
Kris Cejka, Democratic Party chair, said Democrats are united behind their candidates and she expects the party to make gains this fall despite the surge in Republican grass-roots activism.
Even so, she said she would like to see more Democrats run for precinct committee positions.
Primary ballots were delivered this week.