BOISE - Idaho’s super-dominant Republican Party was widely expected to swing back toward the middle this year, after tea party activists peppered the party platform two years ago with planks urging abolishment of the Federal Reserve, eliminating direct election of U.S. senators and pushing Idahoans to stockpile gold - and then forced all state GOP candidates to pledge allegiance to the platform or specify publicly where they disagreed.
But after last weekend’s Idaho GOP convention, very little changed. All those planks remained in the platform, except the pledge - but it was removed solely because it duplicated party rules, where it remains.
“It’s my personal feeling that the convention is an illustration that the strength of the party is in the foundation, which is essentially made up of the precinct committeemen who elect the delegates from amongst their peers,” said new Idaho GOP Chairman Barry Peterson. “The quicker in my mind that any elected official realizes that they get their power and authority from the grass roots, the better public servant they’ll be.”
The relatively few changes to the platform included hardening the party’s anti-abortion stance; removing a clause expressing support for the Idaho Human Rights Commission; and calling for “total abolition” of inheritance taxes.
“I don’t think the party moved further right or came back any to the middle,” said state Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, who chaired the resolutions committee at the convention. “I think maybe we have a good direction going forward right now.”
Expectations for change rose after Idaho’s first closed GOP primary in May, in which conservative and tea party activists mounted challenges to an array of Republican incumbents - but failed across the state.
Nonini, who backed a slew of those challengers and lost, said his conclusion was simply that “incumbency carries some big clout.”
Kootenai County GOP delegate Sandy Patano said, “I think in Bonner and Boundary counties, you saw a shift back. The effort to take on (Sen.) Shawn Keough and (Rep.) George Eskridge, the local community I think stood up in their defense and said they’re doing a good job for us.”
Both faced tea party challengers who had substantial financial backing, including from Nonini, from Avista Corp., and from certain GOP PACs; but both were re-elected easily.
Patano, a former longtime aide to Sen. Larry Craig and a longtime party volunteer, said she’s viewed as “establishment” by some in the party, but found common ground with other delegates in Twin Falls.
“There were some interesting dynamics at the convention. But my goal right now, for most of us, where we can come together is we want to elect a president,” she said: GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
Sixteen proposed resolutions were presented to the convention, stirring three and a half hours of debate and discussion; 11 were approved, and five rejected, one of those on a tie vote.
The tie came on a proposal to endorse a Florida senator’s plan to cut government spending by 1 percent a year; many delegates said they just weren’t familiar enough with the plan.
Other rejected resolutions would have allowed people to opt out of Social Security; asked Idahoans to choose between two types of citizenship; established a “Constitutional Round Table;” and backed developing natural gas as a motor fuel.
Among those approved: A controversial measure to support “county suffrage,” in the form of guaranteeing at least one senator and representative from each of Idaho’s 44 counties, despite the 1960s-era U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said legislative seats must be apportioned by population.
GOP activist Rod Beck said he attributed that to “some people still feeling bruised over the … increased urbanization of the state of Idaho, with Ada County getting one more legislative district.”
Overall, the convention saw far less dissension than the party’s last two, in Idaho Falls in 2010 and in Sandpoint in 2008.
“There was a lot of debate on different issues. … But it was in a constructive way, rather than with an eye toward destroying,” said Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs, who served as platform chairman at the convention. “And that’s fine. … People that were at the convention expressed a desire to come together as one party and not to splinter the party.”
Evidence of that came in the resolutions debate, when a proposed resolution sought to open up the party’s controversial closed primary, which Beck long has advocated. That resolution was amended at the suggestion of former party Chairman Trent Clark, to instead just call for studying the issue; he and Beck collaborated on the amendment, and it then passed easily.
Another resolution, to abolish the U.S. Department of Energy, was amended to include a clause backing the mission of the Idaho National Laboratory - the department’s major installation in Idaho, and a major employer in eastern Idaho.
“I didn’t perceive that there was a significant fight in the delegates to quarrel among themselves,” said Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls. “We may disagree on planks of our platform, and we may disagree between conservatives and those with more of a libertarian leaning, but what we don’t disagree on is the need for substantial change at the national level.”
Loebs said tea party members “have been by and large incorporated in and their views are welcome, that’s how I would describe it.” He said, “There were more people two years ago that seemed to have an attitude of outsiders fighting against the system than there were this year.”
The delegates did continue to show an independent streak that first surfaced in Sandpoint when they rejected then-party Chairman Kirk Sullivan, who was supported by Gov. Butch Otter, the party’s highest-ranking Idaho elected official.
This time, Otter said he was fine with either of the two candidates running for chairman, Peterson and charter school activist Gayann DeMordaunt of Eagle. Congressman Raul Labrador and state schools Superintendent Tom Luna campaigned for DeMordaunt, but Peterson won.
“I’m not in that camp, but I did hear people say, ‘If we didn’t want Butch Otter to pick our chairman, why do we want Raul Labrador and Tom Luna?’” Beck said. “I heard that mentioned several times.”
Peterson said, “My personal feeling is the stronger the precinct committeemen are and the more they feel like they have influence in what’s happening in the political process, the more they’ll engage, and the whole party benefits from that.”