BOISE - With Idaho’s first closed GOP primary just a week away, Idaho Republicans are turning on each other with a ferocity unseen in decades.
Campaign finance reports filed Tuesday revealed everything from House Republican leadership money being funneled into efforts to defeat a member of House Republican leadership, to a Coeur d’Alene representative targeting two fellow North Idaho GOP lawmakers for defeat.
Endorsements are being given and withdrawn, two Kootenai County GOP groups are clawing at each other’s right to invoke the name of Ronald Reagan, and independent groups are mounting their own campaigns, either boosting or bashing various GOP incumbents under names like Free Enterprise PAC and Idaho Prosperity Fund.
“It is a divided party,” said Jim Weatherby, Boise State University emeritus professor of public policy and a longtime watcher of Idaho politics. “Primary battles are always tough. I think it’s worse now, though, when the legitimacy of being a Republican is questioned, or one’s assertion of being a conservative is questioned.”
Steve Shaw, a political scientist at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, said with Idaho’s one-party GOP dominance, “There’s nothing else to do so they’re really going after each other.” Plus, he said, “They’ve gotten a lot more bitter or nasty.”
The finance reports filed Tuesday – the only reports before next Tuesday’s primary election giving a glimpse into who’s financing Idaho’s campaigns – showed that Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, is pouring thousands of dollars into efforts to defeat Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover.
Nonini’s PAC, the Idaho Association for Good Government, donated $1,000 each to the campaigns of Danielle Ahrens, a little-known tea party adherent making her first run for office as Keough’s GOP primary challenger, and Pam Stout, Eskridge’s GOP primary challenger and head of the Sandpoint Tea Party Patriots. Nonini’s PAC also donated $8,000 to the “Free Enterprise PAC,” which then sent out fliers in North Idaho targeting Keough, vice-chairwoman of the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, as “the No. 1 big spender in Boise” and touting Ahrens as “an actual Republican.”
Weatherby said, “I don’t know where they get the ‘Shawn Keough is the big spender.’ ”
The flier’s claim cites an Idaho Freedom Foundation ranking that declared anyone voting yes on budget bills to be a big spender, and ranked lawmakers by the number of “yes” votes. However, in the Idaho Legislature, amounts in budget bills are debated and set in the joint committee that Keough co-chairs; once they leave that panel, they rarely change, and the few “no” votes generally are mere protests that they’re too high or too low. Setting a budget for the state is the Legislature’s main job; if all lawmakers voted against budget bills when they’re up for final votes, the Legislature would fail in its main task.
Said Weatherby, “It’s unseemly when misrepresentation and distortion of a person’s record is made.”
Nonini, who didn’t return a reporter’s calls Tuesday, also played a key role in persuading his neighbor, Jeff Tyler, to run for the House seat Nonini is leaving to run for the Senate this year. But then, after donating early on to Tyler’s campaign, Nonini withdrew his endorsement.
Tyler had to change his website, leaving a blank where Nonini’s endorsement formerly was listed and cropping out most of Nonini – leaving just a bit of shoulder – in a picture of Tyler with Nonini and Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls.
“Before I decided to run, I felt he was 100 percent behind me,” Tyler said. “Not knowing which one of us will win, he wants to have a good relationship with either one of us. … I can respect that.”
Henderson has continued to support Tyler, and has been campaigning with him.
Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, who is retiring from the Senate this year, said, “It’s kinda nuts up here.”
Tyler is a founder of the Kootenai County Reagan Republicans, who are now in an increasingly heated battle with another GOP group, the United Conservatives of North Idaho, of which Tyler’s opponent, Ron Mendive, is a founder. Nonini’s biggest financial backer, Lorna Finman, of Rathdrum, donated to Mendive’s campaign.
Things have gotten so heated between the two GOP groups that former state Rep. Jeff Alltus sent out a press release Tuesday announcing that he and two others have formed a new Kootenai County Reagan Republicans group and filed papers with the Idaho Secretary of State’s office to claim the name.
When the original Reagan group’s head, Ron Lahr, called his rivals’ move “identity theft,” Alltus responded, “It is Ronald Reagan who has had his identity stolen by a group calling themselves ‘Reagan Republicans.’ … It is as if this group has taken the name of Ronald Reagan in vain.”
Both groups now have brought lawyers into the battle.
Alltus also claimed the original Reagan Republicans group is being investigated by the Secretary of State’s office for “election violations.” Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said Tuesday, “I haven’t the foggiest idea what they’re talking about.”
There is no such investigation, Ysursa said.
Perhaps the most surprising paper trail to emerge from Tuesday’s finance reports is the one in which $10,000 from the House Leadership Victory Fund, the fund’s entire spending for the period since Jan. 1, went to “GunPAC,” a group that then endorsed 40 legislative candidates, including the challengers to six incumbents. The Victory Fund is controlled by House Speaker Lawerence Denney. Among its targets: House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, who’s the treasurer of the Victory Fund.
House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, who also donated $5,000 to GunPAC, told the Idaho Statesman Tuesday he wants to defeat Roberts by backing his primary opponent, John Blattler. “My goal is to make Ken’s life miserable because he’s making my life miserable,” Moyle said.
Roberts, whose wife drowned last summer, told the Associated Press he found the move “highly disappointing.”