North Idaho Republicans splinter as legislative races loom

FRIDAY, MAY 9, 2014, 2:55 P.M.

Republicans in North Idaho have been splintering into increasingly bitterly divided factions, and some say it’s reached the point of dysfunction – and the cracks have to close if the aim is to get anything done, like bring in more jobs or improve schools.

“We need everybody to get together,” said Patrick Whalen, who is running against state Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, in the May 20 GOP primary. “I don’t think we can continually split the party and succeed.”

Longtime local Republicans have felt pushed out as newcomers and former Libertarians and Constitution Party members and their allies increasingly dominate the local party. Competing Republican clubs, from the Reagan Republicans to the Rally Right/United Conservatives to the Pachyderms, have differed over who’s the true conservative and squabbled over control.

Jim Pierce, a local banker and title company owner, said, “I think what you’re seeing now is a backlash from the rank and file of the Republican Party, not just in Kootenai County but across the state, to win our party back. … It’s a battle for trying to get Republican values back into the Republican Party.”

He said, “Apparently if you weren’t slamming your fist down in anger about the federal government, then you weren’t conservative enough.”

Whalen is one of five challengers to incumbent North Idaho GOP lawmakers who have been endorsed by the North Idaho Political Action Committee, a group that formed several years ago in response to the splits in the party. Pierce, a NIPAC board member, said the local central committee was increasingly moving its focus from getting Republicans elected to “causes and lawsuits and things like that,” and members stopped wanting to donate. “They didn’t always know which candidate represented what,” he said. “So we formed a PAC.”

In its first election two years ago, NIPAC’s candidates won five of six races; only Jeff Tyler narrowly lost to current Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene.

Mendive, who sides with the Rally Right/United Conservatives wing of the party, said he’s hearing support from voters as he campaigns for re-election. “They’re scared to death of Obamacare and what it’s doing to the country,” he said. “That’s a real threat.”

Whalen is a successful high-tech entrepreneur who’s lived in Post Falls since 1991 and, while active in the community and civic and volunteer work, has never run for office before. He wants to focus on jobs and education. “I think I have the skill set and the time and energy to do that,” he said.

Brad Corkill, a former Kootenai County GOP chairman and the chairman of NIPAC, said, “We looked extensively at voting records, public comments, and we just feel that the candidates we’ve chosen will do the best job possible of representing the concerns of the people in North Idaho.”

The group picked up the nickname “Reasonable Republicans” when shortly after it formed, a reporter asked Corkill if his group was more moderate than the others. “I said, ‘No, I would consider my group to be reasonable.’” The name stuck. “I don’t mind it at all,” Corkill said.

Nonini, a longtime lawmaker and former county party chairman, drew the ire of many within his own party two years ago when he bankrolled tea party challengers to fellow GOP incumbents through his PAC, the Idaho Association for Good Government; he didn’t return a call for comment for this story.

Whalen said that kind of politics isn’t his style. “I’m a product of a large family, so consensus building and trying to get along is part of my nature,” he said. He was raised with five brothers and two sisters. “I’m right in the middle.”

But the Whalen-Nonini matchup also has turned bitter after Nonini’s wife, Cathyanne, sent an email to both the local and national leadership of the Boys and Girls Clubs – Whalen is the longtime president of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Kootenai County – notifying them that eight years ago, he had a DUI. “We do not feel it is a good example for a person with a DUI conviction to be serving on a B&G Club Board,” she wrote. “Peace and Blessings, Cathyanne.”

Whalen offered to resign from the board, but the organization declined to accept his resignation. At a Chamber of Commerce candidate forum last Thursday, he revealed the DUI and the dustup; Nonini responded by accusing Whalen of a “cheap shot” at his wife.

Nonini himself was arrested, but not convicted, in 1983 for possession of cocaine with intent to deliver, and acknowledged that he later served as an informant in a drug sting.

Whalen said, “We didn’t expect the Noninis to be the ones to bring it up because he has so much to hide in his past.”

Other GOP incumbents facing NIPAC-backed challengers include Mendive and Reps. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens; Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene; and Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton.

“I understand that I haven’t been considered a reasonable Republican to them from the beginning,” Barbieri said. “That’s their determination. I don’t really have any concerns about the election itself. I certainly have my detractors … but I’m fairly encouraged with knocking on doors and stuff, that name recognition is there and they’re happy with what I’m doing.”

The Liberty Caucus, a statewide group whose vice-chairman is tax-protesting former state Rep. Phil Hart, has announced a slate of endorsements that are the mirror opposites of NIPAC’s in North Idaho, backing tea party challengers to incumbent Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Reps. George Eskridge, R-Dover, and Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene; and backing all the incumbents that NIPAC is opposing.

With the election just over a week away, the pressure is on. A third of the contested GOP races for legislative seats in North Idaho are for seats where no Democrat has filed, so they’ll likely determine the final winner; currently, Republicans control all of the Panhandle’s legislative seats

Mendive said he wishes more people would get informed and turn out for the primary, which typically draws only a quarter or less of registered voters. “It’s all based on who turns out to vote,” he said. “It is disappointing that more people don’t get involved, because this election in the state of Idaho is going to be determined pretty much on May 20, not so much in November.”


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