Republicans in North Idaho have splintered into bitterly divided factions, and some say the cracks have to close if the region’s dominant party aims to make progress on education and job creation.
“We need everybody to get together,” said Patrick Whalen, a Republican who is running against state Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, in the May 20 primary. “I don’t think we can continually split the party and succeed.”
Longtime 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 are the true conservatives and have squabbled over control.
Jim Pierce, a title company executive in Coeur d’Alene, said he believes there’s a backlash underway by the Republican Party’s rank-and-file in Kootenai County and across the state. “It’s a battle for trying to get Republican values back into the Republican Party.”
He added, “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. Brad Corkill, a former Kootenai County GOP chairman and the chairman of NIPAC, said the group looks at voting records and public comments in selecting candidates to back. “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,” he said.
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 and Corkill said he doesn’t mind that.
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 Republican 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. The Whalen-Nonini matchup turned bitter after Nonini’s wife, Cathyanne, sent an email to both the local and national leadership of the Boys & Girls Clubs notifying them that eight years ago Whalen had a DUI. Whalen is the longtime president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Kootenai County.
“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.
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 dust-up.
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 opposite of NIPAC’s in North Idaho. Hart’s group backs tea party challengers to incumbent Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Reps. George Eskridge, R-Dover, and Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’ Alene, and backs 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.