NAMPA, Idaho – Two years after the Idaho Republican Party’s state convention degenerated into chaos, the party wrapped up a surprisingly smooth confab in Nampa on Saturday with much talk of party unity, though little enthusiasm for presidential nominee Donald Trump.
First District congressman Raul Labrador, a Ted Cruz supporter who will be among Idaho’s delegates to the national GOP convention, was busy shaking hands and greeting supporters as he seeks a fourth House term. Asked if he’d like to say anything about Trump, Labrador responded with a grin, “It’s a beautiful day in Idaho, isn’t it?”
When delegates were urged to rally behind Trump at the close of the morning floor session on Saturday, only a few waved signs and the cheers were noticeably muted. Cruz won Idaho’s presidential primary in March.
“It seems like for a presidential election year, people are pretty subdued,” said Kristen Weitz, a delegate from Caldwell. “We’ve got to support a Republican candidate, obviously. It may not be everybody’s favorite.”
State party Chairman Steve Yates held off two challengers, including outgoing state Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene, and Mike Duff, of Blackfoot, to win a second two-year term in the party post.
Sims, a longtime party activist and three-term legislator who lost her House seat in May’s GOP primary, told the delegates: “The presidential primary election has tried the patience and the endurance of many of us. But never have the American people had so many choices. We can be proud of all of the 17 candidates that stepped up to serve. In contrast what did the opposition offer? A sad socialist and a real criminal.”
Yates told the convention, “Two years ago, the Idaho Republican Party took a risk on me. None of you knew who I was or where I came from. But … you had arrived at a place where there was so much mistrust, so much dissension that business literally could not be conducted at a convention. … Since that time I’ve done everything that I could to make my service to the party not about me.”
Two years ago in Moscow, party members couldn’t even agree about seating the various counties’ delegations, preventing them from proceeding to any of their business, including platform discussions and leadership elections. After the convention, previous chairman Barry Peterson insisted he still held the party post, changing the party office’s locks and firing staff; after a court ruled he was out, the party’s central committee chose Yates at a special meeting.
This time, three counties’ delegations were challenged, but all the challenges were rejected.
“From this time forward, we are beyond our primary, we are in the general election, and our opponents are Democrats,” Yates told the convention. “It’s very, very important that we unify, in that simple purpose at the very least.”
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said, “I think he’s done a remarkable job in a very tough situation, and I don’t see any compelling reason to change horses at this point.”
There are still deep divisions in Idaho’s Republican Party, as demonstrated when the nearly 500 delegates couldn’t muster a required two-thirds vote to suspend rules and adopt changes to the party platform. That meant the platform will remain unchanged, as it has since 2012. Proposed changes included a call for the state to take title to all federal public lands in Idaho and a bid to call the U.S. Constitution not just “inspired,” but “divinely inspired.”
Six new party resolutions were approved at the convention, from opposing the Obama administration’s guidance on school bathroom use by transgender students to calling for amending the Idaho Constitution to “expressly permit” the use of the Bible in the state’s public schools.
Ada County delegate Sean Borzea told the resolutions committee, where he pitched the transgender bathroom measure, “I don’t want my kids to be a part of it. It’s part of the unraveling of the family fabric.”
A resolution to denounce bigotry and racism was rejected in committee; sponsor Steve Millington, of Buhl, said it ran into concerns about limiting free speech. “Whether we like it or not, the First Amendment does give me the privilege to be as hateful as I want to you,” he said after the meeting.
Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, said it’s time for party unity, if the Republicans are going to elect Donald Trump and defeat Hillary Clinton. And though Barbieri backed Sims over Yates, he said Yates has done a “marvelous job” bringing the splintered party back together.
“He has been an anchor, in a remarkably tumultuous two years,” Barbieri said.
Despite the lack of enthusiasm about Trump, speaker after speaker at the convention warned of the perils of a win by Clinton, particularly focusing on fears that she’ll infringe on gun rights. The convention’s theme was, “Faith, Family, Freedom … Firearms!” and guns were a prominent feature: There was a shooting practice and training room just off the main floor, where delegates could do some shooting for a fee; several gun auctions over the course of the three-day convention; and two firearms dealers were among the vendors peddling patriotic jewelry and campaign buttons and T-shirts.
Even the Trump stickers and signs that festooned the Ford Idaho Center spoke of Clinton first, saying, “Defeat Hillary, Vote Trump!”
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