Internal divisions within the Idaho Republican Party were on display at a Senate committee hearing this morning, as Republican Party officials spoke both for and against legislation to allow for an early presidential primary in the state, at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $2 million. Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said primaries are intended to “kind of take it out of the smoky back rooms of the political bosses” and “allow more participation.” He sponsored SB 1066, to allow the new presidential primary on the second Tuesday in March, and said it matches an Idaho Republican Party resolution.
Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, said he was speaking not as a state representative but as a Republican Party official, a current Idaho GOP central committee member and the past rules committee chairman. “Nominating presidential candidates is a party function,” Nate told the Senate State Affairs Committee. “The Idaho taxpayer should not be forced to pay for Democratic, Republican or other party’s nominations. … With current budget priorities like education and transportation in question in Idaho, we should not be spending another nickel and certainly not another $2 million to help political parties do their work.”
Nate said the Idaho GOP in January approved an absentee voting process for its presidential selection caucuses that he said would address concerns about some members, from military members to the elderly, not being able to participate.
Tyler Hurst, chairman of the Idaho Young Republicans, spoke in favor of the bill, saying it would bring more participation. “This is a bill that needs to take place so that all people have a right to vote … and so that we bring more notoriety to the Idaho Republican elections,” he told the committee.
Winder said the resolutions committee of the Idaho GOP unanimously supported the call for the early primary. Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said, “The discussion we had today mostly spoke about one party. And I really think that $2 million from the general fund for a political practice is inappropriate, and I won’t be supporting this bill.”
Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, also spoke out against the bill, saying, “It just seems totally inconsistent to me that this party has gone from allowing a lot of people to participate in the process to reducing that number.” He said 80 percent fewer people participated in the Idaho GOP’s presidential caucus in 2012 than did in previous open party primaries, and he said he opposed spending the money the bill would require. Addressing Boise High School students in the audience, Siddoway said, “We could get you better teachers if we had $2 million more a year to put in that budget than what we’re about to do here. Think about that.”
Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, spoke out in favor of the bill. He said he disagreed with the Idaho GOP’s decision to close its primary elections to anyone other than registered Republicans. He also said he was uncomfortable with the 2012 caucus, because many couldn’t attend, or had to leave early. “I respect the party’s right to make that decision no matter whether I agree with it or not,” he said. “But in this moment, I want to … provide an opportunity for every party to accept the invitation to make their process, even in a closed political voting process, as open to all who are willing to live by those rules as possible. I think SB 1066 is the closest I’ve seen so far.”
The State Affairs Committee than approved the bill on a divided voice vote, sending it to the full Senate with a recommendation that it pass.