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News >  Idaho

Idaho primary emotions eclipse low turnout

Incumbents, moderates are retaining offices, early results suggest

Coeur d’Alene resident Gary Olivieri casts his ballot at Woodland Middle School in Coeur d’Alene on Tuesday. (Kathy Plonka)
Coeur d’Alene resident Gary Olivieri casts his ballot at Woodland Middle School in Coeur d’Alene on Tuesday. (Kathy Plonka)

Idaho’s inaugural closed primary election Tuesday turned into a nasty internal squabble for the state’s dominant Republican Party, as GOP leaders, factions and interest groups turned on each other in a bid to take control.

Still, state Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and state Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, held off tea party challengers in the primary, as did moderate Republicans across the state. Tax-protesting Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, was vying with three GOP challengers, but the vote-counting was to continue well into this morning. For up-to-date results, go to

Coeur d’Alene GOP state Rep. Bob Nonini, who’s unopposed in the primary in his bid to move to the Senate, poured thousands of dollars through his political action committee into efforts to defeat several other incumbent lawmakers, including Keough and Eskridge. The House Republican leadership splintered, with two of its members funneling leadership PAC money into an effort to defeat a third. And divided Kootenai County Republicans feuded over everything from who’s a true conservative to whether their opponents are improperly invoking the name of Ronald Reagan.

Most voters hardly noticed, as the primary drew what appeared to be record low turnout in a state where primary-election turnouts have been low and falling for years. Though emotions ran high about internal party splits, voters complained about new rules, new procedures, and having to publicly register their party preference for the first time.

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa’s office was swamped all day with angry calls from voters. “The No. 1 call is people complaining a little bit about why in the heck is my party preference a public record, and why are we doing this,” Ysursa said. “We did expect those calls.”

The reason: The Idaho Republican Party sued the state and won, overturning the previous open primary election system, allowing it to close its primary to anyone other than registered Republicans, and bringing official registration by party to Idaho for the first time since statehood.

Topping the ticket on Tuesday was the race for the 1st District congressional seat, in which freshman U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador easily defeated little-known GOP challenger Reed McCandless, a truck driver from Moscow. On the Democratic side, former NFL football player and Lewiston native Jimmy Farris defeated Cynthia Clinkingbeard for the chance to challenge Labrador in November.

Clinkingbeard didn’t campaign, after being arrested for pulling a gun on employees at a Staples store, but still drew a substantial percentage in the low-turnout primary. In fact, Clinkingbeard beat Farris in Boundary County, but it was an illustration of the low turnout numbers: She got 42 votes there to his 39 in early returns.

Most interest in the election was focused on legislative races – every seat in the state Legislature is on the ballot this year, and following redistricting, some lawmakers are running in new and unfamiliar districts – and hotly contested county races.

In Kootenai County, battles for positions including county commissioner, sheriff and prosecutor were decided entirely in the GOP primary – no Democrats filed for the seats. GOP Commissioner Dan Green drew four challengers in the primary, while Commission Chairman Todd Tondee drew two.

Legislative races in District 1, which takes in Boundary and much of Bonner County, drew tea party challengers who took on all three Republican incumbents in the primary. Incumbents Keough and Eskridge also were targeted with big-money independent campaigns from outside the district, both for and against them. Avista Corp. was among those weighing in against the two.

In early results, however, the incumbents were easily holding off their challengers.

District 2 in Kootenai County was the site of the four-way GOP primary in which Rep. Phil Hart fought for his political survival. Though he’s already served four terms, he was unopposed on the ballot two years ago, and a write-in challenger garnered an unprecedented 20 percent of the vote. That was after news emerged about Hart’s continuing fights over back state and federal income taxes and his 1996 illegal harvest of timber from state school endowment land to help build his log home in Athol.

The U.S. Justice Department is now in federal court trying to foreclose on Hart’s home for more than half a million dollars in unpaid federal income taxes, penalties and interest.

District 2 also saw a rematch between former state Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, and incumbent state Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, a Hart ally who unseated Jorgenson two years ago, while state Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, another Hart ally, faced a challenge from Hayden businessman Mark Fisher.

In Kootenai County’s District 3, state Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, faced a challenge from Jack Schroeder. Henderson, a fourth-term representative, also is a former Kootenai County commissioner and Post Falls mayor.

Two political newcomers, Ron Mendive and Jeff Tyler, faced off in the GOP primary for the House seat vacated by Nonini’s decision to run for the Senate.

In District 4, the only contested race in the primary was for the seat now held by fourth-term Rep. Marge Chadderdon, R-Coeur d’Alene. She endorsed Luke Malek, former North Idaho director for then-Gov. Jim Risch, who faced gymnastics center owner Jeff Ames.

Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, who was easily holding off two challengers in early results, said he was stunned at the divisiveness among area Republicans. “This is a weird, weird, weird campaign,” he said. “I have never in my whole life seen anything like it.”

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