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Liberty vs. civility: GOP convention highlights conflicting values among Idaho Republicans

July 22, 2022 Updated Fri., July 22, 2022 at 9:33 p.m.

By Ryan Suppe Idaho Statesman

BOISE – Delegates at the Idaho GOP State Convention signaled a new direction for the Republican Party, whose most conservative members commanded policy debates and saw most of their candidates elected to party leadership last weekend in Twin Falls.

While the Republican Party’s schism isn’t new – bitter contests in the May primary were evidence of that – the convention demonstrated a widening gap between the values and goals of traditional Republicans and the party’s far right, which is gaining momentum.

The latter won support for strengthening the party’s stance against abortion and tightening voter and candidate affiliation rules – both policies lawmakers likely will attempt to codify during the next legislative session.

The convention is made up of delegates elected by legislative district and county party members. Idaho Republicans continue to debate whether that broadly represents the will of GOP voters.

“This convention very much represented where the party was,” Scott Herndon, a Bonner County delegate who authored the party’s new unconditional platform on abortion, said by phone.

“People are invigorated to join a party when they see that party is standing strong on a certain set of core values.”

More moderate Republicans disagree. Right-wing hardliners, who represented a majority at the convention, rebuked moderation and quashed dissent, delegates said. That “silo mentality” could spell trouble for moderates, said Rep. Laurie Lickley, R-Jerome.

“I certainly think that we’re at a very pivotal time in Idaho history,” Lickley said by phone. “I’m a little concerned that those of us that are good, solid, reasonable and responsible conservatives are going to be placed in a box and told what to do.”

Idaho Republican Party appears divided

In her first public statement as the Idaho GOP’s new chairwoman, Rep. Dorothy Moon vowed to lead the party “with civility and conviction.”

“In serving the greater good with decency and with real ideas for how to make life better for all who call Idaho home, I hope our party will show those who’ve yet to cast a vote for a Republican what it is we believe and why the Grand Old Party is the natural home of all who love liberty and this great state,” the Stanley lawmaker said in a news release.

But last week’s convention revealed a shortage of civility among party members who disagree on divisive issues. Delegates shouted each other down during heated debates, one delegate said. And there was little desire to compromise, said Rep. Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell.

“You’re either all for, or you’re the enemy,” Yamamoto said by phone. “You either believe all of these things or you’re not truly a conservative or a Republican.”

Delegates passed resolutions that affirmed Idaho as a Second Amendment sanctuary state and supported the privatization of Idaho Public Television. Another resolution claimed absentee voting is riddled with fraud, citing a New York Post article that quoted an anonymous source who said they’ve cast fraudulent absentee ballots.

The convention declined to adopt a resolution rejecting the 2020 election results. Trent Lynn Clark, of Soda Springs, who chaired the convention’s resolutions committee, said the committee “did not spend 10 seconds” on the issue.

“There was a general agreement that we’re more concerned about future elections than past elections,” Clark said by phone.

Party leaders did not allow reporters to attend committee meetings, a change from past conventions.

Most resolutions and platform changes – including one of each in support of school choice – were adopted by the general session, a meeting of all delegates, with little debate. One exception was a proposal to update the party platform on abortion.

Herndon proposed altering platform language to support “the criminalization of all murders by abortion” and “strengthening the Idaho Constitution’s declaration of the right to life for a preborn child.”

Conservative delegates dispatched suggestions to include an exception to protect the life of a mother, after a tense and emotional debate, and adopted the new language.

Herndon, who is running unopposed for a Senate seat, authored multiple unsuccessful bills in recent years that criminalized all abortions with one exception, which hinges on the intent of an abortion provider.

Under one of his bills, the state would have exempted an attempt to save the life of a pregnant patient that results in the “unintended death of an unborn human being.”

Next month, pending a lawsuit from Planned Parenthood, Idaho will ban all abortions, except in cases of rape and incest and when the mother’s life is in danger. Meanwhile, moderate Republicans fear new legislation will surface that reflects the lack of explicit exceptions in the party platform, which now says, “We oppose all abortion.”

Such a policy could dissuade doctors from operating on a mother experiencing a life-threatening pregnancy, said Liz Strader, a Meridian City Council member and GOP delegate from Ada County. Strader, who believes abortions should be “extremely rare,” said abortion policy should “default to trusting women.”

“Life is the highest value in my faith, including women’s lives,” Strader said by email. “I think ending a potential life is a devastating private choice.”

Yamamoto said she expects legislation next year based on everything that was voted upon during the convention.

But she doesn’t believe the delegation represented the typical Idaho Republican voter. That’s why voting at the committee level matters, she said.

“This is exactly what happens when an energized, focused effort occurs to make change,” Yamamoto said. “And they were highly effective. There are ramifications, and that’s what we saw in Twin Falls.”

GOP could block more voters from primary

In 2007, the Idaho Republican Central Committee adopted a rule to block unaffiliated voters from voting in the GOP primary election. Opponents fought in court to preserve the right of independents to participate in the primary, but the rule was implemented in 2012.

Soon, the Central Committee will again choose whether to limit who can vote for Republican nominees.

Spurred by fears that Democrats are infiltrating the Republican primary, so-called “crossover voting,” the proposed rule would block voters from affiliating with the GOP if they were affiliated with, or donated to, another party 25 months before a primary election. It would also disqualify unaffiliated voters, except new voters, from participating in the GOP primary if they haven’t affiliated with the Republican party one year before the election.

“We have a problem. They want to come into our party,” Branden Durst, the sponsor of the proposal and a former Democrat, said during the convention. “What we need is the dedicated folks of the Republican Party, the people who are dedicated to staying Republican – not just choosing to be Republican every two years.”

About 60% of delegates supported the rule change, but the Central Committee will make the final decision, likely during a meeting iin January.

Strader said she would have been barred from voting in this year’s primary under the proposed rule, because she had not switched from independent to Republican a year before the election.

“There seems to be such an effort to identify and play gatekeeper on who can be a Republican,” Strader said. “And that’s not right. If you want to win elections, and your party is appealing to people, I think you should let them in with open arms and default to assuming positive intentions from people.”

Delegates also voted to insert previously excluded language that would allow legislative district and county central committees to vet and endorse candidates, a flashpoint for Republicans in recent months.

Before the May primary, the state party sued the Bonneville County Republican Central Committee after the group endorsed, and donated to, a slate of hard-right candidates. Former GOP Chairman Tom Luna said at the time that flyers advertising the endorsements were deceptive and suggested the state party was endorsing candidates, which it does not do.

Herndon said the lawsuit contributed to Luna’s ouster as chairman.

“That very much violated the sentiment of Republicans all around the state and, I think, was a major ding on him,” Herndon said.

Luna acknowledged during the convention that the lawsuit may have been a mistake, but his allies maintain that central committees should not vet and endorse candidates.

Allowing “cliques of elites” to choose who is “a real Republican” is “about as anti-Republican as you can get,” said Clark, a former state GOP chairman. That’s why the Idaho GOP did away with its primary caucus system, he said.

“Primary decisions are best when done closest to the people,” Clark said by phone.

“This particular convention planted the seeds of what, if allowed to proceed, would be the undoing of the Idaho Republican Party.”

Some GOP members want more ‘inclusive’ party

If the central committee approves the rule targeting crossover voting, it will be up to the Legislature to codify it, setting up a potential legal battle if lawmakers aren’t on board.

Republicans were divided in 2007 over the proposal to close the primary. At the 2008 Idaho GOP convention, former Republican Party Chairman Kirk Sullivan lost his seat “in significant part” because he opposed closed primaries, the Statesman reported in 2012.

Lawmakers resisted codifying the closed primary system, so the party took the state to court. A federal judge ruled that Idaho Republicans’ First Amendment right to free association forced the Legislature to adhere to the party’s wishes. That precedent may impact the new rule proposal.

“If the state doesn’t agree, what’s to stop the party from going to court again and saying: ‘Wait, we’re a private organization. This is a process through which we determine our own nominees?’ ” Clark said.

It’s unclear where the Legislature, which will see significant turnover next year, will land on the issue, but some have already signaled their opposition.

“I think our party needs to be more inclusive,” said Lickley, who’s hoping to win a Senate seat in November. “And if we want to pull in a future generation of good, solid young Republicans, we’re going to need to take a look at being a little more open in our primary process.”

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