Analysis: A personal and existential fight divides the GOP

The best political fight in town these days pits Dorothy Moon against Butch Otter.

Granted, Otter has company. He is one of 116 Idaho Republicans who have endorsed an initiative to establish open party primaries, and adopt ranked-choice voting in the general election. Otter’s support comes as open-primary backers try to get their initiative on the November 2024 ballot, facing a May 1 deadline and a set of daunting signature requirements. 

But at this moment in time, this is a remarkable showdown between Moon, the former legislator who now heads the Idaho Republican Party, and Otter, the former congressman and three-term governor who has long been the face of the Idaho GOP. Any common ground between Moon’s hardline and insurgent GOP and Otter’s mainstream and establishment GOP is pretty much scorched earth now.

“Like Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Dianne Feinstein, the old guard of Idaho politics is desperately clinging to power, and is willing to do anything to keep from losing it — even playing games with our elections,” Moon wrote last week, in a column that called out Otter by name no less than five times.

There’s no longer any pretense that these two wings of the Republican Party are flying the same plane. It’s personal, and really, it’s even more than that. The fight over primary elections will determine how many Republicans hold office in one of the most unfailingly red states in the union — and which Republican faction has the advantage.

The outcome will have a profound effect on public policy — just like the closed GOP primary itself.

It’s hard to pinpoint the one foremost factor behind the ascent of Idaho’s hardline GOP. But the closed primary, approved by the 2011 Legislature, certainly belongs on the short list.

For a decade, the closed primary has provided hardline conservatives with an easier path to election, or re-election. For evidence of how that affects policy, look no further than the Senate Education Committee.

Three of the committee’s hardline conservatives — Sens. Scott Herndon of Sagle, Cindy Carlson of Riggins and Brian Lenney of Nampa — ousted moderate incumbents in the 2022 primary. These elections, and their subsequent appointments to Senate Education, moved this committee sharply to the right. So much so that, in 2023, the committee signed off on an aggressive education savings accounts bill that the full Senate resoundingly rejected.

The closed primary isn’t a sure thing for conservative hardliners. The turbulent 2022 primary recast Senate Education and established a hardline firewall across much of North Idaho — but in Eastern Idaho, several archconservative lawmakers also lost. Primaries can be hard to handicap, especially closed elections that inherently suppress turnout. But on the aggregate, the closed primary has favored the hardliners who are now arguing to keep it.

Even the specter of the primary can put an indelible stamp on the political agenda. When lawmakers reconvene in January for an election-year legislative session, expect another all-out push on ESAs or other methods of school choice. Don’t bet against end-of-session legislation — for the third successive year — targeting “harmful” library materials.

Litmus-test votes can leave a mainstream incumbent with two unsavory options: pivot, however reluctantly, to the right; or vote no, also reluctantly, and risk the consequences in May. And come 2024, that’s the election-year dilemma awaiting several mainstream members of the Legislature’s education committees: House chairwoman Julie Yamamoto of Caldwell, House vice chair Lori McCann of Lewiston, Rep. Mark Sauter of Sandpoint and Senate chair Dave Lent of Idaho Falls. All four are likely to face primary challenges from the right.

To be clear, Moon and her hardline adherents don’t like anything about the initiative: the open nonpartisan primary that would select four nominees, and the ranked-choice general election that would create instant runoff. And in an intraparty fight where the hardliners have set aside niceties, they’ve also abandoned subtlety. “If Idaho gets ranked-choice voting, we’re finished,” Idaho GOP National Committeeman Bryan Smith said recently. “People who want to completely disrupt our entire system, and turn Idaho blue as blue can be, they can do that through ranked choice voting.”

Elections are cherished, but that doesn’t mean election law is sacrosanct. Policymakers change election law — as illustrated by the 2011 closed-primary law, and subsequent rewrites. Some of the same lawmakers who cringe at the open primaries initiative have had no qualms about reworking Idaho school elections: eliminating the March standalone date for bonds and levies, pushing school trustee elections to the November ballot in odd-numbered years. And some lawmakers want to go even further. In 2023, one bill would have shoved nonpartisan school board races onto the general election in even-numbered years — alongside races for president, governor and Legislature — while allowing trustee candidates to declare a party affiliation.

Oddly enough, the supporters of the school elections overhauls and the open-primary initiative make strikingly similar arguments.

Lawmakers wanted to get rid of the March election — and move the trustee elections — in order to improve voter turnout. As their argument goes, the standalone bond and levy elections basically allowed schools to sneak tax measures past an unsuspecting electorate.

Open-primary supporters, like Otter, say the status quo disenfranches Idahoans who cannot or will not affiliate with the GOP in order to vote in a primary. “Independents, including a lot of military veterans, have been excluded from having their say because of the closed GOP primary,” he said. The implication, of course, is that the closed primary also games the system, giving advantage to fringe candidates that do not reflect their constituents.

In calmer times, this might be the makings of common ground.

But not now.

Within the Idaho GOP, these are anything but calm times.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

Get EdNews in your inbox

Weekly round up every Friday