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Say hello to smoke-filled rooms, sans smoke

Marty Trillhaase
April 10, 2013
Lewiston Tribune

If the point of Idaho's closed Republican primary election was to drive pesky Democratic voters away, it worked.

But as a device to purge the GOP - and thereby Idaho government - of moderates, it flopped.

Consider the list of those for whom the bell was supposed to toll last May: Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint; Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover; former state Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly; Sen. Patti Ann Lodge, R-Huston; Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa; Sens. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, and John Tippets, R-Montpeilier; and Rep Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg.

It did not toll for them.

At the same time, Idaho Republicans nominated a freshman class of lawmakers who proved to be anything but rigid and ideological. In the House, they deposed Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, and elected in his place Scott Bedke, R-Oakley. In the Senate, they retained the leadership team of President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, and Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls.

That group of freshmen next joined in passing Gov. C.L. (Butch) Otter's call to establish a state-based health insurance exchange as part of national health care reform. And these lawmakers rejected handing over almost $120 million the state does not have in tax breaks for Idaho's largest corporations.

True, the 2012 primary turnout fell to historic lows. But the voice of more than the 140,000 Idaho Republicans was remarkably unchanged from earlier primaries that were open to all.

So if you're going to move Idaho's dominant political party to the right fringe, it's no longer a matter of driving just the Democrats and some independents out of the tent.

You've got to shrink the tent.

Turns out the GOP is working on just such a scheme.

Monday, the Idaho State Journal of Pocatello reported a rules subcommittee of the Republican Party State Central Committee is mulling over a convention system.

"There is a movement afoot to basically expand out the caucus system, to cover all the candidates for elected office and just get rid of primaries - to get rid of the Republican primary," the source said.

Goodbye primary, closed or open.

Hello smoke-filled room - without the smoke.

Modeled after the Utah system that ousted U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010 for the heresy of voting for the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program, a state convention would allow about 500 true believers to name Idaho's GOP candidates.

In a one-party state where Democrats lack resources and organization, that equates to a convention picking Idaho's government.

Instead of Gov. Otter, it would be Gov. Raul Labrador.

Instead of Congressman Mike Simpson, it would be Congressman Chick Heileson.

Instead of Senate President Pro Tem Hill, it would be Pro Tem Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene.

Instead of U.S. Sen. Jim Risch - who just happens to be the most conservative member of that body - it might be U.S. Sen. Rod Beck.

Oh, you could protest such a move.

Idaho lawmakers could resist it.

But the best anyone can do is delay the inevitable. Under the court decision that closed Idaho's primary in the first place, political parties have the right to select their candidates in any way they want.

Unless you take that power from them.

You'll find the remedy across the state line in Washington, where primaries do not nominate the Republican and Democratic candidate. They select the top two vote getters, who continue on to the November general election.

Most of the time, it still produces a Republican and Democrat candidate.

But in one-party enclaves it empowers the voters. For instance, two Democrats may face off in Seattle while two Republicans could be opposing each other in eastern Washington. The benefit is obvious: Rather than playing to the extreme party base, the winning candidate must appeal to the center.

Washington's Top Two primary has survived court challenges. The Evergreen State has pioneered the path. The only question now is when Idaho voters choose to follow their neighbor's example - before or after the GOP hierarchy cuts them entirely out of the primary.

Originally posted at

The editorial posted here is provided by permission of its original publisher and does not necessarily reflect the views of Idaho Public Television.

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