The day after Idaho's primary election, leaders from the state's Republican Party convened at the steps of the statehouse, promising harmony and compromise in the general election and in the future. For Sen. John Goedde, the "GOP Unity Rally" was little more than an empty gesture, "like trying to put frosting on a cow pie."
"It sounds wonderful, but I have heard since the election a number of Republicans saying 'I'm going to register as a Democrat,'" he says.
Last week, Goedde, who has represented Coeur d'Alene's 4th District for 14 years in the legislature, was defeated by a challenger from the right — failed Coeur d'Alene mayoral candidate Mary Souza, who ran on a platform pledging to take back federal lands, defy the Affordable Care Act and pull out of Common Core education standards.
Goedde's loss to Souza highlights the ideological rift between rank-and-file Republicans and a far right wing plaguing the party and threatening its grip on the Gem State. Cracks in Idaho's GOP have been evident for years, but the divided camps came to a head this past election season, when Sen. Russ Fulcher (R-Meridian), backed by Tea Party conservatives all over the state, mounted his gubernatorial campaign against Gov. Butch Otter.
Although Otter held onto the Republican nomination last Tuesday, he won by just eight percentage points — the smallest margin of victory in a Republican gubernatorial primary in at least a decade — and lost Idaho's three most populous counties, including his native Canyon County. In the general election, where he'll face Democratic nominee A.J. Balukoff, Otter faces a contradictory challenge: How to placate far-right Republicans without losing moderate voters?
"The fight for the soul of the GOP is going to continue, and that will have a pretty significant bearing on the general election," says David Adler, director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University. "If [Otter] moves even further to the right, will he essentially cede some of the middle ground to A.J. Balukoff? ... That really gives an opening for the Democratic Party to lure moderates away from the Republican Party. That's been a hard sell, but historically, when there have been great divides in other states, that's how parties are grown."
Every far-right challenge to statewide office holders failed last Tuesday. But Alder says that doesn't mean the Tea Party is losing steam. In Kootenai County, all but one candidate — Rep. Luke Malek (R-Coeur d'Alene) — endorsed by the more moderate North Idaho Political Action Committee lost in their efforts to take on Tea Party candidates in state legislative races.
"I did hit every single precinct in my district, and the most common thread was a misunderstanding or a lack of knowledge in regard to what the state legislature does," Malek says.
Malek, who bristles at NIPAC's "Reasonable Republican" label ("We're conservative politicians who aren't afraid to take on complicated issues."), narrowly beat his challenger, Toby Schindelbeck, a former competitive bodybuilder from California, by less than 200 votes.
"There's a lot of frustration at what's happening in the local level of government, and a lot of outrage about what's happening in the federal level of government," he says. "I think I was lumped in with that."
Voter turnout was particularly low — less than 22 percent in Kootenai County and a mere 25 percent statewide. NIPAC's Brad Corkill blames the party's closed primary system for his group's heavy losses, which restricts voting to registered party members only.
In 2007, the right-wing-controlled Idaho Republican Party Central Committee sued the state for the right to close its primary. The party won the lawsuit in 2011. Voter turnout has since hit historic lows in Idaho, where 59 percent of the state's 742,000 registered voters are unaffiliated with a party.
"The closed primary did exactly what the party wanted it to," Corkill says, "which was limit voter participation and ensure that more fringe candidates would get nominated."
Case in point — the 4th District race, where voter participation wasn't even half as high as the Coeur d'Alene mayoral race that Souza lost last November: Seven-term incumbent Goedde lost to the conservative activist, who received nearly 54 percent of less than 3,500 votes. By comparison, roughly 8,400 people voted in the mayor's race, where Steve Widmyer handily defeated Souza, 56 to 42 percent.
"We were outmaneuvered. We were out-organized," Corkill says. "The candidates that got the nomination are running on issues they really can't do anything about, which is taking back federal lands and abolishing Obamacare — these are issues over which they have no influence."
For his part, Goedde says he was surprised by the outcome of the primary, but he doesn't regret his positions on controversial issues, like supporting Idaho's state-run health insurance exchange or voting against a guns-on-campus bill. In her campaign against Goedde, Souza criticized the Senate Education Committee chairman for, among other things, championing Common Core.
"I'm sorry; raising standards students must meet to graduate is important, and rejecting those standards is asinine. I can say that now," Goedde scoffs. "I think [Souza is] going to have a real rude awakening if she thinks she's going to be able to change federal statutes. ... It's great when you're trying to entice people to the election booth, but it's nothing more than meaningless promises." ♦