When do 500 people not look like that many? When they are all sitting six feet apart in a massive arena with a capacity of more than 12,000.
It may sound like a bad joke, but for three days at the end of last week (June 25-27), it was a reality as hundreds of Republican delegates from around the state journeyed to Ford Idaho Center to conduct their biennial state convention.
Despite the numbers, masks were scarce among the delegates, perhaps because of the size of the venue. Observers reported that fewer than 10 percent of attendees wore masks, creating a stark contrast with the always-masked venue staff members.
The Idaho Republican Party has been split between two factions since at least 2008, when then-Governor Otter’s choice for party chair was defeated by a collation of old-school Barry Goldwater conservatives and mostly younger and more libertarian Ron Paul supporters.
The factions were out in force for the 2020 convention with the right wing backing Mark Fuller, an attorney and the chair of the Bonneville County Republicans, for party chairman and the more moderate centrists supporting former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna.
When the dust settled on the vote count (and recount), Luna won by just 12 votes out of more than 530 cast.
Six other party races occurred for first and second vice chair, secretary, treasurer, and national committeeman and committeewoman. The more conservative candidates prevailed in two of these races with Machele Hamilton winning first vice chair against Tracey Wasden (wife of Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden) and Marla Lawson winning reelection as party secretary against former state Representative Steve Miller.
The centrists won the other four races including national committeeman, in which incumbent Damond Watkins beat attorney Bryan Smith by just a single vote, 261-260. The national committeewoman race was very close as well, with incumbent Cindy Siddoway beating Maureen Hatfield 267-259.
The race for second vice chair saw Mike Mathews defeat the former chair of the Ada County Republican Party, Ryan Davidson. In the treasurer’s race, incumbent Stephen Parrott bested challenger Jim Chmelik by the largest margin of the day, 298-227.
While many of these candidates spoke of uniting the party and seeking greater collaboration, the stark split in the party is evident in the vote totals.
There was additional evidence of disharmony and lack of unity throughout the convention. During the Governor’s speech during lunch on Saturday, at least two delegates rose and turned their backs on him. Former party chair and briefly nominated candidate for national committeeman, Steve Yates took to the stage (he ultimately declined the nomination), and was loudly booed in the midst of his short speech.
An interesting sidebar to the convention was a series of emails sent out by Idaho billionaire Frank VanderSloot encouraging delegates to “take back the Republican Party” from those he labeled “CINO’s” or “Conservatives in name only.” Less than 24 hours after his original Thursday night missive, a second email went out calling out “Idaho radicals masquerading as Republicans.” A third email arrived Saturday morning criticizing the current party chair (and former congressman) Raul Labrador and explicitly encouraging delegates to vote for Tom Luna.
The convention also featured often-divisive debate on resolutions and amendments to the party platform. Many voice votes were inconclusive and required a full count of votes from more than 500 voting delegates. The margin was frequently 20 votes or less, including the ultimate defeat of a resolution condemning Governor Little’s handling of the coronavirus.
A platform plank calling for penalties against employers who hire undocumented immigrants passed as did a plank stating, “We believe we are inheritors of a distinct Western Civilization and that our traditional culture safeguards our identity as a free people.”
A resolution supporting Israel passed, but only after being amended to remove an endorsement of providing “financial and military support to the state of Israel.”
For most Republicans around the country, the 2020 general election is about the White House and the Senate. For Idaho Republicans, those are not necessarily the most pressing issues given that Idaho’s Senate seat and electoral votes aren’t really in jeopardy.
No, Idaho Republicans have an even more substantial hurdle to overcome—finding enough harmony to take back control of Ada County, where two years ago, Democrats gained a majority on the county commission. The GOP has two candidates up for election on the three-person commission in 2020, but both are widely regarded as being from the conservative wing of the party.
Will Chairman Tom Luna and his razor-thin moderate majority turn out to retake Ada County from the Democrats even when doing so means empowering Republicans from the conservative faction?
Only time will tell. If the glares and scowls at the GOP convention were any indicator, I certainly wouldn’t count on it.
Tags: Brad Little, Frank Vandersloot, Labrador, Republican Convention, Republicans