High Stakes At Idaho's Republican Convention As Factions Fight For Control

Jun 12, 2014

Betsy Russell says this weekend's state GOP convention could get quite heated, but unlike these elephants (the party's symbol) Russell doesn't expect any physical violence.
Credit s9-4pr / Flickr Creative Commons

In her 28 years covering Idaho politics, Betsy Russell has never gotten a press release from someone running for a political party chairmanship, until this year.

Normally only the party faithful would even notice the state Republican Party convention, which starts today in Moscow, and lasts all weekend. But this year, the convention and the chairman's race are getting a lot of attention.

Russell writes for the Spokesman-Review and her Eye On Boise blog is a must-read for the state’s political insiders. She says it makes sense there is so much attention on this year’s convention because there’s so much at stake.

Convention elections will determine who controls Idaho’s majority party. There are two sides duking it out for control.

“We have kind of the ultra-conservative, Tea Party wing of the party that has been ascendant in party machinery in recent years,” Russell says.

This side gained control in 2008, and did things like sue the state to close primary elections to anyone but registered Republican Party members. It also included fringe ideas in the party platform, like a return to the gold standard and ending direct election of U.S. Senators.

“These views are supported by a wing of the party, but not by more traditional Republicans,” Russell says. “And so that wing [of traditional Republicans] is coming back and saying ‘hey, this is our party too.’”

Russell says the fight for control will play out in many ways during the convention, but most prominently in the election of the party chairman. Two people are actively campaigning to unseat current, far-right chairman Barry Peterson, who has expressed interest in keeping his seat.

“Mike Duff has a big mustache and he’s a sheep rancher,” Russell says. “And Doug Sayer is a successful high-tech company owner whose brother is the state commerce director. And so, they kind of represent different pictures of Idaho Republicans, even though they’re from the very same town of Blackfoot.”

Sayer is seen as the establishment candidate, he’s the one who sent Russell a press release. Duff is further right, but maybe not as far as the current chairman. Both are selling themselves as the person who can heal the bitter infighting and reunite Idaho’s GOP.

But it could end up being someone else who gets chosen to lead the party. Depending on who wins, Russell says, it could signal Idaho’s GOP is moving back toward the middle.

Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam

Correction: Russell mistakenly said Duff is a cattle rancher, he's a sheep rancher.

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