Back around the fall of '05 we were hearing talk that the field of Republican candidates for the 1st U.S. House district in Idaho might include one Bill Sali, a state legislator not much liked by Republican leadership (among others). We heard that from a few people whose take on Republican field organization has been good. We did not hear it from any of the downtown Boise Republican inside crowd; those we heard from among the downtown crowd, in fact, were dismissive of the very concept, and initially convinced there was no way Sali could get anywhere. We thought otherwise, and didn't really seem to convince anyone until the primary election results gave the nomination to Sali.
This comes to mind in the rapidly-changing battle over the chairmanship of the Idaho Republican Party, which has been held by Kirk Sullivan, a well-respected downtown guy who is very much a part of the downtown Republican crowd, close to the lobbyist community, the congressional staffs, the legislators, the staffs of the statewide elected officials (and their principals, of course) and so on. He has personal support from most of them, from Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter on down. He's not a lightning rod kind of guy, much more the diplomatic than confrontational type, which makes the recent fierce struggle to oust him seem all the stranger. But then, it would seem, it's not really a matter of Sullivan personally.
The man who has been challenging him directly, former state Senator Rod Beck, is much more the lightning rod type. But the idea that Beck's candidacy for the chair is about something other than Beck now has got some support, with Beck's withdrawal from the contest in favor of attorney Norm Semanko (better known till now as a failed congressional candidate in 2006, as head of the Idaho Water Users Association, and as a new city council member in Eagle).
Beck told the Idaho Statesman that "I was convinced I had 55 (percent) to 60 percent of the vote. I think with Norm throwing in, he could get as much as 70 percent."
(Beck's new target is another Republican establishment guy, Idaho Falls attorney and former state chair - now national committeeman - Blake Hall.)
Without guessing at the percentages, our sense that Beck isn't far wrong in his analysis. The indicators we've seen are that while most of the downtowners remain happy with Sullivan, the grassroots activists are agitating for a change - and odds are they have the numbers. Two key indicators of that are two people close to those grassroots, Sali himself, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, who say they are backing Semanko. The point is not that these two may sway a lot of people; but they are markers, indicators of where a substantial portion of the Republican organization is going.
Semanko, who himself has a strong diplomatic streak, will be put to a serious test if he wins - pulled in two directions. This could be one of those occasions where the effect of winning is to offer a demonstration of just how good a politician you really are, because he would sitting astride a serious split, and an increasingly emotional one.