Fifty years ago this summer, a group of very conservative Idaho Republicans put into motion a series of events destined to turn the direction of the Idaho Republican far to the right. It began at the 1963 state Republican convention with the election Gwen Barnett as Idaho’s Republican national committeewoman. At the time she was the youngest member of the national committee.
The following year the party nominated Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater to be its presidential standard bearer. It was a conservative revolution for the party and one that had disastrous consequences when Goldwater lost in a landslide to Lyndon Johnson.
Barnett had become a close ally of the Goldwater forces. Her friend Dean Burch, a former member of the Goldwater Senate staff, had been elected Republican national chairman. She was also close to such rising conservative stars as John Tower, who had become the first Republican elected to the senate from Texas since Reconstruction.
Following Goldwater’s defeat, Idaho Governor Robert Smylie, as chairman of the Republican Governors’ Association and a leading party moderate, led efforts to purge the party of Burch and others. Barnett responded by embarking on a personal crusade to purge Smylie from the party by defeating him when he ran for re-election in 1966. Her candidate became Don Samuelson, a three-term state senator from Sandpoint. Samuelson was a staunch conservative who, while serving a generally lackluster single term as Governor, helped to solidify the conservative element of the state party into the party’ driving force. He also helped to ensure that the Democrats, led by Cecil Andrus, would capture the governorship in 1970 for the first time in a quarter century.
Now fast forward fifty years to the 2013 legislative session. The defeat on the Senate floor of the public school appropriations bill on an 18-17 vote has been viewed by some legislative observers as being unprecedented. Not true. The last time this happened was in 1992, and it happened several times in the 1980s. The real story is not the actual defeat of the bill, but the driving forces behind the defeat.
In recent years the Senate has always been considered the moderate check against the more conservative forces in the House. But as of 2013, the pendulum has swung in the other direction. Actually, the swing had begun in 2010 when then Senator Joe Stegner, a GOP moderate, was defeated in his effort to be re-elected Republican assistant majority leader by conservative Senator Chuck Winder.
In 2012, core members of the most conservative block in the House decided to give up their seats and successfully run for the Senate. The new batch of Senate conservatives attempted to unseat long-time Senator Majority Leader Bart Davis. While their candidate, Dean Mortimer, narrowly failed, it did establish the conservative block as a force to be reckoned with.
They finally had their opportunity with the public school appropriation. The stated reason for their opposition was that the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee had overstepped its authority by placing a number of pieces of legislative intent language on the public school appropriation. They insisted that the committee was making policy that should more appropriately be initiated by the Senate and House Education Committees. This had been long-standing practice from JFAC and, while there have been ongoing complaints about it over the years, the Legislature has yet to come up with any procedures which would give the various standing committees greater input into the appropriations process without slowing it down to a standstill.
So, rather than suggesting how the process might be improved, while still allowing the Legislature to complete its business in a timely manner, the new conservative block in the Senate decided to simply vote down the public school appropriations bill and have the process go back to square one. The effort succeeded. The bill was defeated on a vote of 18-17, with 18 Republicans voting against the bill and 10 Republicans, plus all 7 Democrats voting for it.
Republicans voting for the bill included the Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, Majority Leader Bart Davis, JFAC co-chair Dean Cameron and JFAC co-vice chair Shawn Keough. All are relatively moderate compared to the block who voted against the bill.
Looking back to 1963, this action is somewhat akin to the successful efforts of GOP conservatives to elect Gwen Barnett to the GOP national committee. In 1963, Robert Smylie continued to be the governor who espoused moderate causes. But Barnett’s election was a loud warning shot over the Smylie’s bow. The same may be true with the defeat of the public school appropriation in 2013.
If history repeats itself, there just may be some Democrats who are quietly celebrating the shift in the philosophical control of the Senate. The question now is, what Republican is going to play the role of Don Samuelson in 2014? And what Democrat will play the role of Cecil Andrus in 2018? In 2018 it will have been 24 years since the Democrats last occupied the governor’s office. Just like it was in 1970 when Andrus defeated Samuelson.
Marty Peterson grew up in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley. He is retired and lives in Boise.Share on Facebook