The New Hampshire presidential primary seems to have set the shape of the Republican contest for some time to come, bringing into focus some questions awaiting Idaho’s Republicans. And for Idaho’s many establishment Republicans, those may be eerie questions.
This year’s Republican nomination battle is far more splintered in Idaho than it has been for many years. Four years ago, the establishment was solidly behind Mitt Romney, and until he dropped out in 2008 he had strong backing then as well. George W. Bush had the Idaho establishment firmly in his corner the two elections before that.
Idaho’s three-term governor, C.L. “Butch” Otter, and its longest-serving members of Congress, Senator Mike Crapo and Representative Mike Simpson, seem to have stayed out of the fracas so far. Maybe they were uncertain how the field would play out and how Idaho would react. Or they may have observed what happened to other endorsees. Senator Rand Paul, backed by Representative Raul Labrador, has dropped out. And Senator Marco Rubio, backed by Senator Jim Risch, Controller Brandon Woolf and Idaho Falls businessman Frank VanderSloot (a veteran of the Romney campaigns), only days ago seemed ascendant but had the daylights kicked out of him in New Hampshire, and his campaign’s future is highly uncertain.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, backed by former Idaho Governor and Senator Dirk Kempthone, lives to fight another day, but right now seems a long shot for the nomination. Ohio Governor John Kasich, backed by Idaho legislators Marv Hagedorn and Robert Anderst, did well taking second place in New Hampshire (after barely registering in Iowa), but he invested almost everything he had – time, money, people – into that state, and has scarcely any campaign organization or built-in support in the states yet to vote.
Just two Republican candidates actually seem well positioned for the race to come: Texas Senator Ted Cruz and businessman Donald Trump. Cruz has a couple of fairly well-known Idaho Republicans backing him, Treasurer Ron Crane and former state Republican Chair Norm Semanko, but if there’s wider support it isn’t yet very visible. As for Trump, I’m not sure who his highest-profile Idaho backers would be. There’s a Facebook page called “Idaho for Donald Trump 2016” with 860 likes, but hardly any local content – almost all of it is reposts of national material. And yet statistically, Trump probably has a significant number of Gem State supporters.
Who will Idaho Republicans support for president, assuming – and this is looking actually more likely than not right now – the race is still competitive by the time Idahoans get to vote on it?
I read a fascinating analysis (wish I could recall where I saw it) drawing a structural distinction between the Trump and Cruz campaigns, and implicitly the difference between those two and a “conventional mainstream” campaign (like a Bush or Rubio, assuming one of them survives to the later stages). It goes something like this:
Trump supporters are mainly individualists, drawn to the campaign person by person or family by family, and are numerous but for the most part not well organized into groups. Cruz’ people by contrast tend to be organized, some in ideologically-based organizations (like the various conservative groups that have splintered the Kootenai County Republican factions), others tied to evangelical or other churches, still others linked to other kinds of organizations – groups with strong ideological or religious drives which have not been satisfied with the national Republican Party (which Cruz calls the “cartel”). Cruz has carefully reached out to these groups around the country, and won support from many of them. Then there’s the mainstreamers, who would be those most traditionally tied to Republican party organizations and officials.
What makes the Idaho analysis so hard is this: The first two groups, which clearly exist in substantial ways in Idaho, have not in the past played a large role in selecting the state’s presidential nomination choices. This year, those individualized dissidents and the dissatisfied small groups, who in the past often seem to have taken their lead from the party organization, appear much less likely to do that, and may go their own way – which might translate to substantial votes for Trump and Cruz, as in many other states.
Right now, the Idaho Republican establishment may have reason to be as spooked as the national Republican establishment is.