Consider this a party stress test bracketed by chairmanships.
Go back to the summer of 2014, when the Idaho Republican Party descended into something approaching chaos, when at its state convention delegates were unable to pass a platform or agree on a state chairman; in the manner of conflicting popes, there were arguments for a while over who was actually leading the group.
It was a contentious time for the party generally, with a split through the middle between ideological groups. None of this affected the party’s success in state general elections – that has rolled on undisturbed for the last decade and more – but the state’s governing group was nonetheless in trouble. The leadership up until the conventions of 2014 tried but weren’t able to hold things together, and the fight for the chairmanship was bitter. It was a party stress test, of sorts.
That battle was finally won by Steve Yates, a newcomer to Idaho Falls who did pull the pieces together, at least well enough to tamp down overt and damaging squabbles. It was a strong performance (maybe his newcomer status, with the absence of local connections and conflicts, helped), and he set a template that seems to have persisted since. Successor chairs Jonathan Parker and until a few weeks ago Raul Labrador similarly managed to avert major blowups inside the party structure.
Last month, after Labrador opted out of another term, the party had another close contest for his replacement; it was won by former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna. The contest was a lot more even-tempered than that of 2014, but Luna may have his hands full keeping order in the party in the months to come. The signs of trouble ahead are clear enough.
Some of those indicators are local. The battles of 2014 tended to pit the establishment Republicans (then led by Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter) against the party’s agitators and ideologues. Similar battles, involving some of the same people in different positions along with some new ones, are brewing now. The conflicts over Governor Brad Little’s orders and positioning over pandemic regulation are the most visible part of that, but a string of other issues are on simmer. The recent chairmanship race revived echoes of that history.
There’s another explosive element coming around the bend, a little more than three months from now.
The Idaho Republican Party has mostly – maybe overwhelmingly, at least in its structure – strongly backed President Donald Trump. What happens if he loses – or even, for that matter, if he wins?
If Trump prevails in November, the national mood – in a country where substantial majorities are registering not just opposition but fierce opposition to Trump – could turn volcanic. How would Idaho’s Republicans react? Idaho is not an isolated island, after all; it is in this together with 49 other states.
But indicators now show a probable loss for Trump, with a good chance it won’t be close. If that happens, the national Republican Party – which like the Idaho chapter has thrown in almost fully with the president – will have some serious rethinking to do. Where will it go? Will it try to recreate a Trumpism without Trump? Will it go off in some other direction – maybe a recreation of where it was before 2016, or maybe an alternative? The discussions on that nationally already have begun and turned intense.
So what would be Idaho’s reaction? Whatever it is, it too is likely to be intense, and strong emotions – and conflict – can easily be unleashed.
That job of holding the party organization together in the months to come will fall to Tom Luna. No guesses here about how well he does, or in what ways he tries to manage the situation, or how well that works.
But very likely the stress test to come may be one of the weightiest challenges he has had.