One decade ago, the Idaho House had a contest for speaker that got a lot of attention: Long-time incumbent Lawerence Denney was being challenged by the assistant majority leader, Scott Bedke.
Such challenges hardly ever succeed, but this one did. Bedke took the speakership and held it until this last week; he is now preparing to move in as lieutenant governor. (The loser a decade ago, Denney, did okay as well, elected to two terms as secretary of state.)
That contest was between opposing approaches to running the office and interacting with the caucus. Simply, a majority of the caucus wanted a change.
The most serious speaker contest since then, held a few days ago to replace Bedke, turned in part on similar matters of how the office should be run and how it should relate to the caucus. Long-time House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, who for a couple of decades has been among the most influential members in the chamber, defeated Jason Monks in a faceoff where the two offered somewhat different descriptions of how they saw the leadership function of the speakership.
More than was the case a decade ago, though, it may not matter enormously. The reason is the probability that the caucus has changed more than its leadership has, and that may be the crucial factor in the term to come.
In 2015 I wrote about Moyle in a book about 100 influential Idahoans (I then ranked him number 26), but not because of his role in House leadership: “A farmer and land manager in private life, he was a proponent of tax cuts from the get-go, and his energy and articulation quickly made him a leader among like-minded House Republicans. Which is to say, quite a lot of them. His move into leadership (he has been majority leader since 2006) simply added some official authority and responsibility to that.”
So here’s the point: Moyle will have little trouble working with a caucus generally aligned with the ideas he has held for the decades he’s been a legislator. But how close will that alignment be in today’s Idaho Republican Party?
Here I think about the saga of another leader in another House, Kevin McCarthy, and his struggles with his caucus. McCarthy has a difficulty not much known about Idaho Republicans, which is a majority so small that it can afford few defectors on any key question, such as who should be speaker. His difficulty is that some of those members have split off from him already, and depending on what he might have to do to keep them in the fold, others might do so later.
Idaho’s House Republicans have a vast majority over their Democratic opposition, but they are not much more united. Close watchers of the recent Idaho House have discerned at least two, maybe three or four depending on how you look at it, factions of the caucus, and on certain key splinter topics they have been known to split apart. Last session, the passage of several state budgets (already approved by a Republican-dominated joint committee and okayed by a Republican governor) became law only owing to the support of those few Democrats.
Early takes on the membership of the Idaho House in this coming session suggest the chamber may be more splintered than last time.
That’s a near certainty in the state Senate.
There, Senator Chuck Winder, the incumbent president pro tem (the top leadership post in the chamber) was re-elected in a contested race. But he may be more challenged this session than he was in the last, because the Idaho Senate this term looks likely to more closely resemble the Idaho House of last year. This is likely to be a less easy-going bunch.
In the coming legislature, it’s not that leadership won’t matter. It will. It’s just that the makeup and temperament of the caucuses may matter more.