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The shape of caucuses to come

On its face, the decision last weekend by the Idaho Republican Party to set up a caucus system for choosing a presidential nominee next year can be seen simply as a sensible backup measure.

Remember that the Idaho Legislature (dominated by Republican legislators) last winter eliminated the primary for next year (whether intentionally or accidentally being a subject of some debate). So the Republican Party central committee, meeting at Challis, acted:

“Recognizing the importance of voter participation and accessibility, the State Central Committee has also passed a resolution urging the legislature to reinstate the March presidential primary. In the event that the March Presidential primary is not restored, the Idaho Republican caucus will serve as our comprehensive plan to ensure a robust Presidential selection process.”

Caucuses are not a rare way for parties to make their choices. They’re used in a number of states, and Idaho Democrats in recent decades often have used them.

They do have some issues. One is that they allow participation only for people who show up personally at a specific place at a particular hour, which helps ensure that a far smaller number of people turns out for caucuses than for primary elections.

Another issue is that, even when they’re well run, caucuses tend to be complex and hard for most people to understand – again, under good conditions and when no one particularly tries to game the system. So the question arises: Will that be the circumstance next March if Idaho Republicans then hold their caucuses?

This is a Republican Party being run by an ever more extreme and narrowly-based core, increasingly willing to strike out at fellow Republicans who stray at all from their perspective.

In another part of its business last weekend, the central committee voted to allow local central committees to, as a news report had it, “summon Republican elected officials to potentially censure them for not adhering to the party platform, with multiple censures potentially resulting in those officials unable to run as Republicans in future elections.” They delivered a vote of no confidence on Governor Brad Little and a number of legislators. And they proposed a constitutional amendment giving parties sweeping control of their primary election processes. (You can imagine what that would look like.)

Tom Luna, the former state Republican chair, said, “What happened (this weekend) does not represent the majority of the Republican party,” Luna told Idaho Reports on Saturday. “But what it did represent was the majority of the people that showed up were those that were very well organized and intent on purging the party of people that do not agree with them 100 percent of the time, whether it’s on abortion or education, whether it’s on what they view as the proper role of government.”

He called parts of the GOP organization a “politburo” which has sidelined younger Republicans and other related groups.

This wasn’t just opinion; Luna had evidence. One of his clearest data points was the party organization’s denunciation of Little, who a just year ago won his Republican primary with 52.8% of the vote (against seven opponents), winning 40 of 44 counties.

Caucus procedures are tricky under the best of conditions. It might be interesting to see what kind of rules this group of party leaders might try to lock in place for next March.

Many Republicans may be fervently hoping at this point that the Idaho Legislature manages to re-install the presidential primary election for next year.

But you wonder how many legislators will want to. After all, they may by that point have alternate marching orders from the state Republican organization.


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