Those who keep abreast of Idaho politics are aware that there are presently two major factions of Idaho’s Republican Party. There are the traditionalists, who have a conservative outlook but believe in reasonable, problem-solving government. Then there are the upstarts, who seem to believe that government is inherently bad, unless it is serving their narrow interests. A struggle for control of the GOP has been going on since the turn of the century and may finally be decided in the 2024 general election.
The traditionalist faction held sway over the party until 2008, when the upstart faction deposed the party chair and began tightening its grip over party machinery. The GOP primary election was closed to all but registered Republicans. The party took a hard right turn with strong support from dark-money, right-wing groups like the Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF).
The upstarts have yet to take over the governorship, but it is not for lack of trying. Their candidate came within five percentage points of winning the GOP primary contest for Governor in 2018. They have had much better luck in legislative races and now command majorities in both houses of that body. Their candidates have a tremendous advantage in primary races because they control the party structure. In this one-party state, a win in the GOP primary almost ensures a win in the general election.
The traditionalist faction has gotten behind a voting system that will break the upstart control over the GOP and allow traditional Republicans to compete in open elections. The Open Primaries Initiative, which has the support of a wide swath of traditional Republicans, will likely be approved by Idaho voters next year. It will break the stranglehold of the upstarts over who gets elected to public office.
The upstarts, under the leadership of GOP chair Dorothy Moon, have been lambasting the initiative with increasingly outlandish claims. They proclaim that it will result in Democratic control of Idaho, ignoring the fact that their claim is mathematically impossible. The current voter registration figures tell the tale–12.7% Democrat, 58.2% Republican and 27.5% unaffiliated. Moon has not explained how the Dems can take control of the state with their tiny minority of registered voters. She knows that the real threat to her control of the GOP is from Republicans like Butch and Lori Otter and the wide array of traditional Republicans who have had their fill of her and her cadre of culture warriors. They support the initiative to restore responsible governing in Idaho.
Moon may not realize that she and her IFF-supported legislators will be a major factor in voter approval of the initiative. She has twisted party rules in what has been characterized as a “systematic conspiracy” to control local party leadership, most recently in Bingham County. She has stuffed the state party ranks with loyalists, excluding any factions that do not fall in line, most recently women and young people. Former First Lady Lori Otter pointed to Moon’s misconduct in this regard as a reason for supporting the initiative, saying, “shame on Dorothy Moon.”
Misbehavior by Moon’s followers in the 2024 legislative session will also drive voter support for the initiative. Being an election year, they will be unable to resist following their usual agenda of creating a maximum amount of fear, outrage and chaos in the Legislature. Meaningless culture war issues will remind voters of those good old times when traditional Republicans worked with Democrats to actually get something done to address real problems, like fixing dilapidated schools, rebuilding infrastructure, providing meaningful property tax relief and shoring up Idaho’s struggling child care system.
In the meantime, the Take Back Idaho organization will swing back into action in next year's GOP primary to support traditional Republicans and oppose the upstarts who are just committed to stirring up trouble. That will be an interim measure to reinstate some responsibility and pragmatism into the governing process, but the Open Primaries Initiative will be the decisive blow to the troublemaking upstarts.