Political movements are reliant on plenty of raw, flammable material, but they can start small – at, let’s say, a dinner where two political people talk about what’s wrong and how to fix it. Such a dinner can matter in hindsight if it leads enough people to follow up.
It may have happened in Idaho on the evening of August 18, when two Idaho Republicans named Patrick Whalen and Treg Berndt sat down to dine and discuss.
The account comes from Whelan of Kootenai County, a veteran of intra-party political battles over the last decade; he ran and lost a legislative primary in 2014. Kootenai County Republicans essentially (with recognition that the full story is riotously complex) fall into two main groups: Those who support the official county party organization (led for some years now by Brent Regan), the chaotic governing board of North Idaho College, and the ideological Idaho Freedom Foundation; and, on the other side, those who do not, and consider themselves to be the real Republicans.
In their telling, the local (and much of the state) GOP has been taken over by extremists, wreckers and often people from outside the area. The now-dominant Regan group considers itself the “true” conservatives and real Republicans, with the suggestion that others (RINOs) are not real Republicans and should be driven out of the party. This second group has won out, to date, in large part because they out-organized their opposition. They’re strongest in the Panhandle but the two sides can be found, in conflict, in most parts of Idaho.
The mainstream Republicans (as I’ll call them) have been caught behind the curve, but they may be starting to catch up. For some years they’ve been working on building a counter-organization to try to take back (not an unreasonable way to put it since many in their ranks are former elected officials) the Republican organization, and elective spots.
The most recent iteration is the North Idaho Republicans, and Patrick Whalen was one of its founders. At dinner on August 18, he had plenty to discuss with Treg Berndt, who is a Republican state senator from Meridian. Whalen described him: “You would recognize him — he is just the kind of stable, reasonable and intelligent Republican that is no longer welcome by today’s Kootenai County Republican Central Committee.”
He added, “As a North Idaho resident, I am far more used to hearing from our legislators conspiracy theories and the tearing down of institutions like [North Idaho College] and the libraries. Idaho really does have some positive Republican leaders.”
Part of their discussion concerned a group Berndt has joined: Main Street Idaho, Republican legislators – non-Regan-style. Some 25 of them (Senate President pro tem Chuck Winder was one) signed a letter on August 29 calling simply for a willingness to disagree without going to war: “Our founding fathers set the example of leading through disagreement and conflict. It’s what the vast majority of Idahoans expect and want from their elected leaders, too! We can deliver this kind of leadership in Idaho, but it will require us to engage more with those who may not see issues the way we see them. No longer can we retreat to the safety of our political tribes.”
The group has started a blog, offered positions on a number of issues including fentanyl, farming, taxes, and immigration, and has launched a series of podcasts in which various of the group’s members talk about issues (and – gasp) how things work, in an educational approach rather than the flinging of red meat to the base.
Both groups, those Whalen and Berndt have joined, appear to be trying to restore more civility and inclusiveness in Idaho Republican politics. But can it work? It might if they can work together, and bring in additional people of like minds.
Circle back to the dinner. The next day, reflecting on it, Whalen wrote, “We all need to work together to restore the Idaho Republican Party to its former stature and elect positive-minded leaders who will work on Idaho’s real problems and reject calls to Christian nationalism and white supremacy.”
The opportunity is there. We’ll see before long if they exploit it.
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