The awkward but sometimes mutually beneficial marriage between establishment Republicans and the tea party right is over.
Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District will be the initial site of the divorce battle over who gets to keep the house, and establishment witnesses are lining up to testify.
The state’s biggest political players signed on last week with U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson’s campaign. Butch and Lori Otter, the state’s first couple, will be co-chairmen of the 2014 Simpson campaign steering committee, and state House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis will join the likes of Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and Secretary of State Ben Ysursa on the advisory panel.
It’s more than a list of Idaho’s political “Who’s Who.” It’s a telling official statement of where the state’s most powerful Republicans fall in the battle for the GOP’s soul, a national struggle sited by circumstance in Simpson’s bid against tea party challenger Bryan Smith.
“It is symptomatic of the ideological factionalism in the Republican Party nationally and in many states,” said Gary Moncrief, a professor of political science at Boise State University.
A public Republican civil war in Washington jolted the wheels off the party’s lumbering national machine, and the resulting federal shutdown cost the country $24 billion. The Republican establishment had for years enjoyed the benefits of a raucous, active and well-funded right wing. They were willing to do the dirty work, slinging massive amounts of mud at incumbent Democrats, while the traditionalists kept their hands clean.
Big business, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, helped fund the fledgling tea party movement in its early years. Deregulation, a prime tenet of the tea party’s small government platform, is a potentially lucrative goal that longtime Republican backers have championed for decades.
But it became clear during the recent federal shutdown and near default that Frankenstein had lost control of his creation. The tea party isn’t willing to be passive players in Republican politics. Tea party lawmakers, such as Idaho’s own U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, want legitimate power. The shutdown proved they’re willing to burn the entire thing down so the kitchen and bathrooms can be remodeled.
Otter, Ysursa and Lt. Gov. Brad Little are all likely to see primary challenges from the Republican right next year. Idaho’s Legislature closed party primaries in 2011, further empowering the fringes of both major parties.
The GOP’s establishment, however, is fighting back, as evidenced by the state’s powerbrokers inking their names on Simpson’s list of active campaign advisors.
Former U.S. Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio said Monday that his Republican Main Street Partnership super PAC will dump substantial cash into Simpson’s re-election bid. Big business has indicated it will follow suit.
“The 2nd CD race may well become the most heavily financed primary election in Idaho history, largely due to the amount of independent spending already pledged to this race,” Moncrief said.
Idaho’s 2nd Congressional race will be one of dueling super PACs, with billionaire-funded Club for Growth and other ultraconservative groups funneling money to Smith’s insurgency. It will be a post-Citizens United slugfest in a state that prides itself on its small government conservatism and local control.
Even in Idaho, the GOP power base is shunning the take-no-prisoners, kill-or-be killed tea party antics. Perhaps the state’s politique sees the writing on the demographic wall.
But maybe it’s something more simple. Perhaps Idaho’s elected elite see what tea party challenges like Smith’s really are — an affront to local control over congressional elections. Tea party candidates aren’t birthed in grassroots populism. They’re hand-picked and propped up by massive think tanks in Washington, bankrolled by David and Charles Koch. Their candidacy isn’t about representing the local constituency. It’s about ascribing to a specific dogma, regardless of the district’s make-up.
And in a state so in love with local determinism, Idaho’s players are sticking with their man.