Steve Yates

Idaho Republican Party Chairman Steve Yates talks to the Times-News editorial board Wednesday as state Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, looks on.

TWIN FALLS | Steve Yates doesn't talk about his opinions much. He doesn't see that as the party chairman's job.

Instead, the recently elected state Republican chairman said, his job is to work to build the party and help its candidates win election.

"It's not a think tank," he told the Times-News editorial board Wednesday. "It's not a shadow government. It's really an impressive gathering of volunteers."

Yates was elected head of Idaho's GOP in early August, capping a contentious period that started with primary battles between mainline and tea party-backed Republicans, followed by a convention that collapsed in discord and led to more than a month of argument over who the party chairman was. The upheaval resulted in the ouster of tea party-aligned Barry Peterson.

Yates doesn't have a typical background for someone in Idaho politics. He grew up in Maryland, and his resume in Washington, D.C., includes working at the conservative Heritage Foundation and as a national security assistant to former Vice President Dick Cheney. He moved to Idaho three years ago.

"There was a decisive vote for something different, so I guess what you're looking at is something different," he said.

Yates plans to tour Idaho in October with the party's statewide candidates. He said he wants to make behind-the-scenes improvements, such as creating a candidates' training program and working with precinct committee members to make sure they know and actively execute their duties.

Such reforms might not make headlines, but they make a difference, he said.

"My focus is trying to get at the guts of the party." 

Yates recently named former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig the party's financial chairman. The Idaho Republican represented the state from 1991 until 2008.

He was arrested in 2007 and accused of soliciting an undercover cop in an airport bathroom. He pleaded guilty to a reduced charge and didn't run for re-election.

"(Craig) brings a wealth of experience in terms of politics," Yates said.

Yates said he started to identify as a Republican after spending two years as a missionary in Taiwan in the 1980s, when that country was starting to transition to democracy.

Yates, who speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese, said he was inspired by the people there, identifying with their values of individualism, faith and family.

"It just gave me a feeling of how much we had at home when I came back," he said.

Yates said electing Republicans at the state level is especially important in these last two years of President Barack Obama's administration.

He said he expects "an aggressive push (by Obama) as his sand goes to the bottom of the hourglass" to enact policies by executive order, and Republican state officials can act as a bulwark against their implementation.

Disagreement is inevitable within a party, Yates said, especially the Republican Party in western states, where it is dominant and therefore includes people of different views.

He said he sees the party's grassroots nature here as the difference between Republicans and Democrats, who he said have a more uniform national message.

"We have a wide tent," he said. "You're going to have a lot more differences under the same tent."

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