Idaho Republican elected officials, with a couple of notable exceptions, seem unable to control, let alone influence their party. In political terms, the inmates have taken over, once and apparently forever, the GOP asylum.
The GOP state central committee elected a new party chairman last week and the rank and file chose as their new leader the guy who lost the Republican nomination for governor last year to Brad Little. At the 2018 convention, he refused to explicitly endorse the man who is now governor. “We should unite as a party behind the nominees, but we should never forget that 63 percent of our party voted for change,” Raul Labrador said.
Actually, fewer than 33 percent of GOP primary voters voted for Labrador in 2018, but now he is the change the party has apparently been waiting for, as well as the organizational face of Idaho Republicans just a year after one of the most divisive primary fights in recent Idaho history.
Memorably, former Republican Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said of the GOP primary in 2018: “I’ve been around elections for 45 years, and this is the most negative gubernatorial primary I’ve ever seen.”
Well, Ben, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
And also memorably, Labrador said, as he is wont to do, something nonsensical after his two-vote victory over former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna. “It’s amazing how close it was, and it tells us how our party is divided and united,” he said.
Divided and united.
And as Labrador famously said in Lewiston a couple of years ago,“Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care,” either.
Here’s the best evidence of division: Gov. Little was nowhere in sight for the GOP summer confab and had no candidate in the hunt for the chairmanship of the party. It was undoubtedly wise of the governor to avoid all this party business. He had no chance to win and a big chance to lose and lose embarrassingly. Still it’s just short of astounding that a guy elected with nearly 60 percent of the vote seven months ago hardly gets a mention while his party elects his chief rival.
Other prominent non-entities: Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo and the one routinely adult member of the Idaho delegation, Congressman Mike Simpson.
As Boise State Public Radio’s James Dawson noted, Congressman Russ Fulcher, the latest darling of the far out right, received a standing ovation from central committee members, as did the militia-endorsed, white supremacy flirting Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, while five-term Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and House Speaker Scott Bedke did not.
It’s clear the rank and file of the Idaho GOP has consumed the Kool-Aid of President Donald Trump’s Republican Party and no one dares — at least publicly — to take issue with the Emperor and his lack of clothes. In the modern GOP, up is down, objective reality is unreliable, all news is fake and a lie is just an alternative fact.
Labrador campaigned for chairman by showing off a photo of himself with Trump, while Bonneville County Republican Party Chairman Mark Fuller, re-writing history on the fly, claimed that “Raul unapologetically supported President Trump while others were waffling or outright hiding.”
That ignores the by now historic mash-up tape of Labrador trashing Trump during the GOP primaries in 2016 while the then-congressman was supporting first Sen. Rand Paul and then Sen. Ted Cruz. Labrador called Trump “a whiner,” questioned his temperament and wondered “is that the kind of person that we want running the United States of America?”
That tape, you may recall, made its way — perhaps at Little’s behest — to the Trump White House where it seemed to have headed off a Trump primary endorsement for the man who now chairs the Idaho party.
In fairness to the new chairman, he did stick with Trump during the “Access Hollywood” tape expose and ultimately fell in smartly behind the man he once didn’t think was suitable to run the country. It took Labrador a while to get bought, but once there, he stays bought.
Poor Tom Luna. The best he could do in his pre-election pitch to central committee members was to feature a photo of himself with Donald Trump Jr.
The modern Republican movement — it’s no longer correct to call it conservative — is a fact-free personality cult, where if you profess loyalty to all Trumpian values, you can stay square with the GOP base. Not even a tiny bit of deviation is permissible.
You can trace all this, including the embrace of a would-be autocrat who has shredded virtually every long-established Republican value, to the culture that has been created in the party by all the whoppers Republican leaders have been telling their base for a generation or more.
Tax cuts for the wealthy strengthen the economy.
Affordable health care is a socialist plot.
Labor unions are evil.
Paying teachers a decent wage is unaffordable.
Or, this one repeated by Labrador last weekend: The party has to be united to defeat Democrats, or as he said “the real enemy.”
The ultimate question, of course, is what will Chairman Labrador do with his new position atop a united and divided Republican Party? It’s hard to see him as a uniter. He’s more a bomb thrower from the fringe. Will he pay attention to the nuts and bolts of the job or seek the spotlight on hot button issues that play to the Tea Party base of the party? Will he support the conservative pragmatism of Little and Simpson or will he use his new position to prepare another run for governor?
There was a certain crazy symmetry that Idaho Republicans anointed as their leader the loser of a GOP primary who spent his time in Congress trashing the national party leadership, often warring with Simpson and itching to take on a mainstream conservative such as Little. Meanwhile, the president – the only real thing other than a casual dance with white supremacy that unites Idaho Republicans — was off in Asia creating, as Bloomberg noted, a few good days for authoritarian leaders.
A Republican Party able to embrace Raul Labrador, Vladimir Putin, a murderous Saudi prince, a brutal North Korean dictator, crippling tariffs whacking major elements of the Idaho economy and the daily antics of a reality show presidency really isn’t both divided and united, whatever in the world that means.
The word that comes first to mind is delusional.
Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.