Republicans meet next week in Tampa, Florida to officially nominate Mitt Romney as the party’s 2012 presidential candidate. But in one of the reddest counties in the Northwest- Kootenai County, Idaho - a public rift is pulling apart the GOP – exposing factions Republicans are struggling to unite across the nation.
There’s one event every year in Coeur d’Alene where the local Republican Party can really shine in spectacular, patriotic fashion: The Fourth of July parade.
But this year, longtime Republican Duane Rasmussen says something was off. “Well, we had a big split between us,” he says.
Instead of one big group, the Republicans this year marched in two separate clumps. Rasmussen says party members have had their ideological differences in the past but he’s never seen anything like the current conflicts between moderates and conservatives.
“I visualized myself as more conservative than many," Rasmussen says. "And that’s what I thought until I was rudely awakened by some of these other people who started calling me a liberal.”
Kootenai County, like most of Idaho, is a GOP stronghold. The local Democratic Party, according to a popular joke, could hold a quorum in a phone booth. But recently, the most powerful party has shifted course under the control of a new wave of conservatives.
Rasmussen sees them as a mix of Constitution Party members and Ron Paul libertarians, as well as Christian Patriots and Tea Party activists.
“They couldn’t get elected so they decided they would become Republicans so they infiltrated the Republican Party,” Rasmussen says. “That’s the best way I can say it.”
These conservatives here and elsewhere in the state have succeeded in moving the Idaho Republican Party platform even farther to the right. But in Kootenai County, the power struggle has erupted into personal battles -- a defamation lawsuit between two Republicans, a forgery case where one side hired a private detective, and dueling splinter groups.
“Hello everybody, we’ll get started. Welcome to the Kootenai County Reagan Republicans. I’m Jeff Ward."
This recent luncheon was for one of two groups in the county calling themselves the Reagan Republicans.
“They tried to scare us by having an attorney send a letter saying we can’t use the name because they filed as a corporation,” says Jeff Ward, this group’s president. He worries about what the conflicts will do to the Republican Party.
“We’re here to make sure the Republican Party represents the majority of Idahoans, not just a small group that wants to eliminate anyone who doesn’t believe exactly the way they do," Ward says. "It’ll end up being a party of one if one person ends up deciding who’s a Republican and who’s not a Republican.”
But the way Bob Pedersen sees it, the GOP has gone off course. Some consider Pedersen to be the architect of the conservative takeover here.
“The Republican Party has been losing power and that’s how Obama got elected because it won’t stand on its own values," Pedersen says. "So instead of abandoning the Republican Party and going to a third party, we just believe, hey, it’s the conservative Republican Party, we’re taking it back. So we’re forcing them out.”
And here’s how he did it. Pedersen says he started with the most basic party office holder.
“Precinct committeemen are the core to all politics in the United States,” he explains.
Pedersen organized a group called Rally Right to recruit outsiders to run against the existing precinct heads.
“We’d sign them up at the meetings and I’d call them up. I said, ‘This is Bob from Rally Right, I’d like to ask you a few questions.’ And so I personally vetted everybody.”
Pedersen says he went down a checklist he calls the Conservative Creed.
“I start out with, ‘Do you believe God was in the foundation of this country and do you believe in God?’”
He asked about states rights as protection against federal tyranny. And about income taxes.
“Do you stand for the traditional marriage and do you stand against abortion?”
Now, the current chairman of the county’s Republican Central Committee says there is no litmus test for office. But that first year, the far-right candidates Pedersen vetted and backed won the majority of the precinct races and they’ve won even more since.
Some Republicans now fear this ideological shift will help Democrats. For the first time in years, there’s a full roster of candidates with D’s next to their names in legislative races in north Idaho.
“I don’t think any Republicans are going to have a cake walk this time,” says Dan English. He is one of those candidates. He’s running for the state House.
“You know I used to joke with my Republican friends –- I would say, ‘Boy it must be nice to have so many people in your own party you can afford different factions.’ And kind of a joke. But now that’s not a joke and not to them either.”
Bob Pedersen disputes the idea that Republican infighting will help Democrats. In fact:
“I hope this spreads throughout the whole United States! Haha. But it all comes down to local politics," Pedersen says. "It all comes down to what you’re going to do in your town.”
Pedersen is making plans. He’s now working with conservative groups in Washington, Oregon and parts of Montana to bring about similar changes in the local parties there.
Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network