Efforts by the Idaho Republican Party to enforce party discipline using cloak-and-dagger investigative committees are off to a rather rocky start.
As the Post Register reported last week, the Bonneville GOP summoned Idaho Falls Republicans Sen. Kevin Cook, Rep. Wendy Horman and Rep. Stephanie Mickelsen to what amounted to a secret trial for supposed offenses against the party platform.
The trial would be closed to the public, the Post Register reported, and take place, fittingly, inside the solemn halls of the Chevy dealership where the Bonneville GOP has long held meetings.
The three lawmakers from District 32 — which encompasses portions of Bonneville County surrounding Idaho Falls — universally took the right approach: blow them off.
And it seems to have worked.
According to an email sent by District 32 GOP Chairman Doyle Beck, the Special Investigation Committee — as this little exercise has ludicrously been titled — decided to cancel its hearing because the lawmakers under “investigation” told them to go pound sand.
“All members of the legislature from LD 32 have chosen not to participate fully (and some not at all) in Article XX of the State Party Rules,” Beck wrote. “Accordingly, the hearing scheduled for November 30, 2023, is hereby canceled.”
A new hearing will be held next month to decide how this private club with a few dozen active members will sanction the representatives chosen by tens of thousands of voters.
This is about the clearest demonstration imaginable of why Idaho should shift to a system of ranked-choice voting: It undermines the official significance of political parties. That way elected officials are answerable to voters, not an isolated group holding a secret trial in the conference room of a Chevy dealership.
But isn’t Bonneville County heavily Republican? Yes, overwhelmingly. There are are more than seven registered Republicans for every Democrat in Bonneville County.
So don’t the officials in the Bonneville GOP represent local political preferences? Not at all, if recent electoral history is any guide.
The leaders of the Bonneville GOP have not been a driving force in the electoral outcomes of Bonneville County for about a decade — except perhaps as poison pills.
In the latest round of municipal and school board elections earlier this month — a low-turnout election where a highly engaged political party ought to have an outsized impact on the outcome — most of those who received the Bonneville GOP’s endorsement were walloped.
One salient example is the head of the Special Investigative Committee: Barbara Miller, as the Post Register reported. Miller sought an open Idaho Falls City Council seat in the Nov. 7 election, with the explicit endorsement of the Bonneville GOP. She lost by a more than 2-to-1 margin to political newcomer Kirk Larsen, who was backed by more moderate forces.
Even more convincing was the reelection of Council Member John Radford, a former Democratic legislative candidate, to his third term. Bonneville GOP-backed challenger Donna Howard barely cleared 25%.
These would be run-of-the-mill results in Boise, but Bonneville County is not Ada County.
This record of GOP losses is staggering in a county that backed former President Donald Trump over President Joe Biden by a 2.7-to-1 margin in 2020, a county where Biden didn’t win a majority in even a single precinct. (Biden won about 45% of precincts in Ada County).
This follows a yearslong pattern where the Bonneville GOP’s endorsement seems like a political kiss of death. The most prominent recent political candidate to arise from the ranks of the Bonneville GOP is Bryan Smith. Like Biden, he didn’t win a majority in a single precinct in Bonneville County during his 2022 right-flank primary challenge to U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson.
So the political character of the Bonneville GOP is clear: strikingly ambitious but remarkably toothless; a fearsome tiger painted on soggy tissue paper. It is only effective in proportion to the degree that lawmakers are afraid of their own shadows.
And there are signs other, more electorally successful far-right central committees are following suit. Notably, the far-right Kootenai GOP, which had seemed far more capable of winning local victories than Bonneville in recent years, suffered universal losses in its efforts to capture the Coeur d’Alene City Council, as the Spokesman-Review reported.
So the representatives from District 32 have set a good precedent: When the Special Investigative Committee comes knocking, hit the snooze button.
Elected officials are accountable to voters, not central committees.
When next month’s hearing rolls around, it’s entirely possible no one will notice.
Bryan Clark is an opinion writer for the Idaho Statesman.