New GOP chair aims to leave fighting in the past

Monte LaOrange / Steve Yates talks about his goals as the newly elected chairman of the Idaho Republican Party from his office at D.C. International Advisory in Idaho Falls on Wednesday afternoon. Yates is trying to get the party to “focus forward” in order to overcome ideological divisions within the GOP. Monte LaOrange /

The new chairman of the Idaho Republican Party is working to get out a simple message to his party’s divided membership.

“The season of competition is over, and at this point it’s D’s and R’s,” Steve Yates said.

And for

a party roiled by years of infighting, that message is important to the GOP maintaining its long-standing dominance over state politics.

Political scientists say the message is the way to ensure disaffected voters in the party’s right wing remain in the fold.

“The GOP has been, for a few years, really splintered along lines of tea party of enthusiasts and what might be regarded as more mainstream Republicans,” said David Adler, director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy. “That split has been pretty deep, and I think it’s been deeply wounding to the Republican Party, with some feelings of bitterness still lingering.”

James Weatherby, director of the Public Policy Center at Boise State University, said shifting focus to a common enemy is what the party needs.

“The one thing that can overcome that gap is united opposition to the Democratic Party,” he said. “So that’s more likely to turn out dispirited members of the Republican Party, if only because they don’t want to see a Democrat elected.”

Yates was elected GOP chairman last month. The Idaho newcomer — he’s lived in the state three years — knows he was an unlikely pick.

“There were a lot of reasons for people to say, ‘Why this guy?’” Yates said.

But that newness and his refusal to be pigeonholed as either a “governance wing” or a “grassroots wing” Republican have proved assets as he settles into his new post.

“I hadn’t been in Idaho long enough to have enemies sufficient to say, ‘You can’t be a leader in the party because you are too much in one camp or the other,’” he said.

As Yates sees it, his task is to take care of party business and promote unity — not take an active role in policy formulation.

“I saw the job of the chairman at this point as one of restoring order, restoring fiscal health and restoring a sense of mission that unifies the party,” he said.

Republican infighting reached a peak during this year’s state convention, which ended without electing a chairman or adopting a party platform. The previous chairman, Barry Peterson, claimed he was still the chairman. The national GOP disagreed and the situation required a lawsuit to resolve. Peterson lost his argument, setting the stage for Yates’ election.

Now Yates is trying to get the Idaho GOP’s two camps to set aside differences and “focus forward.”

“The primary predates me,” he said. “The court case predates me. So as chairman, I am going to focus as much as possible on how we operate as a party going forward.”

That may be easier said than done, however.

“The party is still in disarray and there are a lot of disaffected members who probably are not sure whether they’ll vote for their party’s nominees, not vote at all or maybe vote for minor party candidates,” Weatherby said.

But those decisions may or may not tilt results in the November general election.

“Often in a one-party state, the disaffected come home and support the Republican nominee,” Weatherby said. “But given the events of the convention and the fairly significant ideological split between the establishment and the right wing of the party, coming home might be difficult for some.”

And frustrations have not been limited to tea party sympathizers.

Zach Hauge, political director of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, the state’s most influential business lobby, doesn’t hide the fact that his group had been dissatisfied with the party’s more conservative elements. It vocally backed Rep. Mike Simpson against his ultraconservative challenger, Idaho Falls attorney Bryan Smith.

“One of the reasons we got involved in the Simpson race is that Bryan Smith is a right-wing, populist, tea party guy who has no interest in helping business,” Hauge said. “We made no bones about making that known.”

That dissatisfaction extended to the party leadership.

“A lot of the things we do were born because of what the party had lacked to do. Over the last six years, we’ve seen the party lose a lot of their funding,” he said. “They became more interested in what was going on in the statehouse, rather than raising money and getting their officials elected. It became more about policy rather than what the parties were originally established for.”

But after sitting down with Yates a few times, Hauge is feeling better.

“We’re fairly confident that the party is taking steps in the right direction,” Hauge said. “They’re putting a good foot forward.”

Yates said the GOP is a natural ally for IACI.

“We like to think that the Republican Party is a pro-business party, at least relative to our competition,” he said.

All-in-all, Adler said it is unlikely dissatisfaction in the ranks of the party’s right wing will change many outcomes in November.

“Some will want to punish the GOP nominee by refusing to vote for them. But that number, I think, is going to be smaller than those who would (stick with a Republican),” he said. “They take into account their larger interest, and their larger interest is in seeing Republicans hold onto the office.”

Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.