Idaho GOP eases infighting by electing new leader

BOISE, Idaho — After spending two months battling over who should control the Idaho Republican Party, members struck a truce Saturday by electing a new chairman and easing political infighting that ground the state GOP convention to a halt.

Steve Yates takes over after the chaotic convention adjourned in June without electing any party officers or passing any new platforms for the first time more than 50 years.

“The job of the new chairman is to smooth the rough edges, not stop the dialogue,” said state Sen. Jim Rice of Caldwell, who attended Saturday’s special meeting of the party’s governing body. “Get rid of the rough edges so we can focus on what’s important.”

Divisions inside Idaho’s Republican Party have been growing for years, but after traditional Republicans made a series of key wins in the May primary election, many thought far-right conservatives would lose their grip inside the party as well. Instead, tea party supporters tightened their hold. They said former chairman Barry Peterson should remain the party’s leader, though he was not officially re-elected at the convention.

The fight over control of the party ended in a lawsuit where a judge ruled that Peterson’s one-term reign expired when the convention adjourned.

Compared with the convention, where every move was critiqued and questioned, Saturday’s meeting was overwhelmingly subdued — committee members applauded their adoption of the party agenda without challenging each other on parliamentary procedure.

A large crowd watched the meeting unfolded, but Peterson was not in attendance. The vote on who should replace him as chairman was the first order of business.

Yates beat out two other candidates — Oakley rancher Doug Pickett and Blackfoot sheepherder Mike Duff, who was the only candidate to run for the post during the convention and Saturday’s meeting.

“I wish I could say it was a pleasure addressing you today, but we are not here because things worked well,” said Yates, who is an Idaho Falls businessman and was an aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney. “I would not be someone brought forward as chairman if things had been working the way they always have and should.”

After winning the title, Yates said it was time to restore the party and work to defend it from what he described as an intruding federal government.

“Let the healing begin,” he said.

Moving forward means following the rules, said Bryan Smith, one of those who sued to try to keep Peterson as chairman and ran unsuccessfully against U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson in the May primary.

Smith and other tea party supporters had argued that traditional Republicans loyal to Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter had broken party rules to win key seats inside the party, including the chairmanship.

“The lawsuit was important for clarity, it was pivotal,” Smith said. “Now we have a party eager to follow the rules. … The new chair needs to consider all of the party’s opinions and not just pursue his own agenda.”

Idaho Republicans are ready to unite again, said Duff, who added that losing the chairmanship was disappointing but that he’s gone through worse.

“There’s a task at hand,” he said. “And that task — if we can execute it, and I think we will — will be hell for the Democrats come this November.”

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