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Idaho 2024 primary election: Precinct committee races represent battle for soul of GOP

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Idaho 2024 primary election: Precinct committee races represent battle for soul of GOP

May 13, 2024 | 6:30 am ET
By Clark Corbin
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Idaho 2024 primary election: Precinct committee races represent battle for soul of GOP
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A "Vote Here" sign is placed outside a polling place at the Hispanic Cultural Center in Nampa, Idaho, on Nov. 8, 2022. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Hundreds of obscure, down ballot primary election races for neighborhood-level political positions are drawing intense competition in Idaho and have the potential to shake up party leadership – particularly within the dominant Republican Party. 

The problem – according to officials on both sides of the fight for control and influence of the Republican Party – is that many voters have no idea what precinct committeemen are and likely don’t recognize the names of candidates running for these positions because they aren’t high profile offices like a congressional representative, state legislator or even a county commissioner or city council member.

“I would say 99% of people don’t know and don’t know who their precinct committeeman is,” former Idaho Lt. Gov. Jack Riggs said in a telephone interview. “But your neighborhood precinct is the foundation of the party, and in our case, the Republican Party.”

The stakes are so high that Riggs wrote in an April 26 opinion piece for the North Idaho Republicans that “This May, precinct committeeman will be the most important race on the ballot.”

Riggs, a Republican physician who served as lieutenant governor from 2001 to 2003, is the co-founder of a group called North Idaho Republicans. 

The group is one of at least two groups of established, traditional Idaho Republicans who are engaging heavily in the precinct committee elections this year as part of an effort to take the Republican Party back from its current leadership team that includes Chairwoman Dorothy Moon. The other group is called Gem State Conservatives, and it includes former Idaho Republican Party chairmen Trent Clark and Tom Luna. Moon defeated Luna to become chairperson of the Idaho Republican Party in 2022.

Some conservatives don’t feel like the Idaho Republican Party is ‘on the right track’

Sandy Patano, who is married to Riggs and also active with the North Idaho Republicans, said she is getting involved because she no longer recognizes the Republican Party she has supported her whole life. Between bills in the Idaho Legislature attacking libraries, a plank in the Republican Party platform that calls for repealing the 17th Amendment that allows U.S. senators to be elected by voters and not the state legislature, controversies surrounding the North Idaho College board of trustees and what she describes as a rise in extremism, Patano said it’s time to take the Republican Party back. 

“It came to the point where everyone became so frustrated with the direction of the central committee and people elected to public office who are leading our community,” Patano said. “We don’t feel like we are on the right track.”

But Brent Regan, chairman of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee and an ally of Moon’s, doesn’t think North Idaho Republicans and Gem State Conservatives will be successful. 

Regan, who is also chair of the Idaho Freedom Foundation board of directors, called their efforts “astroturfing” on behalf of special interest groups. In a political context, astroturfing is an expression that means presenting something as coming from the people at the grassroots level when in fact it is not. 

“There is a statewide effort to take over the party at the precinct level,” Regan said in a telephone interview. 

“That is not what precinct committeemen are supposed to be; it’s not supposed to be the elites and the higher ups, it’s supposed to be the grassroots, the ma and pa,” Regan added. “It’s supposed to represent the voters and the people, not a bunch of special interests. When Tom Luna lost in a landslide and his faction of the party was no longer in charge of the party, they set aside their prior calls for unity at the convention when they lost and a bunch got up and left.”

Multiple efforts to reach Moon, the chairwoman of the Idaho Republican Party, were unsuccessful. Additionally, Moon did not respond to a list of questions about precinct committee races that a reporter from the Sun emailed to Moon and another Idaho GOP official on April 22.

What is a precinct committeeman and what do they do in Idaho?

There are only a few requirements to run for precinct committeeman. Candidates must be at least 18 years old, be a U.S. citizen and have been a registered voter in the precinct for at least six months before the election. 

Idaho law refers to the position as precinct committeeman, but anyone can run for the office, not just men. Although they are obscure, the precinct committeemen are important because they make up the grassroots level of political parties and help determine the parties’ leaders and rules. 

For example, the precinct committeeman elected in the May 21 Republican primary will play a big role in who is elected chairperson of the Idaho Republican Party during the upcoming GOP state convention this summer. 

Precinct committeemen essentially make up the county central committees for political parties in Idaho. Under state law, within 10 days of the primary election, the precinct committeemen who are elected are required to meet, organize their county central committees and elect a county chairperson and officers. Once the county central committees are organized, they select the delegates that will attend the 2024 Idaho GOP State Convention that begins June 13 in Coeur d’Alene. At the convention, delegates will vote on who to elect as chairperson of the Idaho Republican Party and will help write and pass any changes to party rules or the party platform, which lists the party’s core beliefs and policies it supports. 

In Idaho, it is basically impossible to track how much money is going into precinct committeeman campaigns. Unlike other offices, there are no campaign finance reporting requirements for precinct committeemen with the county or the state, and there is no limit to what they can raise or spend, said Chelsea Carattini, a spokesperson for the Idaho Secretary of State’s office. Precinct committeemen are required to disclose a “paid for by” designation on any materials, Carattini said. 

Campaign finance information gives the public a transparent look at money funding political campaigns and candidates, according to the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office. For state level candidates, all money raised and spent on a campaign must be tracked and accounted for, according to the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office. Even local county candidates and judicial candidates must report campaign finance information once they raise $500, including the sources and expenses for that first $500. But for precinct committeemen, there are no such reporting requirements, Carattini said. 

How many precinct candidates are running in Idaho’s primary election this year?

Unlike statewide races and elections, the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office does not maintain a list of all the statewide candidates running for precinct committeeman in Idaho, Carattini said. Instead of the state keeping tabs, it’s up to local county election officials.

But for context, there are almost 300 Republicans in Ada County alone running for a precinct committeeman position in the May 21 Republican primary.

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There’s been an increase in those running for the position in other Idaho counties as well.

“For years now, the public’s interest and participation in Idaho’s Republican Party has been growing, and this year there were a record number of applicants to serve in Bonneville County,” said a press release from Nicholas Contos, Bonneville County Republican Party chairman.

Across the state, there are more than 930 precincts in total, and each precinct can be represented by a different precinct committeeman in each of the four political parties the state recognizes.

While state election officials do not have an exact number of precinct committeeman candidates running for office this year, longtime political observers say they have never seen this much interest and competition for the positions. 

“Right now what is happening is traditional, true Republicans have decided we are going to take back this party,” said Tracey Wasden, a longtime Republican booster and party official who has served as a precinct committeeman and president of the Idaho Federation of Republican Women. 

Like Patano and Riggs, Wasden is concerned with the current direction of the Idaho Republican Party and spoke out in strong opposition to several developments that took place during the Idaho Republican Party’s summer meeting in 2023. Wasden said she was especially disappointed to see the executive committee voting rights of the Idaho Federation of Republican Women, Idaho College Republicans and Idaho Young Republicans taken away in 2023. Wasden also opposed several “no-confidence” votes Republican Party officials and county central committees have handed down in recent months reprimanding fellow Republican elected officials, including reprimands of Republican Gov. Brad Little. 

Wasden said she is encouraged by Republicans who are stepping up to challenge those aspects of party leadership by running for precinct committeeman positions this year.

“These are Republican individuals – it is people of all walks of life – saying, ‘I will come back, I will help bring some sanity back to this party,’” Wasden said. 

Regan, the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee chairman, says he has not seen this much competition for precinct committeeman races in Idaho before. In past years, generally speaking, maybe one-third of the precinct committeeman races would be contested and many precincts would not even feature any candidates at all – leaving county central committees to fill out any vacancies. 

While Regan has noticed the increased competition, he chalks it up to a power grab.

“They aren’t getting challenged because they are not competent, they are being challenged because somebody else wants power,” Regan said.

How can you tell where precinct committeeman candidates stand on issues?

The ability to inform voters about these tiny precinct level offices is a challenge for everybody on all sides of this election. 

The North Idaho Republicans and supporters of the Gem State Conservatives have published lists of the precinct committeeman candidates they are supporting or have recruited.

Regan said Republican Party rules prevent central committees from endorsing precinct committeemen. Instead, the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee has published a list of its current precinct committeemen in a list posted below a list of candidates for other offices that have been vetted and recommended by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee. 

Beyond looking at lists published online or on social media, Wasden recommends voters find out what precinct they are in and spend time researching the candidates running for precinct committeeman in their neighborhood. To support establishment Republicans looking to take the party back, Wasden urged voters to listen to see if candidates support education and public schools, reasonable government services, low taxes and fewer regulations. 

“But, if there are people who want to take money away from education and put in someone else’s pocket; if you have individual who want to not fund programs like summer hot lunch programs; if there are individuals who want to charge librarians (with a crime) and if there individual that are still stuck on the COVID issues and they don’t want to fund higher education or programs to help kids get an education, then those are individuals that would be on the more far right side of the party,” Wasden said.

Regan also encourages voters to get to know everyone running for office who will be up for a vote on their ballots this year.

“Go out and vote and know who you are voting for,” Regan said. “At the end of the day you get the government you deserve and if you are not paying attention, you get a government you don’t like. Go out and get to know your precinct committeeman and what he is up to and pay attention.”