BOISE (AP) — Libertarian-leaning delegates made a show of force at the last two state Republican conventions, where raucous Ron Paul acolytes pushing limited government stamped their image on Idaho's dominant political party.
The confab's 2012 edition, in Twin Falls from Thursday to Saturday at the College of Southern Idaho, will be the latest opportunity to measure the GOP's pulse during a presidential-election year — and judge whether Idaho's tea-party tide will rise further or if it's on the ebb.
In the 2008 Sandpoint convention, as well as the 2010 edition in Idaho Falls, mainstream Republicans rolled their eyes as libertarians added planks to the party platform — the GOP's guiding document — urging the Federal Reserve's abolition, the gold standard's resurrection, support for "nullifying" federal laws and abandoning popular elections of U.S. senators.
Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, who got on the wrong side of libertarians during the 2011 Idaho Legislature by citing constitutional concerns with a bill seeking to nullify President Obama's health care overhaul, said the tone in Twin Falls will depend on who shows up.
"If you have individuals with more libertarian leanings there as delegates, you'll probably see more of what we have had in the last couple of conventions," said Davis, R-Idaho Falls. "I am hopeful that more conservative than libertarian principals will be the standard in the party platform, but that's the purpose of the convention."
The party will also elect a new chairman, with Norm Semanko, a lobbyist, stepping down.
Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, who lost a fight with in 2008 for his top choice, Kirk Sullivan, when Semanko won the delegates' vote, appears to have avoided a similar defeat this time around. He's given his blessing to the two candidates, charter-school activist Gayann DeMordaunt and Elmore County GOP Chairman Barry Peterson.
In the 2008 and 2010 conventions, libertarians' surging influence on Idaho's GOP coincided with the rise of tea-party disenchantment across America with government, particularly the federal variety in Washington, D.C.
More recent developments in Idaho might suggest a resurgence of party "regulars," said Gary Moncrief, professor of political science at Boise State University.
In the March 6 "Super Tuesday" caucus, for instance, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney trounced Paul, the Texas congressman, to win all of Idaho's 32 presidential delegates. And moderate Republican incumbents like Sen. Shawn Keough of Sandpoint and Rep. George Eskridge of Dover easily beat tea-party foes in the May 15 primary.
Still, the rarified air of conventions is different, Moncrief said, as a narrow selection of a few hundred deeply committed delegates can set the tone, irrespective of their ability to capture the hearts of broader GOP voters who tend to be less ideologically driven.
"Conventions are meetings of the most active and passionate," Moncrief said.
Lucas Baumbach, a libertarian-leaning GOP activist from Boise and a delegate in Twin Falls, insists the tea-party thrill is hardly gone from internal Idaho Republican politics — even if his favorite, Paul, got skunked by Romney in March.
He expects Twin Falls will remain fertile ground for libertarian-leaning ideas.
Such events have become "a tool of the grassroots, to express their frustrations," Baumbach said, before predicting, "You're not going to see a swing back toward the way things used to be."
For Twin Falls, the party has scheduled three days to debate platform changes, up from the normal two.
That's after candidates in the May 15 GOP primary were asked for the first time to publicly disclose where they disagreed with the documents, with their responses published on the state GOP web site for everyone to read.
Though some incumbents criticized the questionnaire as a "loyalty oath," Idaho GOP executive director Jonathan Parker said it has motivated Republicans to dedicate more attention. Particularly incumbents who blanched at the libertarian additions of 2008 and 2010 want a document they can more heartily support — and that doesn't give the impression of rampant internal discord over the particulars of what it means to be an Idaho Republican.
"For example, one thing I believe a majority of legislators expressed opposition to was repealing the 17th Amendment, which puts the U.S. senators' elections back to the state legislatures," Parker said. "That's one issue that will be fully scrutinized at those platform committee meetings.