Primary goal: Unite local Republican Party

Infighting, ideology differences fracturing GOP

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COEUR d'ALENE - It's no secret that there is turmoil in the local Republican Party, but this primary election season, many are hoping that will change.

"There has been an organized effort to take the party over and it has been successful," said Duane Rasmussen, who is considered an "establishment" Republican. "The ideology of the party has changed."

That has motivated Rasmussen and a number of other Republicans to organize an effort to reclaim control of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee.

Even some of those who helped organize the takeover of the GOP, which started in 2008, are hoping there will be some change in the party after the upcoming May 20 primary election.

"Yes, I have had a change of heart, and here is why I have had a change of heart," said Bjorn Handeen, who is considered a Ron Paul Republican. "We took over the party all across the state and we were still unable to change much."

Both Handeen and Rasmussen are elected precinct committeemen in the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee.

Precinct committee posts are at the grassroots of politics. They are literally the lowest level of partisan elected office one can hold.

Every two years, when the political parties hold their spring primary elections to nominate candidates for the general elections in November, they also elect precinct committee members.

It happens in every county in the nation and in every political party. In Idaho there are four recognized political parties: Republican, Democrat, Libertarian and Constitutionalist.

In Kootenai County there are 70 voting precincts, and each party can have one representative for each precinct. Together they form the county central committee for their respective parties.

Central committees are the official vehicles for building and shaping the parties at the county level, according to the KCRCC website.

"Members meet monthly to discuss and resolve issues relating to party business - raising and directing funds, training and aiding candidates, preparing and releasing official resolutions of support for political positions, and electing delegates to the statewide conventions and meetings," the Republican website says.

The central committee is also responsible for nominating replacements when vacancies occur in an elected partisan offices.

In 2008, frustrated Ron Paul supporters organized a plan to start taking over the Republican Party at the grassroots level, and then came the Tea Party that formed with the Republican committee structure. Many other factions followed.

In Kootenai County, battle lines have been drawn within the central committee between what is considered to be the ultra-conservatives and the moderates, or establishment Republicans.

Rasmussen said the split formed because the party has strayed from what it once was.

"They are pursuing an ideology that we can't agree with," he said. "The central committee has become less democratic. They are appointing their people into key positions, and they want to do stuff like repeal the 17th Amendment."

Rasmussen said the local party should be supporting defense, supporting businesses and the free market system, as well as maintaining a conservative approach to social issues.

"They have messed with all of that," Rasmussen said. "They aren't giving money to the candidates anymore. They are spending money on other things and we don't know what it is spent on.

"I am not accusing anyone of spending the money on anything wrong," he added. "Frankly, we don't know what they are spending money on."

He said a "tight cadre" of committee members control everything, and very little is actually getting done.

Rasmussen and a handful of other committee members have been fighting for more transparency in the way the committee's leadership reports its spending to the rest of the committee.

"Instead of writing checks to vendors, they are writing them to individual committeemen," Rasmussen said, adding that they won't provide committee members with a reconciled treasurer's report.

KCRCC Chairman Neil Oliver said that since he took over as chairman, he has provided monthly financial reports. They simply aren't as detailed as some members would like to see them.

"They don't like that they don't get to see the receipts," Oliver said. "No business runs that way."

Oliver has had requests from members asking for more information, and when he provides it, he just gets requests for even more detail, he said.

"I don't think that anything the treasurer gives them would be acceptable," he said. "If they want to see specific receipts, I have offered to come in 15 minutes before the central committee meetings to look at them.

"The transparency is there, but they just aren't willing to see it."

Despite what others might say, when it comes to committee business, Oliver said he doesn't allow anyone to influence him. He also wants to ensure that everything the committee does is directed by a majority of the body.

"Everything is voted on by the body," Oliver said.

As for the spending priorities, Oliver said there has been a shift.

"The central committee is not there to be just another fundraiser for the candidates," he said, adding that the party is now spending money on things like townhall meetings to get candidates in front of the voters.

"There's lots of money going to the candidates, it's just not direct cash contributions," he said. "In fact, several candidates have said keep the money, but if the body wanted to give directly to the candidates, that would happen."

Rasmussen said operating in such a fashion does not instill much confidence in the way the party is run. In years past, he said, the books were always open to the committee.

Former KCRCC Chairman Brad Corkill agrees with Rasmussen's concerns.

"When I was chair, the treasurer sat right beside me and always gave a full report detailing each expenditure and what it was for and how much money was spent," Corkill said. "Today that is not the case."

Corkill said the money raised at their annual Lincoln Day fundraiser went directly to the candidates and their campaigns.

"But now, it is going to Republican causes and who determines what those are?" he added.

Rasmussen said many committee members are afraid to hold leadership accountable in that area because the last person who tried wound up getting sued into bankruptcy.

"I know that things have been rough on the central committee before," Rasmussen said. "But nothing like this."

He said many committee members are frustrated for different reasons and they realize if they want the party back, they are going to have to work for it.

"I've been part of a group to make a change and there are other groups doing that too," he said. "I am happy that we've been able to recruit people from all walks of life. This thing needs to get back into control of people who can get things done."

Handeen said he actually supports that effort, but he was hoping those groups would have fielded even more candidates.

"They completely conceded Post Falls," Handeen said, referring to their recruiting efforts. "There are very few contested races in the Post Falls precincts."

He said he wants to see the factions of the party come together and rebuild the political machine that the central committee once was.

He would like to see what he calls "cross-pollination" of the moderates and the ultra-conservatives within the party, but he realizes what that is going to take.

"There are still a lot of people on both sides who are motivated by infighting," Handeen said. "And there are those who measure success by how well we counter the other side. To me that is no measure of success."

Until the minority stops using dilatory tactics to delay and obstruct the progress of the central committee, Handeen said, things are not likely to get much better.

But he still has hope.

"I have been involved in mainstream party politics long enough to realize that established Republicans believe what the conservatives believe," Handeen said. "But when it comes right down to it, the big difference between them is more a matter of style than substance."

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