COEUR d'ALENE - As the primary elections draw near, candidates are lining up and parties are gearing up to support them - but before they can be successful, some Republicans believe they need to do some healing.
Last month, a contingentof the Kootenai County Reagan Republican board resigned over differing political philosophies, and Kootenai County Republican Central Committeeman Bjorn Handeen started a new forum to begin pulling the party back together.
The new forum is called Precinct 52, which is Handeen's district, and it meets the last three Thursdays of each month at IHOP in Coeur d'Alene - at the same time the Reagan Republicans meet across town.
The Press sent reporters to both meetings Thursday to see what the competing groups are preparing for the primaries.
At the Precinct 52 meeting, Handeen opened it with a call to action, or better yet a call for healing.
"It's hard to describe the frustration of being denied political access," Handeen said. "While some ideas of the Tea Party have become somewhat mainstream today, that was not the case in 2010. We were denied a fair hearing at every turn - shunned and unwelcome."
He said in response to the cold shoulder that was given to the ultraconservative members at that time, they worked to attack the Republican Party as an "invading army."
"We thought by commandeering the nerve center of the local Republican Party, and then even the state party, we would force a fair hearing of our ideas," he said. "In May of 2010 it happened."
Handeen's group was able to secure enough seats in the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee during the 2010 primary election, just as their counterparts did statewide.
They shunned Gov. Butch Otter's recommendation for the chair of the state Republican Party and replaced the chairman of the local central committee.
"Like Napoleon in 1812, unaware that Moscow had already been burned and evacuated, our ultraconservative grand army marched in and went to work," Handeen said. "We tried to force conversations that we long sought, we passed resolutions, we held town hall meetings.
"We orchestrated showdowns so we could prove points and make statements," he continued. "But it was all in vain. We had thought we had captured the nerve center of the Republican Party, but it turned out to be a facade."
He said the true power brokers slipped out the back and set up a new nerve center somewhere else. True political power, he added, remained safely in their hands and inaccessible to Handeen's group.
"Four years later we ultraconservatives still occupy the burned-out empty shell that is the KCRCC," he said. "We are unable to exert political influence, and yet also unable to converse with those who still have power."
When Handeen's group took over the KCRCC, he advocated at the time that committee should be used as a weapon to be wielded, which he felt was appropriate at that time.
"But now it is time for a new approach," he said. "We need to transform the central committee from an ultraconservative vanity circle into a neutral ground where we can civilly negotiate an entry of Tea Party ideas in the realm of (local politics)."
He said the committee needs to invite honest exchanges of ideas with other Republicans, and remain open to ideas that may work.
The Precinct 52 function is the first step to making that happen, Handeen said.
While they have made some missteps along the way, Handeen said there were also victories, and he pointed to their successful strategy to get Kootenai County Clerk Jim Brannon appointed to fill the late Cliff Hayes' term as county clerk.
"And I make no apologies for that," he said. "This caused an uproar because the candidate the establishment would have chosen was a highly competent technocrat, who has done little to offend anyone."
Nevertheless, the ultraconservatives orchestrated an effort to get their Tea Party candidate appointed to that position.
Handeen then introduced Brannon to speak to the room of 20 attendees.
Brannon started his talk by updating the group on things his office is doing to prepare for the upcoming primary election on May 20.
While some candidates have already announced their intention to run for office, the official declarations of candidacy will be filed between March 3 and March 14.
He explained that voters should prepare for the primaries by making sure they are registered to vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary elections, and to double check in which district they are qualified to vote.
Because the primaries are now closed elections, Brannon explained that voters have to register as a member of the party they are going to vote for during the primaries.
He said if voters are planning to switch party affiliations they need to do that before the March 14 deadline, but unaffiliated voters can register for the party of their choice up until election day and even at the polls themselves.
Brannon, who is also a precinct committeeman, said he also plans to run for that seat again because he wants to be a part of pulling the party back together.
"When we had the rash of Ron Paul supporters who jumped into our central committee, there were only two actions you could have taken," he said. "You could say, 'you know we don't want you guys,' or you could recognize that the people who are passionate about Dr. Paul brought some new energy into the party."
Brannon said the latter is the path he chose. He agrees with Handeen's efforts to pull people together rather than continuing the process of what he called the "circular firing squad in the Republican Party."
He said there are a lot of groups within the party, but the party needs to focus on unification.
"The enemy is not the country club Republicans, our enemy is not Bob Peterson (of Rally Right)," Brannon said. "Our enemy in our party is those beliefs we don't agree with.
"When are we going to get over that?" he continued. "People want to blame this person in our party or that person in our party, and now we have two lunch meetings and I told (Handeen) what I thought about that."
Brannon said the point is the party needs to unify.
"And I know that is Bjorn's intent with this luncheon is to open things up to his precinct," Brannon said. "I think it is a good idea, and I think I am going to do it in mine."