In June, U.S. Rep. Raúl Labrador served as the emcee of the Idaho Republican State Convention in Moscow. For two days, he attempted to broker peace—or at least a truce—between factions of the state party that had been festering for at least the past four years. Awkwardly, Labrador, whose first-term election in 2010 rode the crest of the national Tea Party wave, was now in the position of playing mediator between so-called “establishment” party leaders and a contingent of libertarian and Tea Party-aligned activists who have worked to place key supporters in precinct-level positions throughout Idaho.

The convention followed Labrador’s easy re-nomination for his seat and May 20 primary victories for incumbent Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter and U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson against challenges from the right flank of the state party. In all of this, Idaho serves as a microcosm for larger issues within the national Republican Party, which finds Tea Party activists a powerful mobilizing force—one that threatens to undermine support for the party when more centrist voters are key to winning elections.

The poor showing of the Tea Party in national and state elections indicates problems for a movement that seemed unstoppable a few short years ago.

The Tea Party in Idaho

At first glance, the Gem State would appear to be the ideal location in the United States for a grassroots libertarian movement. A recent article in the Journal of Politics ranked Idaho’s citizens as having the most conservative public policy preferences at the state level, followed by Oklahoma, Utah, Wyoming and South Dakota. Simple logic would suggest that if the Idaho public is more socially and fiscally conservative than many conservatives elsewhere—and the Tea Party is more conservative than so-called “mainstream” Republicans—then Idaho should be the epicenter of the Tea Party.

Yet a review of Tea Party activity in Idaho over the past four years suggests an uneven effectiveness not unlike that in the national movement. As the Idaho Statesman reported in March 2009, a rally organized by Idahoans for Liberty in Julia Davis Park attracted a scant 40 participants, though by the next month a nationally sponsored rally on the Capitol steps in Boise attracted “several thousand.”

Former Idaho Congressman Walt Minnick was the only Democrat anywhere in the country to be cited favorably by the national Tea Party Express group for voting against the 2009 federal stimulus bill. (Minnick would vote against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010.) Weaver’s recent piece in The International Journal of Press/Politics, co-authored with Joshua M. Scacco, “examines nightly cable news coverage of this movement by using key frames associated with the ‘protest paradigm’ — the tendency for media to marginalize movements by drawing attention away from core concerns raised by such movements.”

Clearly, this had more to do with the conservative constituency of the First District than true Tea Party allegiance on Minnick’s part. Yet this was not enough to salvage his seat; he would go on to lose to Labrador by 24,000 votes in the 2010 election, the Idaho Tea Party’s most significant electoral success to date in the state.

Challenges in Idaho and nationally

While the Tea Party more or less held its ground in 2012, the subsequent two years were not as kind. The 2014 primary season was a difficult one for the Tea Party nationally, which sought to replicate its earlier successes. Strategies that worked, for example, in unseating former Utah Sen. Robert Bennett in 2010, fizzled this election year. Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson’s primary challenger, Bryan Smith, received his heaviest financial and media endorsements from libertarian groups outside of Idaho—most notably Freedom Works, Citizens United, the Madison Project and the Club for Growth. Meanwhile, Simpson retained traditional endorsements from the National Rifle Association, an important one in a state where so many residents heavily prize the Second Amendment.

Perhaps because of Idaho’s solidly Republican reputation, it was the novelty and vigorousness of Smith’s challenge that prompted National Public Radio’s David Greene to travel to the 2nd Congressional District in January to see what this “bellwether” race might portend for the Tea Party writ large. Green’s intuition was prescient: Simpson would go on to win his primary with just over 61 percent of the vote.

Fulcher and Labrador sign

David A. Weaver
Tea Party aligned candidates campaigned together during Idaho’s primary season.

Although former state Sen. Russ Fulcher did not explicitly campaign on a Tea Party platform, he did enjoy the support of Tea Party-aligned activists and elected officials in his primary challenge against Otter. By mid-May, Fulcher acquired Labrador’s endorsement and conjoined campaign signs began popping up in the western half of the Treasure Valley like a late spring flower. Given the Tea Party’s vehement disagreement with the Affordable Care Act, Fulcher was naturally poised to capitalize on populist distaste for Otter’s decision to take the “least-worst” option under the law and create a state-run health insurance exchange.

Of all the Tea Party-related challenges of the past four years, Fulcher’s margin was the most successful—after Labrador’s—leaving Otter with a thin 51 percent of the vote. Otter’s success was partly due to the backing of so-called “establishment” state party officials, but also his “oath of office” appeal: As an elected official, he is not only sworn to uphold the Idaho Constitution, but that of the United States government, as well.

Idaho citizens, like citizens elsewhere, have conflicting opinions, which prevent the kind of ideological purity that groups such as the Tea Party depend on to motivate their supporters. According to the 2011 Annual Idaho Public Policy Survey, a combined 58 percent of Idahoans strongly or somewhat agreed that Idaho should be able to opt out of the 2010 health care bill. Yet a combined 63 percent of Idahoans also strongly or somewhat agreed that “public funds should be used to help provide health insurance to people who cannot afford it”—hardly a libertarian response.

Similarly, while 59 percent strongly or somewhat disagreed that the state is “investing enough in higher education in Idaho,” only 39 percent either strongly or somewhat agreed “Idaho should raise the sales tax to support the higher education budget.” These numbers indicate a center-right electorate, but the Republican dominance in state politics means the centrist elements are not reflected in public policy.

Trends in the annual survey show that the number of independent or “unaffiliated” registered voters increased from 28 to 37 percent between 2007 and 2010, while the percentage of Republicans declined from 40 to 33 percent. When the Idaho Republican Party closed its caucus in 2012, it provided an opening for a more ideologically pure (and presumably smaller) Republican primary voter base. Yet neither Fulcher nor Smith appear to have benefited from this change, and in the last year, Republican registration has grown by some 40,000 voters, according to the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office.

Idaho party preference

Idaho did not require party registration until July 2011. The graphs above show party preferences from the 1999-2010 Idaho Public Policy Surveys and party registration data since Nov. 2013 from the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office.

In the May primaries, Fulcher outperformed Otter in only two of the six counties in which Tea Party-aligned Ron Paul won in 2012; the one Paulite county in Simpson’s district (Camas) went in Simpson’s favor. Of course, in each case, there is the ever-important factor of incumbency. Otter raised more than $600,000 to Fulcher’s $80,000 and Simpson’s $556,000 cash-on-hand outshined Smith’s $231,000. Labrador never faced any significant opposition from fellow Republicans.

What’s next for the Tea Party?

In the wake of recent elections in Idaho and around the country, there has been much speculation about the future of the Tea Party. It bears remembering that in the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections, many pundits and political scientists were skeptical that this loose coalition of anti-government activists would have a long-term impact.

The normative bias in the news media and the academy is toward “impact,” as measured by the number of bills proposed or passed. Also important, however, is the power of negative politics—the ability to prevent policy from occurring in the first place. (Witness the futile, but symbolically important, attempts by U.S. House Republicans to defund or repeal the ACA.) The 112th  Congress—the first featuring the newly elected Tea Party bloc—enacted slightly more than 200 public laws, far below historic norms. The 113th session is on track to perform similarly, having passed only 180 so far. By the standards of the Tea Party’s demand for a less vigorous federal government, this is a resounding success.

Electorally, the national Tea Party lost many of its primary elections this spring—most notably its challenge to Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran—but scored a symbolically important defeat of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia. In many ways, the Tea Party’s largest opportunity for success comes at the state and local levels, where the partisan cues are (relatively) less salient and many citizens can— but often do not—pay attention to public policy.

Political parties ultimately must govern, not simply win elections. The Tea Party, not unlike the diminished Occupy movement, originated as first and foremost a protest movement. Unlike Occupy, however, it intentionally focused on winning elections on the basis of the passion behind the protests. Now Tea Party officials must govern, with all of the requisite compromises and policy nuances.

Naturally, the national Republican Party seeks to simultaneously retain the enthusiasm and turnout of conservative activists while claiming to hold onto the remains of its own “big tent” tradition—one that recognizes a diversity of viewpoints within the party. If the party, here or elsewhere, cannot govern when it is in power because of a passionate segment of its base, it may ultimately find its base stripped of the centrists and disaffected Democrats who helped bring the party back to power 34 years ago.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.

  • Yes, a smashing impact for “less vigorous government.” Yay for symbolic victory! Perhaps we could put this in NRA-friendly terms for the disadvantaged citizens of our state: gun control means not shooting yourself in the foot. Government is still amply expensive after all the T.P. grandstanding, but it’s markedly less capable. More money for less beneficial result is not financially conservative, and not smart.

  • Chandie Bartell

    Maybe you should study the tactics of the Establishment GOP and Democrats getting candidates to run with the “R” ticket against Principled Republicans, and these so called “R” candidates are getting funded by left PAC committees like the League of Conservation Voters, and their created PAC groups under deceptive names like Sportsman of Idaho PAC, or the newly created Idahoans for a Strong Economy, who get funding from Chicago and Wash. DC to fund Merrill Beyeler “R” and Abby Lee “R” not to mention backing others with funding from democratic sources.

    Getting desperate to use deception to smear Liberty Candidates shows that the Democrats and Establishment fear the people of Idaho, so have to use unethical tactics, smear campaigns, and outside monies from Democratic monies to get their candidates to beat ours in Idaho.

  • Chandie Bartell

    Maybe you should study the tactics of the Establishment GOP and Democrats getting candidates to run with the “R” ticket against Principled Republicans, and these so called “R” candidates are getting funded by left PAC committees like the League of Conservation Voters, and their created PAC groups under deceptive names like Sportsman of Idaho PAC, or the newly created Idahoans for a Strong Economy, who get funding from Chicago and Wash. DC to fund Merrill Beyeler “R” and Abby Lee “R” not to mention backing others with funding from democratic sources.

    Getting desperate to use deception to smear Liberty Candidates shows that the Democrats and Establishment fear the people of Idaho, so have to use unethical tactics, smear campaigns, and outside monies from Democratic monies to get their candidates to beat ours in Idaho.

  • Chandie Bartell

    Here is one. This is the group that funded Merrill Beyeler who ran as a “R” against Lenore Barrett “R” using false information stating she was pro-wolf because she voted NO on the Wolf Board the Governor wanted to create. Sportsmen for Idaho is NOT a sportsman group at all, and their funding isn’t from Conservative sources! So why does the GOP and the Democrats have to find candidates like Merrill Beyeler to run against Lenore Barrett with these types of unethical smear tactics, with unlimited funds coming from outside of the state?

    You want to write a REAL report about this get a hold of us we got more funding and the sources of where they came from. Look at the out-of state money and where it came from for Merrill Beyeler. Do you know who WINNING CONNECTIONS IS?????? Abby Lee and others also ran on the “R” ticket using the same groups with this funding to beat liberty candidates in the Primaries like Monty Pearce.

    Idahoans are not happy with the GOP or Democrat Parties for this dishonesty.

  • Chandie Bartell

    Here’s more. As usual the contestant running against Lawrence Denny for Secretary of State, a Democrat sent e-mails out on a regular basis smearing Representative Lawrence Denny. When that wasn’t enough the Democrat Party organized an attack on Phil Hart to get at Lawrence Denny 3 days before elections. Here was Phil Hart’s reply as his candidate did NOT have her facts correct!

    In a last minute smear campaign against Denney for Secretary of State, my name was used to make Lawerence Denney look bad. And it was all misinformation by people who care nothing about the truth. Below is a link to a video where I responded to one of the allegations. Part 2 is on its way soon. Please watch the video and help circulate it. The opposition is playing their misinformation piece on TV and radio all over Idaho. In Liberty, Philhttp://youtu.be/SR3LK73-pzY Phil Hart

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2tvNYl96Yw&feature=youtu.be

  • Chandie Bartell

    http://www.sos.idaho.gov/elect/Finance/2010/PostGeneral/pac/IdahoansForAStrongEconomy.pdf Donations from a deceptive sounding Conservative Group PAC, Idahoans For A Strong Economy.

  • Chandie Bartell

    Smoking Gun: Chicago Connection, Blare Hull, SEIU, IDLC (Idaho Democrat Latino Caucus), were all big
    contributors to Idahoans For A Stronger Economy. In 2010 every dime of that money went to defeat
    Gresham Bouma. http://www.sos.idaho.gov/elect/Finance/2010/PreGeneral/pac/IdahoansForAStrongEconomy.pdf

  • Chandie Bartell

    This is how Dan Schmidt beat Gresham Bouma in Latah County. Notice this 48 hour report, in 2010 where they targeted Gresham Bouma , with 25,000 K from K-12 Management, in Herndon, VA. This $25,000 was used solely to go after Gresham with Dan Schmidt. http://www.sos.idaho.gov/elect/Finance/2010/PreGeneral/pac/IdahoansForChoiceInEducation_48Hr.pdf

  • Chandie Bartell

    League of Conservation Voters in DC fund these PACs.

    http://www.sos.idaho.gov/elect/Finance/2010/PostGeneral/pac/ConservationVoters.pdf See here is the link
    where they start funding, “Idahoans For A Strong Economy.” !!!!!

  • Chandie Bartell

    Under John Reuters.

    A lot of make believe PACS most of it gets funnled from Conservation Voters of Idaho, and John Reuters
    is key to all this and a lot of money goes back to Wash DC and Blare Hall in Chicago, a big democrat operative
    and SCEIU the union.

    Idaho Voters for a Strong Economy

    http://www.sos.idaho.gov/elect/Finance/2010/Oct10/pac/ConservationVoters.pdf

  • Chandie Bartell

    Notice Wooding for Idaho, Uses the WAR ON WOMEN CARD like the RACE CARD to SMEAR LAWRENCE DENNY.

    From Woodings for Idaho, Campaign Manager: Lawerence Denney, our opponent for Secretary of State, was quoted in the Idaho State Journal this morning about his “advantage over Holli.”

    “Basically, it’s my experience. She’s a young lady with a young family. She does not have enough {business} experience.”

    By now you probably know that Holli is a State Representative, community leader, small business owner and, yes, a wife and mother.

    Since it isn’t Holli’s experience that’s in question, what is Denney actually saying? Does he believe women shouldn’t hold statewide office? Does he believe mothers shouldn’t hold statewide office?

    Funny, I don’t remember him saying anything about that during the primary, when one of his opponents was a man with young children.

    It’s one thing to disagree about the issues, it’s another to say that a woman cannot be both a mother and an office holder. Chandie I need your help – we have to help Holli finish this race strong and we can only do it with your support. Will you contribute $25, $35, $105 or whatever you can to help us across the finish line?

    Thank you,
    Maria Weeg
    Holli’s campaign manager