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Tea Party excess in Idaho

By JOHN MILLER
July 20, 2010

Three times since 2000, Republican Rod Beck failed in his bid to rejoin the state Senate, defeated by primary election rivals he insists didn’t support party ideals. So Beck opted to change Idaho’s GOP from within.

At the state Republican convention last month, he got his big chance.

Joined by tea party members, Ron Paul disciples and old-guard conservatives, Beck strode into the three-day confab in Idaho Falls amid a swelling national tide of frustration with Washington, D.C., magnified by Idaho’s already rightist tilt. When it was over, a majority of the 500 delegates had transformed their platform with a spasm of anti-fed outrage — and anger at Republicans who Beck thinks have strayed from the fold.

Over three days, they crafted a platform that urges Idaho to seize federal land, recommends ending popular elections of U.S. senators and sings the praises of gold and silver — an inflation hedge to U.S. Federal Reserve-issued greenbacks.

Even some hard-core tea party members from elsewhere were shocked at how far Idaho Republicans went.

“I don’t want to say extreme, but let’s just say you guys are more excited,” said David Kirkham, a founder of Utah’s tea party. In May, he joined Republicans to oust GOP U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett — for not being fiscally conservative enough.

Some see Idaho’s convention, where delegates came just shy of backing an unregulated state militia, as evidence of a movement to reset the U.S. Constitution’s clock.

“They are resurrecting an old and rejected doctrine of constitutional law — attempting to resurrect state supremacy — the same viewpoint that plunged the nation into Civil War,” said David Adler, an U.S. Constitution expert at Idaho State University in Pocatello. “It’s very provocative.”

These Republicans hope to turn convention momentum into a longer-term movement, reshaping Idaho’s policies on concealed weapons, forcing its inmates to perform hard labor in exchange for meals — and ultimately, determining which candidates get elected.

Beck, who as Senate majority leader once helped drive the Legislature’s anti-abortion fights before exiting in 1995, pushed through a new candidate-disclosure provision he’s sought for years: Come 2012, all Idaho GOP primary hopefuls will be asked to pledge support for the party platform or declare where they disagree. Beck says it should help voters identify those officials who aren’t really Republicans — the kind that beat him in 2002, 2004 and 2006.

“Maybe the disclosure will give them the chance to evaluate their own positions,” said Beck.

Lucas Baumbach, a 31-year-old Tea Party Boise member who wants to dump the federal income tax, was ecstatic about the convention outcome.

“Who knew that we’d get a 17th Amendment (repeal) plank in the platform?” Baumbach said. “We’ve sort of taken the platform of the Constitution Party away from them.”

To be sure, conservatives across America — many with tea party sympathies — are reshaping the 2010 political landscape amid anger over bank bailouts, health care reform, illegal immigration and federal deficits. In Maine, GOP delegates passed a “tea party platform” rejecting all United Nations treaties. Kentucky Republicans chose Rand Paul, progeny of libertarian hero and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, as their nominee for U.S. House.

But Idaho is the point of the spear.

After all, its state Legislature is already three-quarters Republican. In March, libertarian-leaning GOP Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter became the first state chief executive to sign a bill to sue the federal government over health care reform. It’s an anti-federal streak that survived from its 1970s “Sagebrush Rebellion” days, when the Rocky Mountain West’s residents arose to assert local control over swaths of federal land that dominate their region.

This latest fracture, led by Beck, Baumbach & Co., took form starting with a party leadership rift at the 2008 Idaho Republican convention at which Ron Paul backers chanted “Freedom, Freedom, Freedom” — then toppled establishment Republican Party Chairman Kirk Sullivan.

In two years since, they’ve have added to their ranks while moderate delegates receded.

Brad Hoaglun, spokesman for Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, preceded Rod Beck as the leader of southwestern Idaho GOP delegates. After the 2008 convention, Hoaglun says he stepped back largely due to time constraints. But he concedes he’s also concerned about the practicality of some ideas pushed by those now in control.

“You look at things like payment in gold and silver,” Hoaglun said. “If that were to become reality and law of the land, how does one work that?”

Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson said Idaho Falls delegates went too far with measures like Beck’s platform loyalty pledge. Simpson said he’ll ignore it; so did Joe Stegner, a GOP state senator from Lewiston.

“The Republican Party runs the risk of being seen as radical and will now have a more difficult time trying to attract people more from the central part of the political spectrum,” Stegner said.

At the convention, however, Stegner was clearly outnumbered.

As he stood in the sea of delegates, defending two proposed state constitutional amendments on this November’s ballot to help local governments finance projects without a public vote, Stegner was pelted with the worst insult most on hand could imagine.

“You’re a Democrat,” a woman shouted.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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