Groups Compete for GOP Control

When I heard recently about Gov. Butch Otter forming a political action committee, the first question that came to mind was … why?

At first blush, it doesn’t make sense for a governor – three years away from being an elder statesman – dividing the party. I’ve heard it described as a top-down manipulation, pay-to-play politics and power grab – and those are among the most generous of comments. Rep. Heather Scott of Blanchard describes the Otter PAC as “Tyrannical.”

The Lewiston Tribune couches the PAC in the line of a lobbyist shakedown. “Is there something they expect from Otter if they donate to his new political action committee? Or is it something they fear if they do not?”

Initially, I thought the Tribune’s assessment was on the mark. Then the other day, I received a fundraising letter from Wayne Hoffman asking for a donation to Idaho Freedom Action – an arm of the Idaho Freedom Foundation. It became crystal clear why Otter was starting a PAC.

What’s hanging out there is much larger than the governor, or the power he holds. In fact, it’s much larger than Wayne Hoffman and his Idaho Freedom Action.

It is about defining the direction of the Republican Party in the next election and beyond. It’s about who makes decisions on the state budget, and who sets the legislative agenda.

Sen. Shawn Keough of Sandpoint, considered a relative moderate, is taking over this year as a co-chair to the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Conservatives would be happier with Scott, or Vito Barbieri of Dalton Gardens, in that position. House Speaker Scott Bedke, another relative moderate, is one of the two most powerful figures in the Legislature. If a few more conservatives are elected, the gavel could go to Reps. Mike Moyle of Star, or Brent Crane of Nampa.

The sharp contrast between the competing factions within the GOP is well illustrated in North Idaho’s District 1. It’s amazing how Keough, the lowest ranking Republican on IFF’s “Freedom Index,” and Scott, the highest ranking conservative, can be elected by the same voters in the same year. A third member of the delegation, Sage Dixon of Ponderay, is much closer in ideology to Scott than Keough.

Officially, according to Hoffman, Idaho Freedom Action is not a PAC. But it promises to hold lawmakers accountable, and it may endorse candidates. It’s a good guess that Keough will spend plenty of time on the firing line.

Hoffman issues a strong call to arms, expanding his scope to “lefty journalists” who promote big-government ideas through their works. He goes after the Spokesman-Review’s Dave Oliveria for undermining conservatives and getting them booted from office. He blasts Randy Stapilus, Idaho’s political guru, for referring conservative followers as “extremists.” Hoffman says the Idaho Statesman’s Rocky Barker “openly mocks those of us who believe the federal government shouldn’t lock up and let our land burn every summer.”

For reporters, criticism from Hoffman is tantamount to receiving a lifetime achievement award. But Hoffman doesn’t stop there. Idaho Freedom Action, he says, “can use the full weight of its resources to get lawmakers and the public to support or oppose legislation having an impact on freedom and liberty in Idaho.”

He promises that the organization “will provide residents with more information about how well their state lawmakers are doing – plaudits for those legislators and other public servants who embrace free market ideas, and holding accountable those who don’t do so.”

So how does a more moderate faction of the party respond? Enter the Otter PAC, which has the biggest name in Idaho politics and serves as the most effective counter to Hoffman. The Republican Party supports GOP candidates in a general election, regardless of ideology. Otter is pushing to help those who, like himself, do not see government solutions as a sworn enemy of the people.

District 1, which is almost certain to have spirited races, should serve as a testing ground for both groups. The Otter PAC, no doubt, will put its full force in helping Keough and anyone who challenges Scott and Dixon. Idaho Freedom Action should put equal force behind Scott and Dixon, while working extra hard against Keough. We’ll see who wins.

Until then, the Otter PAC and IFA give some attractive options for political contributors. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Written by Chuck Malloy, Idaho Politics Weekly Contributor

Chuck Malloy is a native Idahoan and long-time political reporter and editorial writer. He is a former political editor with the Post Register of Idaho Falls and a former editorial writer with the Idaho Statesman. He may be contacted at: