Idaho State Capitol building on May 5, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Mountain Sun)
Who’s in charge of Idaho Republican politics? That was the ultimate question Friday, as an Ada County judge considered an Idaho Republican Party lawsuit against the Bonneville County Republican Central Committee — which, the state party said, had “gone rogue.”
In the virtual hearing Friday afternoon, Fourth District Court Judge Jason Scott heard arguments from intertwined Republican organizations — one suing the other, days before a primary election that pits establishment Republicans against ultra-conservative Republicans.
Scott ruled at the end of the two-hour hearing that the Bonneville County GOP had indeed overstepped its bounds by endorsing candidates in state-level primary races — showing its preference for certain state legislative, gubernatorial and attorney general candidates.
Republican Party must be ‘speaking with one voice,’ says state GOP lawyer
The county party recently distributed voter guides that recommended certain candidates, saying it had determined those candidates were true Republicans.
“It seems clear enough — quite clear” that county central committees are limited to endorsing only county-level political candidates, “with respect to endorsement of Republican candidates in Republican primary settings,” Scott said at the end of a nearly two-hour virtual court hearing.
Scott said the Idaho Republican Party and its chairman, Tom Luna, did show that the Bonneville County committee did “irreparable harm” to the state party.
“And, frankly, the fact that the county committee evidently wishes to continue engaging in that sort of endorsement behavior as the May 17 primary nears is evidence of its belief that that behavior may be effective to swing votes and to elect its preferred candidates, when neutrality is desired by the state party apparatus,” the judge said.
Bryan Zollinger, the attorney representing the Bonneville County GOP, had earlier argued that such a ruling would restrict freedom of speech. Scott responded in his ruling, saying individual committee members can “speak or endorse on their own behalf.”
Richard Smith, an attorney for the Idaho Republican Party, argued to the judge that political parties are organizations with separate roles and hierarchies, “so that the Republican Party is speaking with one voice.”
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What is the Idaho GOP lawsuit about?
The Idaho Republican Party and Luna filed a motion Thursday that accused the county committee of illegally making political endorsements and campaign contributions to certain primary candidates, to the detriment of the Republican Party.
The motion asked the Fourth District Court in Ada County, where the state GOP is headquartered, to temporarily stop the Bonneville County Republican Central Committee and its leadership from “continuing their unlawful activities with respect to the Republican primary elections” that are scheduled for Tuesday.
In the motion, the Idaho GOP and Luna claimed that the Bonneville County GOP endorsed candidates “in violation of its bylaws” — and, thus, violated the state rules and state statute that governs party activities.
The county committee also made direct cash contributions to Republican candidates in contested primary races in 2021 and 2022, “then publicized these endorsements through direct mail, social media, and other communications,” the motion said.
The Bonneville County Republican Central Committee issued a statement on Facebook Wednesday, arguing that it follows party rules and takes “our responsibility to inform voters seriously. Any accusation to the contrary is false.”
Mark Fuller, chairman of the Bonneville County GOP, told the Idaho Capital Sun on Friday morning — hours before the hearing — that he believed the state party’s claim had “no basis” and that the local party would be vindicated in court.
The Idaho Secretary of State’s Office wrote a letter in response to a few complaints about the voter guide. Fuller provided the Sun a copy of that letter.
“While we often provide guidance that the use of the term ‘Paid for by….’ is a best practice, it is not, strictly speaking, required by Idaho Code, provided that the communication clearly identifies who is responsible for it,” Chief Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck wrote in the letter. Houck wrote that it was clear the voter guide was from the Bonneville County Republican Central Committee, not the state party.
Houck wrote that the office had “both informed the Bonneville Republican Party of the complaints filed against it and requested that in the future they consider including simple language like ‘Paid for by…’ to eliminate any possible lack of clarity, but do not feel there are sufficient grounds for us to assess a fine under the statutes as written.”
Fuller said he believes the lawsuit was “solely a publicity stunt” and “part of the cancel culture, come to Idaho.”
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