Jim Nelson, who owns a highway construction company in Idaho, has been a regular backer of Republicans running for U.S. House and Senate seats. He’s contributed at least $7,500 to their campaigns since 1998. He’s also hosted fund-raisers at his house, where other supporters gave $1,000 each for the chance to hang with the candidates.
But this year, Nelson won’t back the GOP candidate for Idaho’s vacant House District 1 seat. He says Bill Sali is too radical, and calls him "a mistake."
Sali, a state legislator for 16 years, won a six-way Republican primary with only 26 percent of the vote, defeating several moderate candidates, including one Nelson supported. Sali aligns himself with a hard-line national anti-tax group, the Club for Growth, which has given his campaign more than $300,000. He also pushes a right-wing form of Christianity, taking uncompromising positions on abortion and calling for the Ten Commandments to be displayed in a Boise park.
Sali’s abrasiveness has made him many enemies within his own party. Republican Bruce Newcomb, the former speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives, recently called Sali "an absolute idiot." Mike Simpson, a Republican who holds Idaho’s other House seat, once threatened to throw Sali out the window of the Capitol after Sali called him a liar. And in the ultimate snub, some party moderates, including Nelson, attorneys and other business folks, have formed a group to encourage Republicans to vote for a moderate Democrat, Larry Grant, in the general election.
Grant made his reputation as the top lawyer for Micron, the state’s biggest private employer. He talks about raising the minimum wage and boosting alternative energy sources. "He was raised in the farm valleys of Idaho, and got a full-ride scholarship to Columbia University," says Nelson. "He’ll help break the polarization in Congress, find common ground."
With hard-liners from both parties bumping off moderates in the Connecticut and Michigan primaries this year, national pundits say both parties are moving toward the extremes. But Idaho and other Western states are bucking the trend, and moving toward the center.
In 2002, Republican business owners in Montana’s Flathead County grew concerned that anti-regulation, religion-pushing conservatives dominated the county commission. They backed a moderate candidate in the Republican primary, who beat the most ardent right-wing commissioner. In 2004, they formed Republicans for the Flathead and endorsed a Democrat, who then won a commission seat, defeating a right-winger.
This year in Flathead County, both parties’ candidates for the third commission seat are "level-headed people who don’t have an ax to grind," says Gordon Pirrie, a member of Republicans for the Flathead. To make progress on issues like explosive growth, Pirrie says, "We’re trying to stay in the middle and get some things done. The far end on both sides, they can throw rocks at everything you want to do, but none of them have a solution."
Last year in Colorado, many Republican leaders, including Gov. Bill Owens, decided that too many government programs were getting strangled by TABOR, the anti-tax measure voters approved in 1992. Saying it had prevented state revenues from keeping pace with growth, they successfully campaigned for a ballot measure that loosened TABOR’s grip. This year in Colorado, two popular moderate Republican legislators and retired Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell announced they would not run for office again because extremists had hijacked their party.
Some Colorado Republican business leaders openly back the moderate Democratic candidate for governor, Bill Ritter, because the Republican candidate, Bob Beauprez, is an anti-tax hardliner. "There’s a type of professional, business-oriented Republican who’s turned off" by right-wing rejection of taxes, abortion, stem-cell research and environmental regulations, says Bob Loevy, a Colorado College political science professor. "They’re old-style Republicans in the tradition of moderates such as New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and California’s Sen. Thomas Kuchel. Many of them live in upscale Denver suburbs. They’re doctors, lawyers. They’re probably not changing their party registration, but they vote Democratic when they see (an extreme right-wing) Republican on the ballot."
Moderate Republicans crossing party lines and independent voters helped elect centrist Democratic governors Dave Freudenthal in Wyoming and Janet Napolitano in Arizona in 2002. Both states have more Republicans than Democrats, but polls show both governors leading their conservative Republican challengers as they run for re-election this year.
In May, moderates in both parties formed Unity08, a national group based in Denver, which aims to "give the overlooked moderate majority a voice." Former oil-company owner Tom Stroock, a former chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party who helped found Unity08, says, "When Democrats ran Congress, they screwed up, and then when Republicans took over, they screwed up. We need to abandon factionalism and partisanship."
Party loyalty may hold, no matter what
It remains to be seen how strongly this Western trend will play out in November elections. In Idaho, for instance, Republican voters are expected to go for Butch Otter, a right-wing Republican who’s leaving the House District 1 seat to run for governor. Some of the state’s top Republican officeholders, after an initial flurry of discontent, have united to predict that Sali will take the House seat.
"Idaho’s Republican Party is not hemorrhaging," says Brad Little, a moderate Republican legislator who now supports Sali’s candidacy.
But at an Aug. 16 Boise fund-raiser for Sali, where Vice President Dick Cheney delivered the keynote speech, only three of the state’s other 84 Republican legislators attended — another snub. "The Republicans I know in the party hierarchy, it’s like they’re eating ground glass when they talk about Sali," says Nelson, who’s raising campaign money for Grant. "They still mouth the party line," but it’s not clear which way they’ll go in the privacy of the voting booth.
The author is HCN’s Northern Rockies editor.