Republican groups proliferated across Kootenai County after the 2008 presidential election, and among them was Rally Right's greatest rival, the Reagan Republicans. I met that groups' president and co-founder in the office of his custom tiling company, X Things Manufacturing, tucked in a dingy concrete complex in Post Falls. Ron Lahr, a funny man whose sarcasm often edges toward exasperation, wore a leather jacket over a green sweatshirt. He had moved to Kootenai County from Spokane in 2002, and connected with Jeff Ward, another Washington emigrant and a former staffer for George Nethercutt, the Republican who defeated that state's 30-year Democratic Rep. Tom Foley in 1994. "We talked a lot about how unsophisticated the politics were here in Kootenai County," Lahr recalled. Together they joined a "Pachyderm Club" affiliated with the Republican National Committee, and both became precinct captains. At one event, Lahr was instructed to write down his name and the city of his birth. "Of the 60 or 70 people there," he said, "most were born in California."
Lahr and Ward thought the Pachyderms and the Central Committee were hamstrung by party affiliation, unable to back candidates in the primaries or take part in non-partisan elections, such as for school board or city council. Non-partisan officials oversee the levying and management of many local taxes, and since incumbents rarely lost, many of the same people held their positions for years. Lahr and Ward suspected there were Democrats among them -- the county's last holdouts -- who were prone to irresponsible and excessive spending. "We thought, if we can influence the election for fire district, city council, school board," Lahr told me, "that's access to a lot of money."
Lahr and Ward formed the Reagan Republicans in 2009, aiming to not only influence the standard partisan races, but also to recast nonpartisan races as, essentially, partisan. No R or D would appear by a candidate's name on the ballot, but the group would ensure that voters knew candidates' affiliations and be inspired to vote. They set about compiling lists and neighborhood maps, and on Saturdays before elections, gathered club members and knocked on doors. With donations to their PAC, they acquired data on demographics and voting patterns. They learned, for example, that many Democrats did register as Republicans in order to vote in primaries. "If you just take the information from the county, it says, 'This person is a Republican,' " Lahr explained. "With our data, we can say, 'This person is registered as a Republican. Here's what we think they really are.' "
Within three years, the group helped 51 Republicans, including 15 non-partisan candidates, win primary and general elections. In 2009, three of their candidates fell short in races for Coeur d'Alene city council, but two of them, including Dan Gookin, who also had roots in California, tried again in 2011, this time amid controversy over the council's plan to spend $15 million reconstructing a downtown park. Gookin hired the services of Strategery, a side-project of Lahr and Ward's that offered more sophisticated assistance than volunteers could provide. The seat Gookin sought was open, and Democrats had nominated George Sayler, a popular retired legislator with a record of earning bipartisan support. (Gookin himself had once voted for Sayler.) But Sayler favored the park project and was an unabashed Democrat. A few weeks before that city council election, during a public conversation with Gookin hosted by the North Idaho Pachyderm Forum, an audience member asked Sayler if he supported President Obama. "What connection does that have with the city election?" Sayler asked. Then he replied, "I am proud I endorsed Barack Obama, and I would do it again."
A week later, Strategery reprinted the quote on a flier beside headshots of Sayler and Obama, and dropped it on peoples' doorsteps. Sayler lost by 15 percent.
The city council election aggravated an ideological conflict within the local Republican Party -- not between conservatives and moderates, but between those who believed, like Jacobson, that only conservatives counted as Republicans, and those like Lahr, who believed that any Republican, moderate or conservative, was better than a Democrat, and those like Gookin, who believed that there was still a sacred place for non-partisanship. The flier unsettled Gookin -- Sayler's politics, though no secret, struck him as "just one of those things" that needn't be mentioned.
Gookin moved to Coeur d'Alene from Seattle in 1993. Previously, he'd lived in San Diego, where he founded the For Dummies book series and authored many of them himself. When he arrived in North Idaho, he "wasn't really associated with one party or another" and was often accused of being both a Democrat and a Republican. "It's just a way to marginalize someone you don't understand," he told me. "They just kind of shove you into an area and say, 'This is where you're supposed to go.' " He thought that politics had grown nastier over his years in the county, and his own campaign was a casualty of this. "We're taking national issues and projecting them on a local level," he said. "It just doesn't work. It's not the same thing."
I heard this frequently throughout my reporting: The same politics dividing the nation in presidential and congressional elections had seeped into local government. The difference was that in Kootenai County, Democrats had all but disappeared, and so Republicans had no common enemy to rally against.
Many I spoke with blamed the Reagan Republicans for the party's conflicts, because their work in primaries pitted Republicans against one another. Others pointed to the 2010 election of precinct captains, which forced people to take sides. One Rally Right member told the Coeur d'Alene Press, "The Republican Party is not being fractured. It's just being cleansed of the people who are not true Republicans." Bob Pedersen perpetuated this distinction; according to Lahr, Pedersen wanted "to be the arbiter of who's Republican and who's not." Pedersen denounced Lahr and Ward as "the real enemy" because he often disapproved of candidates the Reagan Republicans endorsed. When Gookin met Pedersen at the fairgrounds one summer and mentioned that he was running for city council, Pedersen regarded him skeptically. "What do you think about government?" Gookin recalled him asking. "I said that I thought taxes should be low and government should be small. He thought that was a good answer. Then he said, 'What do you think about gay rights?' I told him I thought gay people had a constitutional right to be married. He said, 'Well, we're going to disagree on that.' He never talked to me again."
Among the many Republicans Pedersen refused to endorse was Luke Malek, who won a Legislature seat in 2012. John Cross, chairman of the Republican Central Committee of North Idaho, told me that some people didn't think Malek was conservative enough "because of who he hung around with," an accusation I heard applied to several moderates. Even Cross, who is considered highly conservative, initially drew Pedersen's skepticism due to his take on the role of God in politics. "It's not that I have an open disagreement with Bob about religion," Cross said. "I just -- how do I put this? -- I don't talk about it, and I don't define other people by it."
When I finally met Pedersen, in a Post Falls suburb, I was surprised to find him at once boyish and grandfatherly. He has cloudy blue eyes, thinning hair and eyebrows that bristle over the rims of his glasses. He works as an antique collector. "I want this to be known," he insisted. "I did not try to control the Republican Party. All I did was get conservatives elected. I'm nobody. I'd never been in politics before."
Despite Pedersen's delight in the conservative takeover, some Republicans told me they feared speaking out against what the conservatives defined as the party line. "The more the party gains power," one told me, "the less dissent it seems they're allowing." Gookin blamed this on a lack of effective leadership: "We don't have anyone saying, 'Knock it off, we both believe in the same thing. Get back there. We have enough room to tolerate different opinions.' No one wants to do that. And by being silent, you encourage it."
The infighting struck a new high in February 2012, when Tina Jacobson helped choose Richard Mack as the keynote speaker for the annual Lincoln Day dinner. Mack is widely celebrated among Libertarians and Constitutionalists for winning a U.S. Supreme Court case that found a gun control bill unconstitutional in 1997. This time, it was Jeff Ward who doubted Mack's loyalty. Ward and 13 other Central Committee members wrote a letter charging that, "It is quite evident that Mr. Mack's support of the Republican Party is inconsistent, intermittent and questionable," and suggested that Republican officials might be offended if forced to share his podium. The Committee put the question up for a vote, and decided 31-30 to disinvite Mack. The ensuing debate in the newspapers grew so hostile that Mack himself wrote in. Jacobson told the Coeur d'Alene Press, "This breaks my heart to see how we are treating each other. These are your comrades, not your enemies. We're Team Republican." Two weeks later, Jacobson re-invited Mack, alleging that a "false proxy" ballot had been used in the vote against him, and Ward dropped the issue.
Jacobson resigned from the Central Committee in May 2012. She told me that she wanted more time to work on her novel, a paranormal romance about an ambitious anti-tax crusader who is elected to the Idaho Legislature and falls in love with a ghost.