What the Idaho House leadership fight is, and isn't, about

What is the battle between Idaho’s House GOP leaders all about?

Let me answer that by telling you what it is not at all about.

Policy.

There isn’t much of a discernible difference on policy between current House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, and the man who appears best poised to challenge him, Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke. Bedke, R-Oakley, may be a touch less conservative than Denney — Bedke served on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee in the mid-2000s, an experience that tends to temper lawmakers’ views of the budget. But I can’t see the philosophy of the House shifting very much if Bedke unseats Denney.

Nor are there many differences between Majority Leader Mike Moyle of Star and Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts of Donnelly — on the issues, anyway. But these two conservatives could be on a collision course to meet in this year’s GOP leadership elections.

These four House leaders reflect the prevailing attitude of the GOP caucus: conservative on social and fiscal matters, staunchly federalist, sensitive to rural concerns (Moyle is as close to an urbanite as you’ll find in leadership, but he’s a farmer who aligns with his rural colleagues, much to the chagrin of his Ada County colleagues). These four leaders have been in step with a prevailingly conservative caucus that will almost certainly remain that way — whether the GOP adds to its 57 seats, loses ground or holds steady in November.

No. This showdown is about personalities. This makes the story all the more interesting, and the outcome all the more unpredictable.

The battle between leadership turned remarkably public last month. Denney and Moyle funneled money into political action committees that sought to oust several incumbents, including Roberts. Bedke contributed money to several of the incumbents opposed by Denney and Moyle, including Roberts.

As the intraparty rifts became a matter of public record, spelled out in campaign finance reports, Moyle did nothing to camouflage his motives. “My goal is to make Ken’s life miserable because he’s making my life miserable. We’re still friends; we just don’t agree politically. If he wants to take me out, I’m going to do the best I can do to get rid of that threat.”

But Denney began accumulating baggage long before his money started finding its way into contested House primaries.

Denney lent his loyal support to tax-dodging Rep. Phil Hart, R-Hayden, a rogue embarrassment who was ultimately voted out by Republicans in May. He demoted — either intentionally or accidentally — Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, a House whistleblower who filed an ethics complaint against Hart. He dumped committee chairs Leon Smith of Twin Falls and Tom Trail of Moscow — clear political payback, punishing a pair of moderate mainstays. He clumsily tried to replace redistricting commissioner Dolores Crow — a steadfast conservative who had plenty of allies from her 24 years in the House — and, when that move failed, Denney took the unusual step of apologizing to his caucus.

Denney’s wounds are serial and self-inflicted. But are they fatal?

In-house, closed leadership elections are particularly tough to handicap. I suspect that’s even more true when there isn’t a nickel’s worth of policy differences between the combatants. Lawmakers are then free to vote based on personal relationships. They may vote to return a political favor, or back the candidate who promises a plum committee assignment. And then, in Denney’s case, there’s the whole risk-reward game of voting to kill the king.

There’s no predicting leadership races, especially five months ahead of time. That’s what makes them good drama.

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I would say there is more to this race than personalities

I agree that their policy positions are not that different. However, it's more than just personalities. There is a question of leadership skills.

Denney seems to have struggled enough in this area that he is now being challenged. He isn't the first person to punish those who stray from the caucus. Past Speakers have done that. The difference is that others gained strength and control of the caucus when they did it. Denney didn't. One problem is his inability to articulate his actions. He forgot to put Anderson on a committee list? Really? He didn't know what Esposito was going to target with the PAC money? Really? Why did he give him a big chunk of money without knowing how it would be used? He either lacks the ability to handle details or he is being less than honest. He handled the Hart case poorly. He handled the Redistricting Commission issue very poorly. He targeted his own caucus members with money raised from them.

Would Bedke be any different? Who knows? He does seem to show a bit more leadership on issues and the ability to work with opposing interests to come to a compromise.

One thing we know for sure...House members often lie about who they will support. We won't know the real winners until the votes are counted in December.