Jan 18, 2024
Purging the Idaho GOP’s big tent: Some Republicans say summer meeting divided the party
Members of both sides of the GOP fault line refer to the events of the 2023 Idaho Republican Party's summer meeting in Challis as “the purge.” This is a photo from the party's 2022 convention at the
Members of both sides of the GOP fault line refer to the events of the 2023 Idaho Republican Party's summer meeting in Challis as “the purge.” This is a photo from the party's 2022 convention at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls. (Kelcie Moseley-Morris/Idaho Capital Sun)
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second installment of a two-part series examining the fallout of the Idaho Republican Party’s summer meeting in June. The first installment ran Wednesday.
Republican Tracey Wasden walked away from the Idaho Republican Party’s summer meeting feeling like she had been betrayed by the party she has supported since she was 12 years old.
Rather than unifying the party, several longtime prominent Republicans told the Idaho Capital Sun, events from the Idaho Republican Party’s summer meeting this June in Challis have divided the party.
Those events include:
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Wasden’s roots with the Idaho GOP run deep. She is an elected precinct committee officer from Canyon County; she has served as president of the Canyon County Republican Women; she has served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention; she has worked with a presidential campaign; she has been president of the Idaho Federation of Republican Women for 12 years; and she is married to former Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, a Republican who held that office for 20 years.
Wasden said she and other members of the Idaho Federation of Republican Women were very disappointed by the summer meeting.
“They felt, again, like they had just been kicked in the stomach — get out of here, we don’t need you any more,” Wasden said.
“These are the women who run the campaign offices, who go door-to-door, who make the phone calls, who pass out literature, who waive signs, who plan forums and fundraisers,” Wasden added. “These women are the backbone of this party.”
But Wasden said it wasn’t all about her and the Federation of Republican Women. She was also concerned about stripping the voting power from the Idaho Young Republicans and Idaho College Republicans and some of the rules that passed, including the caucus rule.
“This is the party of the big tent; we need all voices there,” Wasden said. “But in this party right now, they don’t want all voices heard. They only want to hear their voice. They only want the voices that believe the same as they believe. They do not want any voice that is not with them. This is about power. They want exclusive power here.”
Moon, who was elected chairwoman of the Idaho Republican Party in 2022, disagrees.
“The Idaho GOP has had division for decades,” Moon said in a written statement. “However, right now, I feel that the party is the least divided it has been in years. At the most recent state central committee meeting, the most contentious issues received an overwhelming two-to-one majority vote. Clearly this shows that the party is becoming more unified.”
Even though she is frustrated with leaders of the Idaho Republican Party, Wasden was quick to emphasize she is not leaving the Republican Party and will continue her efforts to support and elect Republican candidates.
“This is why, because I believe in the traditional values of the Republican Party, not what they have changed them to,” Wasden said. “And I believe in more engaged voters in the voting process, not in working to keep people out of the voting booth. I believe in less government, not government my way. I believe every child deserves the best education, not just my children, and I do not believe in tearing down public education at all levels. That is why I am still here.”
Tom Luna, the previous chairman of the Idaho Republican Party and a former elected superintendent of public instruction, said events from the summer meeting sent shockwaves across the state.
“For a lot of Republicans, Challis was a wakeup call,” Luna said. “There was competition or friction in the party — that happens in both parties. But Challis was a wakeup call to people all across the state.”
Members of both sides of the GOP fault line refer to the events of the Idaho GOP summer meeting in Challis as “the purge.”
Luna opposes the purge and said it is all about removing people who disagree with current leadership of the Idaho Republican Party under chairwoman Dorothy Moon, who defeated Luna to win the party chairmanship race at the 2022 Republican state convention.
“There are two ways to unify a group,” Luna said. “One is Ronald Reagan’s counsel — if somebody agrees with me 80% of the time they are not my enemy, they are my friend. You find common ground with the understanding that you will never agree on everything, but you find common ground and have a big tent approach with those principles in mind. The other way to unite is their definition of unity, which is you purge the party of everybody who doesn’t agree with you 100% until there is a smaller group. You purge until all that’s left is the people who agree with you 100% of the time.”
Luna described the two sides of the dispute as longtime established Republicans versus a new wing of the party that has roots in the Libertarian Party and right-wing John Birch Society. Wasden agreed, and said the new wing of the party gained influence and consolidated power by winning Republican precinct committee officer positions and taking control of Republican county committees.
Moon, who defeated Luna at last year’s Republican state convention, disagrees.
Some Idaho Republicans worry presidential caucus will reduce turnout, divide party
“We are uniting as a party to combat the radical leftist forces that are descending upon our great state,” Moon said. “We have a very exciting 2024 presidential election coming up, probably one of the biggest in our lifetime. Idahoans are tired of seeing our once great nation used to enable the most corrupt politicians and their leftist handlers, trampling on our God-given rights, destroying our economy for personal gain and taking away our children’s innocence. It is time for change, and the Republican Party can facilitate that change.”
Moon originally agreed to a telephone interview with the Idaho Capital Sun, but canceled it through an Idaho Republican Party official less than an hour before the interview was scheduled to begin. Moon said she canceled to prepare for a recent Idaho GOP event with former Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, and agreed to respond to questions from the Sun with written statements. Several of Moon’s allies praised her efforts at the summer meeting. Rep. Heather Scott, a Republican from Blanchard who is a member of the Idaho Freedom Caucus, also used the term purge to refer to the events from the summer meeting.
“Purging the Party — The Fruits of Great Leadership,” Scott tweeted on June 25, attaching an image of a painting of Joan of Arc. “The fruits of great leadership continue to bless Idaho Republicans. GOP Chairwoman Dorothy Moon has not let her foot (off) the gas since taking over the helm of The Idaho GOP. Her continued efforts to purge the party of democrats in disguise, non-supporting, and non-believing party platform members is a wonderful breath of fresh air for all of us who strongly believe in government by the people, for the people, of the people.”
On June 26, two days after the summer meeting, the Idaho Republican Party issued a press release announcing Watkins resigned as one of the Idaho Republican Party’s national committee members.
The announcement thanked Watkins for 12 years of service and described him as playing a pivotal role in shaping the party’s vision.
Watkins has served on the Republican National Committee since 2011, and his seat was not due to expire until next year’s Republican state convention.
Watkins had previously served as the chairman of the Bonneville County Republican Central Committee and as a financial adviser to Sen. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign from 2007 to 2008.
In his role on the national committee, Watkins helped plan Republican national conventions and he helped raise millions of dollars for Republican candidates throughout his life, including $58 million for Romney, Watkins said.
This week, the Idaho Republican Party announced that former congressional candidate Bryan Smith was appointed to fill Watkins’ former position on the national committee after Smith was the only person nominated for the role.
But the announcement from the Idaho Republican Party didn’t discuss the circumstances of Watkins’ resignation.
In an interview, Watkins said Moon had previously told him the party was investigating his residency in the state of Idaho after receiving a complaint about it.
Watkins told the Sun his family bought a second home In North Carolina, sold the house they had been living in in Idaho Falls and then the Idaho Falls home he grew up in was transferred from his parents’ name to his name as part of a family estate succession plan.
Meanwhile Watkins said his family has been renovating the Idaho Falls house he grew up in, and he has been spending time in North Carolina where he has done work on a dissertation and prepared for a back surgery with a surgeon at a clinic he trusts following the retirement of his doctor back in Idaho Falls. In 2013, Watkins survived a plane crash where he suffered a broken back.
Watkins said he has required a series of follow up surgeries and rehabilitation work and has a major surgery coming up in North Carolina.
Watkins said the family home he grew up in in Idaho Falls is his residence, he pays Idaho taxes, he has his cars and business registered in Idaho, he has never taken a homeowner’s exemption in North Carolina and he has not voted anywhere else besides Idaho. Watkins also said he verified his voter registration status with the Bonneville County Clerk’s Office and ensured his address was transferred to the Idaho Falls house he grew up in.
Bonneville County Clerk Penny Manning told the Sun Wednesday that Watkins is a registered voter in Bonneville County and she is not aware of any lapse or breach in his status.
“I planned to give a speech about the nature of my residency,” Watkins said. “My faith was that the investigative committee would allow an open process and allow me to have the truth verified.”
But before he could make his case, Watkins said Moon and another Republican official approached him privately at the summer meeting and told him they needed to speak with him outside. Watkins said they told him the investigative report had him “dead to rights” and said his friends would turn against him when they learned what was in the report.
Watkins said Moon told him the investigative report would be released to everyone at the meeting. Watkins said Moon told him the report included a video of Watkins speaking at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints worship service in Oak Ridge, North Carolina, which Watkins told the Sun was recorded without his knowledge or consent. Watkins said at the end of a speech he thanked members of the local church in North Carolina for welcoming his family while they spent time there and he pursued medical care.
Watkins said he asked for a copy of all the information but was told he would get it at the same time as everybody else at the summer meeting unless he resigned.
“They had no intention of getting to the truth, all they wanted was to force my resignation and slander me,” Watkins said.
“At that moment when they showed me all this stuff and had gone into my place of worship to get evidence to be included in the investigative report for political sabotage, got emotional and I said, ‘What do you want?’ and she (Moon) said, ‘resign.’”
Moon denied Watkins’ account and denied that she coerced Watkins’ resignation. Instead Moon said she spoke with Watkins at the summer meeting to give him a heads up about the investigation.
“Out of courtesy for our national committeeman’s privacy, the chair of the investigative committee and myself spoke with him before the investigative committee report was scheduled to be presented at the summer meeting,” Moon said in a written statement. “At that time, our national committeeman decided to resign from his position,” Moon added. “The hearsay and rumors in the press about that private conversation are false.”
Moon did not disclose the nature of the investigation to the Sun.
The situation didn’t sit right with Luna, who has known Watkins for years and thinks Watkins was bullied into resigning and should have been given notice and an opportunity to defend himself. Luna said if someone made secret recordings of Watkins speaking at church it would cross a line that should not be crossed.
“We were all surprised because up until the morning of that meeting at Challis, Damond was ready to stand and defend his right as an elected national committeeman to remain the committeeman,” Luna said.
During the summer meeting, Moon held up a piece of paper and announced Watkins resignation during the GOP summer meeting, but she never explained the reasons why or shared any information from the investigation, Luna said.
Luna said it was another example of Moon and her allies ousting members of the party who don’t agree with them.
“They took away the votes of the Federation of Republican Women, the Young Republicans and the college Republicans and removed Damond and replaced him and now they have a majority (on the state executive committee),” Luna said. “That is what this is all about, they had to purge people from the executive committee to have a majority.”
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by Clark Corbin, Idaho Capital Sun August 3, 2023
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Clark Corbin has more than a decade of experience covering Idaho government and politics. He has covered every Idaho legislative session since 2011 gavel-to-gavel. Prior to joining the Idaho Capital Sun he reported for the Idaho Falls Post Register and Idaho Education News. His reporting in Idaho has helped uncover a multimillion-dollar investment scam and exposed inaccurate data that school districts submitted to the state.