NAMPA — Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna is the Idaho GOP’s new chairman, after delegates backed him in a 274-262 vote Saturday against Mark Fuller, chairman of the Bonneville County Republican Central Committee.
Luna fills the seat of Raúl Labrador, who stepped down a year after taking the state Republican helm in 2019 and beating out Luna by two votes.
The new chairman championed his work as the party’s financial chair in his campaign speech, and took aim at Boise Mayor Lauren McClean for promoting “a socialist agenda.”
“We must fight this agenda. We must expose this agenda and use it as a rally cry,” he said.
Luna is best known for his time as state superintendent, a position he held from 2006-2014. During that time, he pushed sweeping education reforms in the Students Come First package, a set of laws that, when passed in 2011, made much of teacher pay merit-based and called for high school students and teachers to be given school district laptops. The reform package, popularly coined the “Luna Laws” drew staunch opposition from some teachers’ unions and was later repealed through a statewide ballot measure in 2012.
In introducing Luna, Idaho House of Representatives candidate Julie Yamamoto championed his work amid a contentious relationship with those unions, praising his resolve as “the teachers union relentlessly threw lies and insults at him.”
“When the dust settled, he worked with those same people to meet the needs of all the kids in Idaho,” she said, arguing he had a plan “to unite the party.”
The convention was put on pause for about half an hour after delegate Heather Rogers from Lewiston publicly complained that voters who abstained from the chairman’s race were not recorded. Labrador said the failure to record these voters did not violate any rules, before retreating behind the stage for around half an hour. During that time, he was seen talking with Luna and Fuller’s camps behind the event stage.
Rogers told the Idaho Press that more ballots had been cast than there were delegates, though Labrador mentioned later to the delegation that there were 536 eligible voters — the same number of ballots cast in the race.
Labrador declined to comment on whether votes were miscounted, over counted or otherwise, only telling Idaho Press that Luna and Fuller “came to an agreement.”
When Labrador returned from initial discussions with the two candidates, he announced that the rest of the day’s elections would be cast differently. Rather than filling out ballots in the stands and passing them down to county representatives, delegates were instead asked to single file into an area where their name-stamped event badges would be held to verify that each delegate only voted once.
The vote comes after months of reported disagreements between Gov. Brad Little and the right-wing, more libertarian bloc of Idaho Republicans led by Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin. McGeachin authored an opinion in May criticizing Little for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic; in April, she sent two letters to the governor urging him to allow businesses to open; on April 25 she was a keynote speaker at a virtual rally with the same message. She attended the opening of a northern Idaho brewery on May 1, which was out of step with the governor’s phased reopening plan.
“Recently, I have been falsely accused of attending rallies I was nowhere near, using this public health crisis for political grandstanding and opening my family restaurant in clear violation of the governor’s (order),” McGeachin said at the convention Saturday, calling the reports “media slander.”
McGeachin and Little also didn’t speak for three weeks in the midst of the statewide stay-home order and emergency declaration that Little issued March 25 and lifted April 30, as previously reported by the Idaho Press.
Little followed McGeachin’s speech by touting his plan to leverage CARES Act dollars to pay first responders in place of using property taxes and emphasizing party solidarity as the 2020 presidential election approaches.
After talking with other delegates about a walkout, Rogers and Grace Bauer from Idaho Legislative District 1 (Bonner County) stood during Little’s speech to protest against his issuing of a statewide stay-at-home order. Rogers, who organized a past protest in northern Idaho, said she turned her back on Little as he turned his back on Idahoans by imposing economic restrictions to limit the coronavirus’ spread.
Little walked off the stage to an almost across-the-board standing ovation, with the exception of the two delegates facing away from him, who sat down as others stood, and a couple people who chanted “call back the legislature” as Little left the arena floor.
The governor and lieutenant governor’s speeches followed the delegation’s attempts to pass two resolutions that took issue with Little’s response to the pandemic. One condemned his use of contact tracing without the Idaho legislature’s input, which passed. Another condemning Little’s failure to call the legislature back into session and asking him to do so failed 244-264 after a roll call.
Another resolution aimed at further defining the “Republican brand,” which vowed not to support Republicans who split with the party’s platform, received flack for its division of the party. “How pure do you have to be to be a Republican?” One dissenter asked. The resolution narrowly failed 256-267.
Fuller used his concession speech to push for solidarity, saying that he’d rather Luna receive 75% of the vote rather than win by a close margin to strengthen faith in him.
“This is what God wants,” he said.
Facing disagreement among Idaho Republicans, Labrador said he sees the party as undivided.
“I’m seeing unity,” he told Idaho Press after the chairman vote. “I’m seeing people having a good time. We are always going to have differences of opinion and I do believe that some of those differences are strong, but I do believe that is what makes the Republican party strong.”