MONTPELIER, IDAHO: Republicans have made the Mountain West a stronghold, which is why brewing party brawls in Wyoming, Idaho and Utah are bedeviling loyalists who yearn for GOP unity.
Closely watched elections this month in Virginia and New Jersey did little to resolve the growing struggle between tea partyers and the Republican establishment. Now, some of the sharpest infighting is shifting to the rugged Big Sky region, where the tea party scored its first major victory, ousting a veteran Republican U.S. senator in a Utah party convention three years ago.
“We have to have this fight,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican facing a tea party challenger next May as he seeks a ninth House term.
The struggle will continue well into the next presidential race, he said.
Simpson and three-term U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi from neighboring Wyoming are chief targets of tea party and anti-establishment groups that prize ideological purity above all, even if it leads to legislative defeats.
It’s not enough, these groups say, that both men hold top ratings from conservative organizations such as the National Rifle Association.
Republicans run little risk of losing congressional races to Democrats in Idaho, Wyoming and Utah.
But if longtime incumbents such as Simpson and Enzi can fend off their GOP challengers next year, the results conceivably could lessen the tea party’s zeal and reputation nationwide.
On the other hand, a new string of tea party victories could ignite a full-blown Republican civil war.
All across the country, Republicans are watching to see where big donors, especially from the business world, will put their money and energy.
Challenger gets backing
In Idaho, the Club for Growth is backing Simpson’s challenger, lawyer Bryan Smith. The group helped topple GOP incumbents last year, including longtime U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, whose seat eventually fell to a Democrat.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which sometimes spars with the Club for Growth, has yet to say which candidates it will support. Simpson, however, was a featured speaker at a chamber event this month in Washington, D.C.
If nothing else, next year’s congressional elections in the Rockies hold the potential for fierce, even nasty confrontations between elected Republicans and their challengers.
In Wyoming, “it’s time for a new generation of leaders,” says Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney. Her differences with Enzi, 69, seem largely stylistic and generational. She calls Barack Obama the “most radical” president ever. The soft-spoken Enzi rarely employs such bombast, even if he routinely opposes Obama’s initiatives.
Cheney’s decision to oppose Enzi has dismayed many prominent Republicans.
In Idaho, Mike Simpson is a burly, cigarette-smoking dentist whose district sprawls eastward from Boise to the Wyoming-Utah border, nearly 300 miles away.
Simpson, a more gregarious talker than Smith, likes to say, “I’ll put my conservative credentials against anybody’s.” He notes that he voted 40 times to halt or delay Obama’s health-care law.
But unlike Idaho’s other three members of Congress, Simpson didn’t vote to continue last month’s partial government shutdown beyond 16 days. Tea partyers insisted the shutdown go on, even though it was hurting the Republican Party’s image.
The GOP’s internal angst in the West also reaches U.S. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah. He’s the one who rocked Republican circles in 2010 by ousting U.S. Sen. Robert Bennett in a state party convention. Lee accused Bennett of being too conciliatory with Democrats.
Establishment Republicans and big fundraisers who supported Mitt Romney for president in 2012 are openly criticizing Lee’s recent take-no-prisoners tactics, including his doomed efforts to bar money for the Affordable Care Act.