News Column

New PAC seeks GOP moderates

July 27, 2014

By Dan Popkey, The Idaho Statesman

July 27--Twenty mostly retired GOP legislators have joined top business leaders to establish a political action committee supporting what they call the middle ground in Idaho politics.

Common Sense PAC, founded in April, spent about $17,000 in the May primary. Of 22 endorsed candidates, 16 won.

The PAC's treasurer is former Meridian Sen. Hal Bunderson, chairman of the Senate tax committee when he retired in 2006 after 14 years.

Bunderson said moderates need support from business to counter the strength of what he calls the "hard right" in the Republican organization.

"They're trying to reduce the size of the tent, keeping people out rather than bring them in," said Bunderson. "That's a losing strategy in my opinion."

Bunderson said the divide between right and center -- epitomized by this summer's fight over the GOP chairmanship -- puts at risk three statewide offices long held by the party: governor, secretary of state and superintendent of public instruction.

The PAC was financed by current and retired executives from Hewlett-Packard, Micron, Midas Gold, MWI Vet, Oppenheimer Companies, Simplot, WinCo Foods and Zions Bank. The group is similar to a national PAC, the Republican Main Street Partnership, that supported eight-term Congressman Mike Simpson against tea party challenger Bryan Smith.

Contributing only to Republicans, Common Sense advocates fiscally responsible state government, problem-solving, civility and boosting education.

"The only criteria is common-sense, business-minded legislators," said PAC Chairman Max Black, the retired owner of a Boise insurance agency who served 20 years in the House, leaving in 2012 as chairman of the Business Committee.

SYMPATHETIC BATT TAKES A PASS

Black stepped in as chairman after failing to convince his golfing buddy -- popular former GOP Gov. Phil Batt -- to lead the group.

"I kinda appreciate what they're doing," Batt said. "They're trying to support folks who are less interested in politics and more interested in action. But I didn't want to turn my endorsements over to a group."

Eva Gay Yost, a former Batt staffer and longtime GOP volunteer, was relieved her old boss kept his distance.

Her beef? The key role played by 2010 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Keith Allred.

After losing that race, Allred became chief operating officer for Health Catalyst, a health care software company. In 2013, he became a principal at the Salt Lake City-based Cicero Group, which provides management consulting, market research, analytics and data management. Cicero clients include AT&T, Citibank, Comcast, Dow Chemical, Disney, Microsoft, Nike, Pfizer, Sprint, Wells Fargo and Zions Bank.

Allred took the lead in raising money for the PAC. Among the contributors were Allred's clients Midas, Micron, MWI and Simplot.

Yost said she fears Allred might be attempting to remake himself as a Republican after getting just 33 percent of the vote against Gov. Butch Otter in 2010.

"I just wonder if he has an eye on the future by becoming involved with Republicans," Yost said. "I don't question his integrity, I just question the big picture."

OTTER ALSO WARY

Yost's concerns were shared by a number of lobbyists, Black said, including those representing the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, which spent about $150,000 to back Otter over Allred four years ago.

"It seems a little odd that somebody that ran as a Democrat is now all of a sudden getting involved with a PAC that was contributing to only Republicans," said Zach Hauge, director of IACI's PAC, the Idaho Prosperity Fund.

Before the May 20 primary, Hauge and IACI President Alex LaBeau hosted a meeting including Black, Allred and retired HP executive Von Hansen.

Hauge said IACI was supporting many of the same candidates as Common Sense and feared word of Allred's involvement could backfire against business-friendly candidates with more conservative opponents.

"We didn't want to end up having something completely counterproductive," Hauge said, noting that HP, Micron, Midas, MWI Vet, Oppenheimer and Simplot are also IACI members. "It was a little bit concerning. On a scale of 1 to 10, how concerned am I today? Probably like 2."

The PAC sent $1,000 to Otter for his race against Sen. Russ Fulcher, but the check was returned. Otter declined a request for comment on why he rejected the contribution.

TWO-EDGED SWORD

Freshman Rep. Luke Malek, a Coeur d'Alene lawmaker who received $700 from Common Sense, survived a conservative challenge by 180 votes in the GOP primary.

While the money was welcome, Malek said endorsements from two Common Sense members -- retiring Reps. Frank Henderson, of Post Falls, and Eric Anderson, of Priest Lake -- were more important.

Malek said that Allred's might have a downside but that the PAC's aims are solid.

"Unequivocally, yes, bipartisanship is a double-edged sword," Malek said. "But when it comes to education, when it comes to being pro-business and creating jobs and being common sense, I think those are universal values."

Black said he's puzzled by the focus on Allred, a former Harvard professor who rose to Idaho prominence as co-founder of the bipartisan Common Interest, along with Sens. Laird Noh, R-Kimberly, and Bruce Sweeney, D-Lewiston.

From 2005 to 2010, the group picked a handful of issues, wrote policy briefs and polled members. Allred lobbied lawmakers on ideas backed by a supermajority of members.

The Common Interest helped tie the homeowner property tax exemption to housing price inflation, and helped pass property rights protections and rules requiring legislative committee meetings be open to the public.

The group helped defeat Otter's proposed increase in fuel taxes because, it argued, such a hike would overburden average drivers. It failed in a push to raise beer and wine taxes to pay for treatment of drug and alcohol abuse.

The group went dormant when Allred agreed to Democratic entreaties to run for governor.

"We're not trying to resurrect Keith Allred," Black said. "We're trying to elect moderate Republicans."

BUSINESS CREDIBILITY

Allred said he nominally became a Democrat in order to challenge Otter and attempt to form a moderate coalition. He said some of the 20 GOP lawmakers who joined Common Sense recruited him to organize the PAC, which he views as consistent with his efforts to bolster the center.

At a meeting at Oppenheimer's Downtown offices, Allred brought about a half-dozen business leaders to meet with Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, and House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley.

Both told the group that their aim was to re-elect every GOP lawmaker. They also discussed which incumbents were likely to face serious primary opponents.

Rod Lewis, who retired in December as vice president of legal affairs at Micron, gave $2,000 to the PAC. Since 2000, Lewis has been on the State Board of Education and chaired a subcommittee of Otter's education task force.

"In general, the business community is not supportive of those who may be more strident and divisive," Lewis said. "What convinced me was the quality of the group and of the businesspeople involved. We all have a common cause, which is to support candidates and leaders who want to find solutions. From a business perspective, that's what you're looking for."

Bedke, however, said Allred's role fluttered a red flag.

"I was curious, I guess," Bedke said. "But the fact that he had Micron, Simplot, Zions, WinCo, HP, etc., at Oppenheimer's office all wanting to sit down with the speaker and pro tem transcended the concern I may have had with the former Democrat nominee."

Hill said he and Bedke didn't vet contributions.

"We didn't know who they were going to give to and they didn't tell us," he said.

WHAT WOULD REAGAN DO?

Allred said the PAC won't contribute in the November general election but is discussing recruiting candidates in 2016. Zions CEO Scott Anderson has pledged to pay for a poll for the 2016 election, according to an April email from Allred to members of the group. Allred declined to discuss any plans for a poll.

Allred, from a fifth-generation LDS family, is now registered as an "unaffiliated" voter, like 53 percent of Idahoans.

"Those folks in the 53 percent are underrepresented in our political process," Allred said. "The closest thing we come to those folks being represented are probably moderate Republicans."

Bunderson, who broke ranks to endorse Allred over Otter, said, "I think he's more Republican than he is a Democrat."

And so what if Allred decides to become a Republican candidate, Bunderson said.

"Ronald Reagan was a Democrat! Now, he's extolled as the No. 1 Republican who's ever lived, practically," he said.

Sounding both amused and slightly irritated by all the speculation, Allred, 49, said he doubts he'll run again for partisan office.

"It's just not a natural home for someone like me that wants to take the best of both parties," he said. "If I saw a viable route for me to run and stay true to my independent principles, I'd probably do it. But I can't see that lining up."

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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(c)2014 The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho)

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