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. That might encourage mainstream Republicans such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who are considering running for the White House in 2016.
On the other hand, a new string of tea party victories could ignite a full-blown Republican civil war and embolden anti-establishment champions such as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
All across the country, Republicans are watching to see where big donors, especially from the business world, will put their money and energy.
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 and opened painfully personal rifts. Her father is a hero to many Wyoming conservatives. But many other well-known Republicans, including U.S. Sen. John Barrasso and former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, have rallied to Enzi's side.
Enzi's supporters call Cheney, who lived for years in Virginia, a carpetbagger and opportunist. They gleefully point to her early missteps, including a late property tax payment and a $220 fine involving her application for a fishing license reserved for longtime state residents.
Cheney is airing a TV ad that calls her five children "fifth-generation Wyomingites."
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. Snow-streaked mountains tower above hard-pressed former railroad towns and tourist-driven ski and snowmobile resorts. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney beat Obama here by a 2-to-1 margin in 2012.
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.
They also note that Simpson joined House GOP leaders 11 months ago in backing a resolution that raised taxes on the rich, but not on the remainder of Americans.
Those were common-sense agreements that averted worse outcomes, Simpson said at a suburban coffee shop in Boise, the state's biggest city.
Because nearly all Republicans strongly oppose higher taxes, increased regulations and the president's health care law, he said, the party's split "is over strategy, not philosophy." The next two elections, Simpson said, will determine "whether the Republican Party is going to be a governing majority, or whether we're going to resign ourselves to be an ideologically pure minority."
That sounds like surrender to Smith.
The incumbent, he says, is part of Washington's "go along to get along" crowd.
In interviews and public settings, Smith sticks to tea party talking points. On a recent blustery night in a bare-bones meeting hall in southeastern Idaho, Smith told a small gathering it's impossible to defund the health law as long as Democrats control the Senate and White House. Nonetheless, he said, he proudly sides with those "who are willing to stand up and fight for conservative principles," even if their efforts have no legislative chance.
Smith, whose speaking style is earnest and deadpan, has yet to prove he can raise enough money and excitement to beat Simpson. But some conservative state legislators, including Idaho Rep. Janet Trujillo, support him.
Trujillo rejects claims that Republicans can't win presidential elections unless they temper their rhetoric on social issues, especially when addressing minority, female and young voters. "The party is going to have to get back to its conservative roots," she said, and candidates such as Smith can help do that.
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, including big fundraisers for Romney, are openly criticizing Lee's recent take-no-prisoners tactics, including his doomed efforts to bar money for what Republicans call "Obamacare."
Lee's Senate website now depicts a bridge symbolizing efforts to close "the gaping hole" in the Republican Party "that separates the grass roots from establishment leaders."
Trent Clark, a former Idaho GOP chairman, says the loss of manufacturing and ranching jobs in many Western areas contributes to social unease and an openness to the tea party's "throw out the hierarchy" message. Many Idahoans detest a $17 trillion federal debt, he said, and they "feel there is no more room for compromise" in Washington's budget talks.
But Republicans who refuse to cut the best possible deals with Democrats, Clark said, "are not being strategic." He said he backs politicians such as Simpson "who can make some headway on these issues."
That's the idealism vs. pragmatism decision that millions of Republican voters must make in upcoming primaries. It already troubles Dennis Turner, one of the 18 people who showed up for Smith's public forum in Montpelier this month.
At 81, Turner's face is as craggy as the land he ranched and farmed until two years ago. His conservatism is just as deeply etched. He told Smith that the United Nations "is trying to take over, with the help of our president, and ruin the Second Amendment and take our guns from us."
comments on this story
That makes Turner a true-blue tea partyer and Smith supporter, right? Maybe not.
In an interview, Turner said he generally likes Smith's politics, but he thinks Simpson has done a good job in Congress. If Smith replaces Simpson as the Republican nominee, Turner said, Democrats might have a chance to win the seat, even in Idaho.
Asked whether he prefers Simpson or Smith, Turner thought a moment and said, "I wouldn't make that call just now."
Follow Charles Babington on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cbabington