Analysis: Idaho’s two Republican parties head into open combat

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was corrected on May 5 to reflect Idaho Freedom PAC’s endorsement in the state superintendent’s race.)

Idaho’s two Republican parties have abandoned appearances.

Anything that resembled an uneasy truce — or a marriage of convenience — has pretty much disappeared.

The May 17 GOP primary isn’t the first showdown between the party’s mainstream and hardline factions. It won’t be the last, either, since neither side is likely to run the table this election.

One thing is evident: This year’s primary presents a more overt and less civil clash of ideas and ideologies. It’s a power struggle, and those are often personal.

Sometimes very personal.

Gov. Brad Little and his best-known opponent, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, have done nothing to hide their shared animosity. That all became public two years ago, at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, and a full year before McGeachin became an announced gubernatorial candidate.

There’s also no hiding the personal enmity in the Republican race for McGeachin’s current job. House Speaker Scott Bedke and state Rep. Priscilla Giddings have been openly feuding for months. The fight began long before November, when Bedke and 48 other House colleagues censured Giddings for sharing an article that named “Jane Doe,” the former Statehouse intern who leveled a rape allegation against former Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, who was convicted last week.

Animus makes for great political theater — and would have made for must-see TV, had Little agreed to debate McGeachin, or if Giddings had agreed to debate Bedke.

But while these two grudge matches personalize the war between the Idaho Republican Party’s two factions, they can also distract attention from the bigger picture. Up and down the GOP ticket, this could be, potentially, a direction-changing election:

  • Will GOP voters stay the course in the state school superintendent’s race, embracing incumbent Sherri Ybarra’s emphasis on local control? Will they embrace former State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield’s message as a “change candidate,” or the more sharp shift toward school choice and parental rights pledged by Democratic lawmaker-turned-GOP hardliner Branden Durst?
  • Will 20-year Attorney General Lawrence Wasden win another GOP nomination, with his strict constitutionalist message and his pointed pledge to eschew made-for-Fox News legal grandstanding? Or will voters prefer the more activist approach that could come from Wasden’s challengers, former U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador or Coeur d’Alene attorney Art Macomber?
  • What will happen to a long list of key Republican lawmakers facing conservative challenges? The list includes a number of legislators who wield considerable influence over education budgets and education policy, such as Sens. Carl Crabtree and Jim Woodward. The list also includes several members of Statehouse GOP leadership ­— Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, Senate Majority Leader Kelly Anthon and House Majority Leader Mike Moyle — now facing challenges from the right.
  • By the same token, what will become of some of the favorites of the hardliners, such as Rep. Ron Nate, who has led the push to cut higher education budgets; Rep. Karey Hanks, who has pushed for an end to mask mandates; or Rep. Barbara Ehardt, who has made restrictions on transgender athletes her centerpiece issue? All three Eastern Idaho incumbents face challenges from former lawmakers.

There is nothing new about contested primaries in Idaho — where the Republican Party controls four-fifths of the Legislature, and hasn’t lost a statewide election in two decades. But the split between the Republican factions has never been more sharp.

Endorsements tell a lot of the story.

The Eagle-based ConservativesOf: PAC has embraced the hardliners who are more or less running as a ticket: McGeachin, Giddings, Labrador, Durst and secretary of state’s candidate Dorothy Moon. The Idaho Freedom Foundation-aligned Idaho Freedom PAC has endorsed an identical statewide lineup — although the group has endorsed in fewer legislative races.

The Take Back Idaho PAC — headed by former Attorney General Jim Jones, former House Speaker Bruce Newcomb and former Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, among other Republicans — have endorsed a more loosely aligned centrist slate: Little, Bedke, Wasden and secretary of state’s candidate Phil McGrane. The Idaho 97, a group that styles itself as a Freedom Foundation foil, has endorsed a nearly identical group of statewide and legislative candidates. (Among the differences: The Idaho 97 endorses Critchfield, while Take Back Idaho is silent in this race.)

In the absence of real competition from Democrats, Republicans are running this month for the right to the mantle of a party that wins the vast majority of Idaho elections.

After former GOP gubernatorial candidate Tommy Ahlquist wrote a guest opinion labeling the hardline candidates as dangerous extremists — who “publicly pledge allegiance to conservative values and drape themselves in the flag while they hijack our party to extremes that have reckless disregard for the people of Idaho, the Constitution and our values” — McGeachin took to Twitter to respond.

“LOSER gubernatorial candidate Tommy Ahlquist is trying to damage conservatives with his constant lies,” McGeachin tweeted. “Ahlquist is nothing more than a Romney/Brad Little Republican hell bent on being a spoiler for conservatives much like 2018 when he helped elect Little.”

The endorsers are no less pointed.

“We are confident that, by choosing Republicans with a commitment to service, we can move away from the politics of division, waste, and chaos,” Take Back Idaho says on its website, promoting its slate of candidates.

“The media try to characterize all of this as a battle between competing conservative factions of the Republican Party, that on one side of the war are ‘common sense conservatives’ and on the other state are ‘extremists,” wrote Freedom Foundation head Wayne Hoffman, donning his Freedom PAC hat. “Both (factions) call themselves ‘conservatives’ but one side is lying about it.”

This election won’t settle the war within the Idaho GOP. It’s safe to say that mainstreamers and hardliners will have enough wins on May 17 to return to their corners, posture to their bases and speak the universal language of post-election spin.

And to repeat this whole process, most likely, next election cycle.

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday. 

Kevin Richert

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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