In the fight for the Republican nomination to be Idaho’s next schools chief, local GOP central committees have served as both battlegrounds and campaign allies.
Repeating the past, local party officials have platformed candidates as they court the registered Republicans they must win over in a closed primary. Branden Durst and Debbie Critchfield have traveled the state in campaigns more than a year in the making, meeting with party officials and pitching their challenges to incumbent Sherri Ybarra. Ybarra has joined them on stage in at least six public forums, and visited a local GOP group months before announcing a reelection bid.
Breaking from the past, a handful of county parties have picked sides in a year where Idaho Republicans remain starkly split between hardliners and mainstream candidates. And by some accounts, a unique primary has changed the election trail itself.
“It’s an interesting dynamic to go as a candidate to places that have already endorsed an opponent before you even showed up,” said Critchfield, former president of the Idaho State Board of Education.
Some county GOPs look to swing the race. Most stick to tradition.
Local Republican parties have taken the unusual step of donating to their preferred candidates in a batch of primaries this spring, drawing the ire of the state party and stirring dissent among candidates.
But of the eight county parties that have donated in statewide races, only one chipped in for a superintendent candidate’s campaign, when the Bonneville County GOP gave $5,000 to Durst. Elmore, Lewis, Custer, Bonner, Clearwater, Benewah and Kootenai counties have all donated to other hardliners, including Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s gubernatorial campaign, McGeachin ally Art Macomber’s attorney general run, White Bird Republican Rep. Priscilla Giddings’ lieutenant governor run, and Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, in her run for secretary of state.
Financial backing isn’t the only lever local parties have used to try to tilt the race, though. The Kootenai County GOP issued endorsements of hardliners this year, including Durst, in an apparent bid to sway the race. Durst has also touted an endorsement from the Adams County GOP on social media, though EdNews was unable to verify its authenticity. Durst did not respond to an interview request for this story, and Adams GOP Chairman Christopher Boyd couldn’t be reached for comment.
The majority of local parties, 36, have followed tradition — and in many cases, their own bylaws — by remaining neutral in the primaries. The unprecedentedly high number of parties that made endorsements have raised the eyebrows of not only candidates who weren’t endorsed, but of state GOP Chairman Tom Luna. Luna requested that the Bonneville County GOP remedy the violation of its own bylaws that its donations caused, the Post Register reported; the local party responded by removing a bylaw that prohibited itself from making donations to primary election candidates — and then ratified donations that had broken the bylaw, EastIdahoNews.com reported.
“We can now make donations in any race, from dog catcher to President of the United States,” GOP committee chair Mark Fuller said.
Former state Rep. Britt Raybould is a party official in Madison County, where the GOP hasn’t made any such donations. In her race to unseat Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, Nate received $1,000 from the Bonneville County GOP; she likened the financial favoritism of candidates to unfair election practices in communist countries in a recent interview with EdNews. State Rep. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, who is running for secretary of state, penned a scathing op-ed denouncing “Republican cancel culture” after the Kootenai County GOP endorsed her opponent, Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley.
“They are driving a stake through the heart of the party, creating deep divisions, and pitting friends against friends,” Souza wrote.
Dissatisfaction in the superintendent’s race is no different.
“It’s surprising that a central committee would weigh in on a Republican primary for Republican candidates and essentially want to speak for the voters of an entire county,” Critchfield told EdNews.
“Bonneville County, as an example, in my own race has chosen to endorse someone who is a career politician as a Democrat … and sought office as a Democrat in Washington,” she said, criticizing Durst, a former Democratic state senator, for his change of party.
Durst has spoken glowingly of his endorsements on social media.
“Thanks to the (Bonneville GOP) for taking your responsibility as stewards of the GOP brand seriously and making sure voters know which candidates are real conservative Republicans,” Durst tweeted. “Too many candidates claim to be GOP, but then get endorsed by anti-GOP groups.”
Local party officials leading the endorsement charge were mum on their decisions.
Asked how the Bonneville County GOP hopes to influence the race, Fuller told EdNews, “We do have some things we have planned, but I’m not going to tell them to you.”
He declined to comment further.
Kootenai County GOP Chairman Brent Regan declined a phone interview but offered to answer questions by email. He then didn’t respond to emailed questions.
The Latah County GOP has taken a more traditional approach, declining to endorse primary candidates financially or otherwise.
“Philosophically, we’ve taken a position that if we start to endorse candidates, and then push for those candidates without acknowledging other candidates that may be in the race, we’re taking away the voice of the voters in our district,” Latah GOP Chairman Dan Schoenberg told EdNews by phone last month.
Schoenberg doesn’t know of any time his county has issued a primary endorsement in a statewide race. And across the state, local endorsements have made this election an outlier.
“There may have been one or two counties in the past that have done something of that nature, but not to the extent that we’re seeing this year,” Schoenberg said.
Local precincts plotted prominently on the campaign map
Most local parties have engaged with superintendent candidates more traditionally, offering them chances to speak and sharing information on all three contenders. Much of that candidate-party interaction has happened on the Lincoln Days circuit, a series of events in which local parties host guest speakers and, often, candidates.
Critchfield, said last month that she’s only missed three Lincoln Days events, and has leaned on her massive fundraising edge to pay for time to speak to members as a minority of local Republican parties require. That’s been one piece of a campaign blitz that has included visits to 50 schools, purchasing Hulu ads, and introducing herself to strangers at gas stations, she said.
Durst and Ybarra have clocked plenty of face time with local party officials, too. Look no further than Ybarra’s visit to Kootenai County last winter, when she quickly brought up critical race theory, and said she had “heard your concerns about some of our worst offenders, like the Coeur d’Alene School District.” (She’d later qualified the claim through a spokesperson, saying she’d only heard concerns about critical race theory in Coeur d’Alene, EdNews reported).
Ybarra hadn’t yet announced her reelection bid, but her campaign-mode tone was unmistakable as she addressed a county that proved crucial in her last election victory.
Ultimately, the Kootenai Central Committee would throw its weight behind Durst, who has alleged widespread leftist indoctrination in public schools. Ybarra and Critchfield, conversely, have said they have not seen evidence of critical race theory — an academic concept that has become a catchall in conservative circles for leftist teachings — in Idaho schools.
Ybarra didn’t officially launch her campaign until late February of 2022, though, just weeks before the filing deadline, giving her around a year less to tout her record at local GOP events. Broquelle Chafetz, a spokesperson for Ybarra’s campaign did not respond to an interview request.
Though the superintendent’s campaign has run through local GOPs, candidates have taken multiple chances to speak to the broader public.
In those nonpartisan venues, the field has appeared divided. Those divisions flashed in a KTVB debate, when both Durst and Critchfield declined to say whether they’d support the eventual GOP nominee if they lose the race; Ybarra said she would, calling herself the “adult in the room.”
The nominee, to be decided May 17, will face off against former Idaho Education Association president and lone Democrat Terry Gilbert in the general election.
Further reading: Hear directly from the candidates in our questionnaire.
Idaho Education News reporter Devin Bodkin contributed to this story.