Analysis: A flood of third-party money flows through the 2024 legislative primaries


Heading into the May 21 primary, Idaho’s legislative campaigns are costly and convoluted.

Maybe moreso than ever.

And not just because of the considerable money the candidates are raising and spending. At least 21 legislative candidates have cobbled together more than $50,000 into their campaigns so far this election cycle, according to Idaho Education News’ analysis. For their Panhandle primary rematch, current state Sen. Scott Herndon and former state Sen. Jim Woodward have collected more than $230,000, and counting.

And on top of this, independent groups are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the primary — mostly on negative ads and mailers. This isn’t new — the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision opened a revolving door of unlimited third-party spending.

As Boise State University political science professor Jaclyn Kettler watches the state’s campaign website — poring through the new independent reports that are coming in, several times a day — even she has been taken aback by this year’s traffic.

“This is way more,” she said Wednesday.

Some sunshine report snapshots

Let’s follow the dollars — or at least some of them — through a few of the recent reports:

  • The Idaho Federation for Children PAC — which actually lists a Columbia, Md., mailing address — has spent nearly $228,000 on the primaries. More than $166,000 has gone into negative campaigning against three House Republicans: Reps. Richard Cheatum of Pocatello; Melissa Durrant of Kuna; and Kenny Wroten of Nampa. In March, the three lawmakers cast pivotal votes in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, helping to kill a controversial bill to create a $50 million private school tax credit and grant program.
  • Boise-based Right 2 Learn describes itself as a Republican group that opposes siphoning public dollars into private schools. The group has raised $100,000, half from the Idaho Education Association’s political arm. So far, Right 2 Learn’s spending has been sparing but strategic. The group has spent more than $11,000 on behalf of Ammon Mayor Sean Coletti, a staunch opponent of private school spending that falls under the loose heading of school choice. Coletti is challenging Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, a sponsor of the private school tax credit bill that died in committee.
  • Melaleuca, an Idaho Falls-based corporation, is weighing in on the same race, with about $5,900. Only $300 went into pro-Horman messaging. Another $300 targeted Coletti. The balance, $5,302, targeted the third candidate in this primary: Idaho Falls attorney Bryan Smith. A hardline conservative with Idaho Freedom Foundation ties, Smith is a longtime adversary of Melaleuca CEO Frank VanderSloot, a well-heeled Republican donor.
  • The Boise-based Idaho Families PAC — headed by Emily McClure, a longtime lobbyist for charter schools — has given money to a smattering of lawmakers of both parties, and is actively campaigning for Rep. David Cannon, R-Blackfoot. In January, the PAC received a $1 million contribution from Joseph B. Scott of Boise.
  • House Speaker Mike Moyle is getting pushback, and backup, from independent groups. A Washington, D.C.-based group, Retire Career Politicians, has spent $76,000 in an attempt to oust Moyle, R-Star, the Legislature’s senior member. The Eagle-based Sound Money Defense League has reported spending more than $8,300 supporting Moyle’s run for a 14th term. 

The Liberty PAC vs. the hardline conservatives

The most prolific and polarizing independent group of this election could be the Boise-based Idaho Liberty PAC.

Since April, the PAC has reported more than $884,000 in spending. The majority of that money has been spent on negative campaigning — and in races pitting hardline conservative senators against more moderate Republicans:

  • District 10: $133,641 opposing Sen. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton; $20,456 supporting Lori Bishop of Middleton.
  • District 11: $131,443 opposing Sen. Chris Trakel, R-Caldwell; $18,258 supporting Camille Blaylock of Caldwell.
  • District 13: $132,284 opposing Sen. Brian Lenney, R-Nampa; $19,099 supporting former Sen. Jeff Agenbroad of Nampa.
  • District 24: $86,730 against Sen. Glenneda Zuiderveld, R-Twin Falls; $57,974 supporting Alax Caval of Twin Falls.

The negative messaging says the incumbents have failed to support law enforcement. As KTVB’s Andrew Baertlein reported earlier this week, the ads focused on two 2023 votes, including votes on a $1 million supplemental budget for the University of Idaho.

The spending bill provided the U of I with money to cover costs stemming from a November 2022 quadruple homicide — costs including, but not limited to, law enforcement. The spending bill passed, over the objections of hardline conservatives.

Nichols, Lenney and Zuiderveld have all taken to X, the social media platform formally known as Twitter, to decry the ad blitz. Zuiderveld has said the “trash ads” lead straight to Gov. Brad Little.

At the very least, there’s a connection between Idaho Liberty PAC and business interests that reliably align with the governor. In March 2023, the Friends of Brad Little political committee contributed $500,000 to the Idaho Victory Fund.  The victory fund, in turn, has contributed $660,000 to the Idaho Liberty PAC.

What’s in it for candidates and donors?

Independent groups are supposed to campaign independently. In other words, they are not allowed to coordinate with the candidates they support.

But that doesn’t mean the candidates don’t benefit from their outside supporters. The independent groups can essentially wind up playing the role of bad cop — going on the attack while the candidates spend their money playing up their records and resumes.

“It really kind of alleviates the candidates from having to go negative,” Kettler said.

Donors, meanwhile, are unshackled from spending limits. They can give only $1,000 to a candidate for the primary, and another $1,000 for the general election. When it comes to independent spending, the sky is the limit.

It also gives donors a chance to double down. VanderSloot and his wife Belinda have already made maximum $1,000 donations to Horman; the independent donations give them a second bite at the same high-profile primary. The same goes for Sound Money Defense League, which shares a post office box with SMC Properties; SMC and its North Carolina-based CEO, Stefan Gleason, have already made maximum $1,000 donations to Moyle.

But a flood of third-party money can quickly present a huge challenge to even a well-known candidate.

Consider the case of Retire Career Politicians. The group is operating under a veil of secrecy; as of Thursday, the secretary of state’s election page has posted no information about the group, its leadership and its funding sources. Meanwhile, this group has put a landscape-changing $76,000 into a challenge to Moyle — getting at least within shouting distance of the $104,426 the speaker had in his war chest on April 30.

“It’s a fairly shocking amount of money,” Kettler said of the $76,000.

But … does it work?

Speaking to reporters last week, Little said the increased cost of legislative campaigns gives him some pause. But he doesn’t necessarily think the independent spenders have outsized influence.

“I have confidence in the voters of Idaho, that when they see all the facts and look at what’s out there, that they will react accordingly,” he said.

Nationally, the jury is out, Kettler said.

Campaign advertising tends to be effective. Negative advertising also tends to be effective. But 14 years removed from Citizens United, there just isn’t enough sample size to say whether the independent spenders are effective.

Which suggests that Idaho’s spending trend is unlikely to change any time soon. As long as outside groups and their supporters think they can swing the outcome of a competitive race, there’s not likely to be a shortage of donors.

Especially if, after May 21, these donors believe they’d scored some wins and settled some old grudges.

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

Disclosure: Joseph B. Scott is chairman of the board of the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, which funds Idaho Education News.

More reading: Click here for more elections news and our online voter guide. And click here for more about legislative candidate fundraising, from the Idaho Capital Sun.

Kevin Richert

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 "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]

Get EdNews in your inbox

Weekly round up every Friday