Analysis: Another rift within the GOP comes into plain public view


The Idaho Republican Party logo hangs outside the door to the Idaho Republican Party primary celebration on May 17, 2022. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Idahoans are accustomed to infighting between the Republican Party’s mainstream and hardline factions.

What unfolded this week, just days before the May 21 primary, was something quite different. A split within the GOP’s hardline. It’s great theater. By next week, we’ll know if it has any impact at the polls — and maybe, any impact on Statehouse policy.

The drama blew wide open Monday, when Daniel Walters of Investigate West broke a remarkable and courageous story illustrating the hardline rift. (Calling the story “courageous,” by the way, is not hyperbole; the Idaho State Police has warned Investigate West that it could be criminally liable for publishing the story, which hinges on a secret recording.)

The recording pulls back the curtain on a tense two-hour conversation between two of Idaho’s most prominent hardliners: state Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, and Maria Nate, Idaho director of the State Freedom Caucus Network and the secretary of the Idaho Republican Party. If Walters’ article only wove the narrative of a heated, profane meeting, it would be a must-read on that basis alone. But the story maps out a collision course between endorsements and money.

Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard

Scott tells Nate that conservatives are planning to publicly endorse House Speaker Mike Moyle, much to Nate’s dismay. Such a move could have “very, very devastating” ramifications, said Nate, who then referenced Young Americans for Liberty, a Texas-based group that was planning to sink $1.1 million into Idaho elections.

It’s not yet clear whether that $1.1 million will materialize. But it is clear that Moyle is YAL’s top target.

Make Liberty Win, a group that lists YAL as a donor, has spent about $466,000 in Idaho elections, according to state sunshine reports analyzed by Idaho Education News. The group has spent about $81,000 on negative messaging against Moyle, R-Star.

Make Liberty Win isn’t acting alone. As EdNews first reported last week, a Washington, D.C., group, Retire Career Politicians, has sunk its own $76,000 into an anti-Moyle campaign. This group’s funding sources remain shadowy. The Idaho secretary of state’s office has asked Retire Career Politicians to register in Idaho. In a letter to the state Tuesday, obtained by EdNews, treasurer Christopher Koob said the fledgling organization would file its initial disclosure reports with the Federal Election Commission by Monday — a day before Idaho’s primary.

Maria Nate

The paper trail, involving both Make Liberty Win and Retire Career Politiicans, illustrate a rift over allegiances. Scott and some of her colleagues were ready to throw their support behind Moyle because, as Walters reported, they see him as an ally as conservatives seek traction in the Statehouse. But two well-funded out-of-state groups — with, presumably, at least some encouragement from within Idaho — see Moyle as a 26-year politico who is too deeply ingrained in the mainstream.

A day after Walters’ story broke, 16 hardline lawmakers joined the fray. In a two-page letter, shared over social media, the lawmakers withdrew from YAL and its Hazlitt Coalition, a national network of legislators. The move leaves only one Idaho lawmaker aligned with YAL: Sen. Dan Foreman, R-Viola.

It doesn’t take a decoder ring to figure out the lawmakers’ self-interest. They criticize YAL for attacking some hardline allies in the Statehouse, while failing to mobilize and provide financial support for “liberty-oriented legislators” facing tough primaries.

“We as liberty legislators are unsure of your agenda, and believe that creating this chaos and confusion for conservative voters is unproductive and damaging,” they wrote.

Let’s break down this letter a bit, again using the sunshine reports as illumination. Fully a third of Make Liberty Win’s $466,000 has gone into two spending campaigns: the $81,000 targeting Moyle, and $75,000 targeting Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise. (This is purely an anti-leadership campaign, as Make Liberty Win hasn’t spent any money on behalf of Rachel Hazelip, Moyle’s primary opponent, or Joshua Keyser, Winder’s GOP opponent.)

Winder has publicly reprimanded and demoted three colleagues who signed Tuesday’s letter to YAL: Sens. Scott Herndon of Sagle, Brian Lenney of Nampa and Glenneda Zuiderveld of Twin Falls. It’s unlikely the three are shedding any tears over a campaign against Winder, but all three are facing difficult and high-priced primaries of their own next week. Any dollar spent against Winder is a dollar that can’t go into another primary. Hence, perhaps, the group’s collective frustration with Make Liberty Win.

In an election defined by a deluge of independent spending, it’s hard to predict how all of this money will affect Tuesday’s results.

Based on the 2022 election, Moyle and Winder aren’t exactly invulnerable. They won their primaries with 56% and 54% of the vote, respectively. It might take nothing less than a high-priced negative campaign to oust a state legislative leader — but ousting a state legislative leader is probably just the kind of national splash an out-of-state interest group would like to make.

If Winder and/or Moyle lost next week, it would clearly have a significant impact on Statehouse politics. But that also holds true, in sum, for the 50 other contested Republican primaries on Tuesday’s ballot. These races — including a number of likely nail-biters — could swing the balance of power on the Legislature’s education, tax and budget committees. The outcomes could have a profound effect on what the 2025 Legislature does with private school tax credits, or anything else that falls under the banner of school choice.

With so much on the line, on school choice and other topics, it’s no surprise that a host of independent groups are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on these primaries. Make Liberty Win is no small player. But it is just one of several players.

The big-money PAC is more or less falling along ideological lines — with groups supporting mainstream or hardline tickets, depending on their points of view. That’s fitting. Tuesday’s primary shapes up as another showdown between the GOP’s mainstreamers and hardliners. This week’s news doesn’t change that.

But the rift along the GOP’s right flank can’t be dismissed, either. It’s more than a one-week story.

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

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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]

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