Last fall, Matt Edwards, a conservative activist from Hayden, sent a pledge to 105 Idaho lawmakers.
By signing the declaration, lawmakers would pledge to support what he called medical freedom and privacy, election integrity and educational freedom. They would also swear not to raise taxes, suppress free speech or support government shutdowns.
“The onslaught of events in 2020 has drawn back the curtain to reveal an escalation of authoritarianism without accountability that is no longer ignorable,” Edwards wrote in a column published by Coeur d’Alene Press.
Only four senators from Idaho have signed the pledge. Since then, Edwards’ political action committee, Citizens Alliance of Idaho, with the help of other deep-pocketed right-wing reformers, has spent nearly $200,000 promoting opponents of the incumbent senator primary.
The pledge is emblematic of a wider divide in the Idaho GOP over conservative values. Amid a push to craft militant legislation in the House on the coronavirus pandemic and identity politics, the Senate remained unmoved. As a result, incumbent senators have been targeted by challengers who claim to be more conservative.
Next week’s primary election could well be a referendum for voters to decide the direction of the Senate.
“What do Republican voters want Republican elected officials to do in a deeply Republican place?” said Jeffrey Lyons, professor of political science at Boise State University. “Do they want them to buy into some of these things like limited state government intervention, or do they want the state government to be more militant in pursuing the issues that these people feel are important?
COVID-19, ‘woke’ culture remain key issues
A recent campaign ad titled Idaho Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, a “liberal” and included a photo of the two-term lawmaker wearing a surgical mask. The man responsible for the photoshopped image, Scott Herndon, a homebuilder and Bonner County GOP leader who is challenging Woodward in next week’s Republican primary, doesn’t deny that’s wrong.
The mask is meant to send a message, “to suggest that maybe he’s not always a Republican,” Herndon told the Statesman in a phone interview. “Maybe his philosophy aligns more with the Democratic Party.”
Herndon is one of several campaigns seeking to move the Idaho Senate to the right. While primaries often spur ideological debates, this year is different. Simmering tension within the GOP boiled over when the Senate blocked House bills targeting coronavirus restrictions, voting access and identity politics.
“It’s a pretty clear distinction between two different schools of thought within the Republican Party,” said Woodward, a Navy veteran who owns a heavy construction company and hopes to rein in property tax hikes during a third term in the Senate. Woodward pointed to endorsements from anti-abortion and gun rights groups to defend his conservatism.
“I think the Senate has great traditional Idaho values,” he said by phone. “Some of these objections made about bills that have been held up in the Senate, I don’t think represent the majority in Idaho. We seek long-term stability and predictability.
Many new faces in this year’s GOP primary attacked the incumbents’ record on “medical freedom,” a catch-all phrase that implies the government shouldn’t enforce public health mandates and “woke” the culture or critical race theory.
Brian Lenney, a California transplant for his first foray into Idaho politics, said in a campaign video that Sen. Jeff Agenbroad, R-Nampa, “votes like a California liberal.” Lenney criticized Agenbroad for voting in favor of budgets for educational programs that promote a “woke agenda,” “indoctrinating” Idaho children with “critical race theory.”
“It’s completely fucked up, completely,” Agenbroad told the Statesman by phone.
“Woke” is defined by Meriam-Webster as “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)”. Critical race theory recognizes that racism and enslavement of black Americans “continue to permeate” society, according to the American Bar Association.
Right-wing groups promote challengers
Thirteen of the Citizens Alliance of Idaho-backed candidates are running to unseat the incumbent senators.
That includes Woodward and Agenbroad, as well as Senate Republican leaders: Senate Pro Tem Chairman Chuck Winder, R-Boise; Majority Leader Kelly Anthon, R-Burley; Deputy Majority Leader Abby Lee, R-Fruitland; and Majority Caucus Chairman Mark Harris, R-Soda Springs.
None have signed the Edwards Pledge.
“I said to him, ‘No, I’m not signing your pledge, I’m going to represent the people of my district,'” Woodward said. “‘You’re asking me to blindly follow your ideals, and that’s the same as the Freedom Foundation.'”
Edwards did not return a call from the statesman seeking comment.
The committee backs three dozen candidates in total, and all but one — Bryan Smith, a board member of the Idaho Freedom Foundation who is running to unseat U.S. Representative Mike Simpson — are vying for a legislative seat. Among the candidates the committee has marketed is Eric Parker, the militia leader who rose to prominence for aiding Ammon Bundy’s family in an armed confrontation with the federal government.
Lyons said political advertising can be effective, especially in primaries when voters must choose between two members of the same party who typically align on most political issues.
“There’s no doubt that these groups…if they’re able to send shippers, help organize signage, run radio ads, can really matter,” he said. Lyons.
In two months, Citizens Alliance of Idaho raised over $350,000 from a few donors.
Donors include Doyle Beck, also a board member of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, and SMC Properties, an LLC whose director, Clint Siegner, is a director of the Money Metals Exchange. The silver and gold dealer in the past has supported GOP lawmakers who have proposed legislation to invest public funds in gold.
Most of the committee’s money – $232,000 – comes from the Citizens Alliance Political Action Committee, which is identified only by a Dublin, Ohio address on the campaign’s fundraising website. of the Idaho Secretary of State.
Federal records show the committee is managed by Robert Phillips, who also owns HenryAlan, an accounting and political consulting firm, according to the Ohio state records secretary.
Boise State Public Radio first reported the committee’s campaign spending last week. The report notes that Edwards promoted alternative COVID-19 treatments and pandemic conspiracy theories on social media.
For Bruce Newcomb, a former Republican Speaker of the House and a member of the anti-extremism group Take Back Idaho, next week’s election is a turning point for the Legislature.
“This is a turning point where people like Doyle Beck and the (Idaho Freedom Foundation) are finally losing steam,” he told the Statesman by phone. “And we’re starting to reverse what’s happened in the last few years and get back to solving the problems of the state.”
Activism versus pragmatism
Idaho Governor Brad Little recently told the Statesman that it’s a law of nature that a body splits when it gets too big. He was referring to the Idaho Republican Party, which dominates politics in the state but has cracked under the strain of the pandemic and partisan strife nationally.
This year’s primary highlighted these divisions.
“There’s just a lot of energy right now in the Republican Party, and on the right in general, which in many ways is to be expected,” Lyons said. The dial is often turned during midterm election years in the minority party in the federal government, he said.
With virtually no Democrats in local political strata, Republicans in Idaho have naturally turned inward, Lyons said.
“A lot of the rhetoric and discussion is about, ‘Are you a fighter? Will you fight the Democrats? Or, “How consistent and loyal are you to Republican values?”
A sticking point is how political leaders approach their work. Some are advocating for a more militant approach — fighting for everything they say is conservative values through legislation, Lyons said.
While the governor, who has generally — but not always — aligned himself with Senate leadership on key issues, such as vaccine mandates, advocates a hands-off approach — intervening in private business affairs is actually a big government, the argument goes.
“I think it was interpreted as being passive, or not being true conservative because we’re not fighting,” Lyons said.
Senators claim to be pragmatic when it comes to legislating. Internal bills that don’t get traction in the Senate often have “too many unintended consequences,” Agenbroad said. House Bill 666, for example, which would have held librarians liable for distributing “harmful material” to minors, while relying on a nice premise, “significantly missed the mark,” Agenbroad said. .
“Put librarians in jail is not the solution,” he said.
Ultimately, the Conservatives competing in the primary are more alike than different, candidates on both sides said. The electoral process is “good for everyone,” Herndon said, “because it sharpens our arguments and our ideas.”
And primal vitriol, though “wicked, vicious and vindictive,” should make better lawmakers, Agenbroad said.