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Who’s the Trumpiest: Idaho GOP candidates embrace President Trump, despite earlier concerns

Many Idaho GOP candidates who are running in the May 15 Republican primary have been hailing Republican President Donald Trump, the Idaho Statesman reports, though many didn’t support him when he was vying against other GOP hopefuls for the nomination for president; Idaho actually went for Ted Cruz in the  GOP presidential primary, not Trump. Many of the Idaho candidates expressed deep concern about Trump as he first sought office, including after the Access Hollywood tape revealed his past comments about women; but now they’re singing his praises as president.

The Statesman queried an array of Idaho GOP candidates about Trump, and 14 responded. Just two had voted for Trump back in the 2016 presidential primary: Janice McGeachin and Nick Henderson; candidate Michael Snyder said he favored Trump then, but didn't vote in the Idaho primary. All but two, however, voted for him for president in November of 2016; the two exceptions wrote in other Republicans.

Here’s the Statesman’s full report:

Few Idaho candidates backed Trump in early 2016. Now, many invoke his name.

By Cynthia Sewell, Idaho Statesman

In a recent ad, Idaho congressional candidate Russ Fulcher touts his accolades while his mom throws in wry comments.

When Fulcher states, "That’s why I will support President Trump’s agenda," his mom pipes in: "Ooh, can you introduce me to President Trump?"

A Raul Labrador ad proclaims the candidate for governor "stood with Trump when others wouldn’t."

"Tommy Ahlquist is so liberal he wouldn't even vote for Donald Trump over Hillary," states a Brad Little attack ad on his gubernatorial opponent.

A number of Idaho Republicans clearly want voters to associate them with Trump ahead of next month's primaries. But some of the candidates are treading carefully, avoiding an inconvenient truth: They didn't necessarily vote for him in 2016, when his candidacy polarized the GOP.

Some candidates are now sparring over who can claim Trump. Others are quietly trying to avoid the topic altogether.

The Idaho Statesman queried 15 GOP primary candidates from three highly contested races— U.S. House, governor and lieutenant governor — on whom they supported in the 2016 presidential election and their opinion on the new president’s performance.

Who voted for Trump?

Idahoans selected Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2016 GOP presidential primary, not Trump.

Cruz received 45.4 percent of the vote. Trump received 28.1 percent, followed by Sen. Marco Rubio with 15.9 percent.

Among the 14 GOP candidates who responded to the Statesman’s questions, just two said they voted for Trump in the presidential primary: Janice McGeachin and Nick Henderson. Congressional candidate Michael Snyder said he favored Trump, but didn't cast a ballot in the primary because he was traveling. 

The others were fairly evenly split among Cruz, Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Steve Yates, a candidate for lieutenant governor, was Idaho GOP party chairman during the primary. He said as a result he had to remain neutral, and still today will not publicly say who he voted for.

And congressional candidate Alex Gallegos did not vote in the 2016 election cycle due to missing absentee voting deadlines while on active military duty — a challenge for many in the armed forces, he said.

In the fall 2016 election, Trump received nearly 60 percent of the Idaho vote. Just two of the current 13 candidates chose not to vote for him: Ahlquist wrote in Rubio, and U.S. House contender Luke Malek wrote in Evan McMullin.

Both Ahlquist and Malek cited the president’s treatment of women as a factor in their decision not to support him.

Ahlquist has repeatedly cited the "Access Hollywood" tape as his motivation. Ada County election officials confirm they received his absentee ballot on Oct. 7, the same day the Washington Post released its story on the 2005 video of Trump bragging about kissing and groping women. Ahlquist told the Statesman the ballot was hand-delivered, not mailed; the county said there's no way to verify that now.

“It’s been very interesting for where do you go from here,” Ahlquist told the Statesman a few days later. “For me it gets very personal. I have children. I have three young girls. I worked as an ER doctor for years and took care of victims of sexual assault. My moral compass does not let me go there, so I can’t support Donald Trump.”

By the time Trump’s first State of the Union rolled around, Ahlquist had taken a more supportive view of the president, invoking Trump's "outsider" status in what became a common comparison by his campaign.

“I congratulate President Trump on both his first State of the Union address and all that he has accomplished in the last year,” he said in a news release. “... Tonight is proof of what can be accomplished by a political outsider to shake up the status quo and bring a fresh approach and new ideas.”

Malek first publicly expressed his displeasure with Trump more than one year before the primary.

During an Aug. 6, 2015, GOP presidential primary debate, then-Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly questioned Trump about his treatment of women. The next day, Trump told CNN Kelly was asking him “ridiculous questions.”

“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever. In my opinion, she was off base,” Trump said then.

That same day, Malek tweeted: “No amount of telling-it-like-it-is excuses misogyny. @realDonaldTrump can go to hell.”

Malek confirmed to the Statesman that Trump’s statements regarding women prompted the tweet.

Today, Malek commends Trump on issues like cutting mining regulations, and said he looks forward to working with the president on health care reform.

"I think his approach is different than mine will ever be, but as someone who values my own authentic approach to issues, I have come to really appreciate the way he owns his unique approach," Malek said.

What do they say now?

Congressional candidate David Leroy's new TV ad echoes the language that helped propel Trump to victory.

"Washington, D.C., is a swamp," he proclaims. "I'm running for Congress to help President Trump," he adds later.

Leroy, who voted for Rubio, has offered supportive but mixed views of Trump over time. In a 2016 post-election column he wrote the president "seems educable." He told the Statesman the following May that if elected, he would "work with the president, even though I don't always appreciate everything he does, or especially everything he says." And to the Lewiston Tribune last fall, he welcomed Trump's role as "a change-agent."

Leroy and others who didn't back Trump in the primary now point to their fall 2016 support for the GOP ticket as a sign of how they rallied behind him.

Three candidates in particular either formally joined Trump’s team or hit the campaign trail.

“My desire to see Trump prevail prompted me to servd as 1st vice-chair of the Trump Idaho Team and I served as one of the Trump delegates on behalf of Idaho to the 2016 RNC Convention in Cleveland, Ohio,” said McGeachin, running for lieutenant governor.

None of the other candidates served as a Trump delegate.

Yates as state party chair was an official national surrogate for the campaign, defending Trump in the national media.

“I was the first statewide official in Idaho to make a public statement in support of President Trump when he became the presumptive nominee, and one of the few who made a public statement of support after the Access Hollywood video was released,” said Yates, who also served as a subcommittee co-chairman on the National Platform Committee at the Cleveland Convention.

Labrador came out strong for Rand Paul and later, Cruz. But he put his support behind Trump during the final months of the campaign. He traveled with now-Vice President Mike Pence to Utah, accompanied Donald Trump Jr. to Arizona, and appeared with Trump at four Florida events.

“At all but two stops in Florida, there were no other members of Congress willing to stand alongside Trump, which made my presence and support even more important,” Labrador said.

Both Labrador's congressional seat and his position within a conservative faction of the House have provided him the most interaction with Trump of all the candidates.

Since Trump was elected president, Labrador has met with him at least a half dozen times. In December 2016, Labrador traveled to Trump Tower where president-elect Trump interviewed him for a cabinet position. In December 2017, Labrador and fellow House members met with Trump to to present an immigration reform plan.

Now that Trump is 15 months into his first term, all of the candidates the Statesman queried are singing his praises. At most, they're willing to weave in constructive criticism.

"Although I’m not enamored with his character, I love the disruption he brings to D.C. politics as usual," said Marv Hagedorn, running for lieutenant governor.

When asked how Trump could improve, House contender Christy Perry said: "He should stop tweeting in the middle of the night."

Idaho more likely to see a Trump bump

President Donald J. Trump and his unconventional presidency have become a central issue in the national midterms.

Since taking office, Trump has already endorsed or campaigned for four GOP candidates who ended up losing. Alabama senate-hopeful Roy Moore, Virginia governor candidate Ed Gillepsie and Pennsylvania congressional candidate Rick Saccone lost to their Democratic challengers. Luther Strange lost in an Alabama senate GOP primary.

But Idaho remains steadfast in its support of the president. Idahoans gave Trump a 52 percent approval rating as of March, according to a national poll by Morning Consult.

“As a solid red state, Idaho’s attitudes toward Trump are friendlier than the national average, and he’s still quite popular among Republicans,” said Justin Vaughn, director, Center for Idaho History and Politics at Boise State University.

And the four national races above aren't necessarily a sign of trouble for anyone who invokes the president, he said.

“I don’t think this pattern is a referendum on Trump just because of the unique nature of each of these outcomes, but they do show the limits of a personality-driven president’s brand,” Vaughn said. “Barack Obama had similar difficulty mobilizing voters when he himself wasn’t on the ballot.”

Nationally, Trump may become more of a political liability in the fall.

“Come fall, there will be various Trump-centric reasons why he’s a liability, scandals, perhaps economic volatility, supporter fatigue, etc.," said Vaughn. "But it is also important to remember that, with only one or two exceptions, most presidents fare poorly in midterm elections and are often seen by their fellow party members as electoral liabilities when they are in a close race and the context favors the other side. Case in point: Bill Clinton in 1994.”

For now, in Idaho, flocking to Trump is an expected move, Vaughn said, but will also only boost a candidate by so much.

“I expect most Republican candidates to indicate positive positions on Trump — the question is just how positive and how much of their candidacy is based on being a Trump supporter. Basing the bulk of your candidacy on being the most Trump-like is a path to get some votes, but most Republican voters are going to want to hear more than just that.”



Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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