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Idaho Democrats worried about extremism face tough choice: Stick with their party or register as Republicans so they can vote in the GOP primary?

UPDATED: Sun., Feb. 20, 2022

As soon as the 2020 election was over, the chair of the Kootenai County Democratic Central Committee registered as a Republican.

It wasn’t that Laura Tenneson had a change of heart. She still feels “much closer to aligning with the Democratic platform,” but the Coeur d’Alene resident said she wanted to have a say in choosing a governor and other races that, in ruby-red Idaho, are essentially decided in the GOP primary, which is closed to anyone not registered as a Republican.

“We have such a faction of far-right Republicans in both Kootenai County and the state of Idaho,” Tenneson said, “and there’s no way to work against those people without registering as a Republican in the primaries and voting for their opponents.”

It’s a conundrum other Idaho liberals and moderates are wrestling with as GOP candidates such as Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin – who has feuded with Gov. Brad Little, her fellow Republican, over COVID-19 policies and is running to unseat him – have embraced militias and other far-right groups. Should they cross party lines to support Little, who is still a staunch conservative, or support Democratic candidates despite living in a state where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 4-to-1?

Cathy Kraus, Tenneson’s friend and a precinct captain in Coeur d’Alene for the Kootenai County Democrats, said she understands why some left-leaning voters choose to register as Republicans, but she worries the phenomenon makes the GOP appear even more dominant than it really is in the state.

“My point of view is that it skews our numbers, it’s bad optics and in the long run it hurts our party,” Kraus said. “I think you should vote your values and not play this game.”

Evan Koch, chair of the Kootenai County Democratic Central Committee since Tenneson stepped down in 2020, said Democrats have been registering as Republicans at least since the Idaho GOP successfully sued the state in 2011 to close the party’s primary. While it’s unclear what impact that has on Republican candidates, he said it has side effects for Democrats.

“I don’t think we know exactly how many people are doing it, and that’s part of the problem,” Koch said. “It skews the voter registration rolls to the point where we think there are a whole lot more Republicans here than there really are, and it makes it look as if the Democrats have a higher hill to climb than they really do, and makes some of us feel as if their vote doesn’t count.”

A survey conducted in November by the Idaho Policy Institute at Boise State University found nearly 22% of Idaho adults consider themselves liberal, but less than 14% of voters in the state were registered as Democrats in that same month, according to data from the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office. That suggests some liberals are either registered Republicans or among the roughly 31% of Idaho voters who are not affiliated with any party.

While more than 53% of voters were registered Republicans at the time, the survey found only about 37% of voters consider themselves Republicans. Nearly half of those surveyed, however, identified as conservative.

Matthew May, a research scholar at BSU’s Idaho Policy Institute who directed the survey, said that because candidates try to appeal to the majority of voters, shifting to a closed primary tends to produce more “ideologically pure” candidates.

Brent Regan, chairman of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, said he sees two possible reasons for Democrats to vote in the GOP primary.

“One explanation would be that given that the democrat party has taken a hard left into Socialist, Marxist extremist territory, it is not surprising that many traditional democrats are walking away from the party,” Regan wrote in an email. “The second explanation is that the democrats recognize that they are essentially incapable of producing a nominee for the general election that can actually win.”

In the latter case, Regan said, Democrats may be seeking “to promote fake Republicans” rather than elevate their own candidates.

Jared DeLoof, executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party, said while he expects only a small number of Democrats will ultimately vote in the GOP primary, the discussion is a sign of how desperate some left-leaning and moderate voters are feeling.

“There is a lot of talk about it, that is for sure,” DeLoof said. “And the reason there’s so much conversation about it is because people are looking at the direction of the Republican Party here in Idaho, and the extent to which it has gone so far to the right so quickly has a lot of people looking around and going, ‘What can we actually do to keep our state from going totally off the rails?’ ”

Markie McBrayer, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Idaho, said research has shown it doesn’t usually have a significant effect on the outcome when voters participate in another party’s primary, partly because most “crossover voters” sincerely prefer the candidate they picked in the primary and stick with that candidate in the November election.

Democrats aren’t the only ones who are concerned about the direction of the Idaho GOP. Last fall, a group of former elected officials and other moderate Republicans founded Take Back Idaho, a political action committee that aims to oppose more extremist candidates in the GOP primary.

Jennifer Ellis, a southeast Idaho rancher and chairman of Take Back Idaho, said the group is less interested in getting Democrats to change party affiliation than in mobilizing the state’s more than 310,000 unaffiliated voters, who can register as Republicans up to this year’s May 17 primary.

A bill in the state Legislature that would have moved that deadline up to March 11 will not move forward this year, its main sponsor told the Idaho Capital Sun on Feb. 1.

“The extremist drift that has taken hold over the last eight to 10 years has become very, very noticeable now to Republican voters,” Ellis said, adding that her group is focused on reaching people who were reliable GOP voters before the primary was closed but who identify as independent.

State Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, said many Idaho voters are conservative but don’t register as Republicans because they are tired of partisan politics. He will likely need the help of those voters to overcome a primary challenge from Bonner County GOP Chairman Scott Herndon, who has raised far more money than Woodward.

“They are traditional conservative Idahoans who don’t want a brand on their back,” Woodward wrote in an email. “These are people who desire the level-headed, independent thinking Idaho we’ve always enjoyed. The result is an unaffiliated voter who lives traditional Republican values but doesn’t want to be associated with a far-right faction of the party.”

Alicia Abbott, a voter outreach strategist at the Idaho 97 Project, an advocacy group that runs phone bank operations to encourage voters to back moderate candidates , agreed that independent voters are likely to have a far greater effect on the GOP primary than Democrats could, even if most of them registered as Republicans.

“There just simply aren’t enough Democrats in our state for that to be a realistic strategy,” Abbott said. “But we do think it’s really important that conservatives weigh in on our conservative leadership, so we are just reminding unaffiliated voters that they won’t see candidates on their ballot unless they affiliate with one of the parties on election day.”

Ellis said her message to those voters is, “Do you agree with this us-versus-them, vitriolic, juvenile approach to politics in Idaho, or do you want to get back to having real grown-ups over there making the hard decisions about replacing bridges and making sure we have teachers stay in this state?”

Education has become a galvanizing issue for Democrats and moderate Republicans alike, especially after the Idaho’s Legislature, increasingly dominated by right-wing lawmakers focused on “culture war” issues, voted narrowly last March to reject a nearly $6 million federal grant that would have funded preschool programs in the state. State Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, who is running for lieutenant governor, led the opposition to the funding by arguing it could be used to teach children lessons that don’t align with conservative values.

Teresa Borrenpohl, a Democrat from Post Falls running for the State House of Representatives, said that move – the House rejected the grant by a vote of 36 to 34 – shows the need for more “honest brokers” from either party in Boise.

“It was so disappointing, and that one vote could be me in North Idaho, could be another Democrat or even a moderate Republican,” Borrenpohl said. “It should be an honest broker, not necessarily a Democrat or Republican.”

Borrenpohl, who said she decided to run for office because she was tired of not seeing candidates on the ballot who represented her vision for Idaho, said she understands why some Democrats choose to vote in the GOP primary but wants to see Republicans support more moderate candidates on their own.

“There is a really good argument to be made for that, because we don’t want to go down an extremist path,” she said. “However, it shouldn’t be the job of Democrats to solve what extremist Republicans have created in our state.”

Tenneson said she has sat down with her non-Republican friends, who are divided on the issue of crossover voting, and she understands the arguments against it.

But she feels it’s more important to have a say in choosing the Republican candidates who end up on the ballot in November, and to vote in local races in North Idaho where Democrats often don’t field any candidates.

“If it’s only a matter of numbers on paper, that doesn’t matter to me nearly as much as who’s running our state and who’s making our laws,” she said. “I will continue to register as a Republican because I think the future of Idaho is much more important than how many Democrats appear on a piece of paper.”

Shelby Rognstad, the mayor of Sandpoint and a Democratic candidate for governor, said he has heard from voters who are considering switching parties to vote in the Republican primary. While he has done the same in past years, Rognstad said he disagrees with the logic when it comes to the gubernatorial race.

“They’re making the assumption that whoever wins the Republican primary is going to be the next governor, and they’re also making the assumption that there’s a difference between Janice McGeachin and Gov. Little, in terms of their policies,” he said.

Rognstad pointed to Little’s support for a bill that would repeal a state ban on private groups being able to “parade in public with firearms,” which critics say would essentially legalize militias.

“What happens when you have a one-party state with the primary system that we do,” Rognstad said, “it forces candidates to just go further and further toward the extremes in order to win their primary.”

Koch, the Kootenai County Democrats’ chairman, said he is encouraging Democrats to run for office this year because he believes the rise of more radical GOP candidates has divided Republican voters and “offers us a window of opportunity that won’t be open for very long.”

Borrenpohl echoed that idea but admitted it would depend on a lot of independents and even some Republican voters crossing party lines in the other direction to support a more moderate Democratic candidate.

“I believe that if you put a Janice McGeachin next to a Shelby Rognstad, an informed voter is going to vote for Shelby every single time,” she said. “But is it risky? Absolutely.”

Idaho’s primary elections will take place May 17. For voters who are already registered with another party, the last day to change party affiliation in time for the GOP primary is March 11.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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