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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Future of Idaho Republican Party on the line in May 17 primary

Idaho Gov. Brad Little delivers his State of the State address Jan. 10 in Boise.  (Otto Kitsinger/Associated Press)

As the Idaho primary election nears, rifts within the local and statewide Republican party are widening, and this election could mean a lot for the future of the Idaho GOP.

Set for May 17, the primary is a chance for voters to choose which candidates in their party they wish to see move on to the general election. All statewide offices, including governor and lieutenant governor, and all state legislative positions are on the ballot.

“Primary elections are a time for party voters to voice their preference for what direction the party will be moving in,” said Jaclyn Kettler, political scientist at Boise State University.

Statewide, many are looking to the governor’s race to see where the party will go from here. Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin announced last June she would be running against Gov. Brad Little after criticizing his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Locally, the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee – the officially recognized Republican Party committee in the county – is continuing a recent trend of turning away from candidates, often incumbents, it deems not conservative enough.

In North Idaho, a new Republican association has formed in response to what members say is the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee drifting from “guiding Republican principles.” The North Idaho Republicans brought together more than 70 Republicans, including former state legislators, statewide officials, county commissioners and sheriffs.

“This is recognizing that a void has been created in the last couple of years with the central committee,” former Idaho Lt. Gov. Jack Riggs told The Spokesman-Review. “The vast majority of normal Republicans had no one to associate with.”

Political dysfunction has also seeped into the board of North Idaho College, where two board members recently resigned after consistently clashing with Todd Banducci, the central committee-aligned chairman who has been at the center of complaints from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. The commission recently investigated the college’s accreditation status, and in placing the school on warning found the college’s problems stemmed from the board.

The Republican Party is dominant in Idaho. Nearly 55% of registered voters are Republican, according to April figures from the Idaho Secretary of State’s office. Republicans hold supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature as well as the governorship and all statewide offices. Whoever wins the Republican primary will most likely win the November general, said Markie McBrayer, assistant professor of political science at University of Idaho.

That can make for tougher primary campaigns among Republicans.

“They know that whoever wins the primary is most likely to secure the election,” McBrayer said.

Local party factions grow

In its “five pillars,” the North Idaho Republicans say it wants to provide an organized and welcoming place for local Republicans; proactively engage and educate Republicans; give out accurate and honest information; encourage local citizens to be more involved; and be a “force for good” in communities.

It’s a group of “longtime Republicans who are concerned about any form of extremism and choose to associate with others who want good, honest, conservative government,” according to handouts provided to The Spokesman-Review.

Sandy Patano, former vice chair of the Idaho State Republican Party, said the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee has been taken over by “agitators.” The group continues to spread “baseless claims, misinformation and outright lies,” she said.

“They’ve become so insulated,” Patano said. “So many people march in lockstep and follow what their leader or whomever says.”

Kettler said ideological diversity has existed within parties for some time, but it has been “particularly pronounced” in recent years.

Part of that could be because of the pandemic as more people have become engaged in politics in recent years.

“I think that has really shaped and contributed to the developments we’re seeing going into the primary election,” Kettler said.

The goal of the North Idaho Republicans is to give an organized space to those who do not feel aligned with the county’s party, Riggs said.

Founding members include former Kootenai County Sheriffs Ben Wolfinger and Rocky Watson; former state Sen. John Goedde; former Coeur d’Alene mayor Steve Widmyer; five former state representatives; five former Kootenai County commissioners and a number of others. The founding numbers included 74 people, but Patano said there have been hundreds of others who have signed up since their announcement Wednesday.

Brent Regan, chair of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, in a statement called the new group “anti-democratic.”

“The old Republican establishment pines for the good old days when they ran things and every year they hold a sad little ritual of forming a ‘new’ group with same old members and shake their fists at those they blame for their own failings,” Regan wrote.

Endorsements from county party draw criticism

One disagreement the new group has with the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee is its recommendation process for candidates.

According to their website, the central committee’s process involves candidates filling out an initial questionnaire and being interviewed by the party’s election committee. They then hold a meeting of the committee to rank the candidates, using the questionnaires and firsthand knowledge.

Each precinct representative then rates the candidates and the top-rated candidate with more than 50% of the votes is recommended by the committee.

The North Idaho Republicans claim the committee’s process is “illegitimate” and is only decided by a few people leading the committee.

Regan said in an online statement the organization has a “transparent and open rating and vetting process” that provides “badly needed information to the voters.” Regan said he has contributed to a number of candidates who did not receive the recommendations from the central committee.

“So much for the chairman ‘getting his way,’ ” he wrote.

This year, three incumbents running for the state Legislature in Kootenai County and one candidate for the county board of commissioners did not receive the committee’s endorsement. Of those, two incumbent legislators – Sen. Peter Riggs and Rep. Paul Amador – did not submit a questionnaire to the committee, according to their website.

Statewide, the central committee is endorsing McGeachin for governor, state Rep. Priscilla Giddings for lieutenant governor and U.S. Rep. Russ Fulcher for Congress.

Kootenai County Commissioner Chris Fillios is running for his second term and did not get the committee’s recommendation. Instead, the central committee is recommending newcomer Bruce Mattare.

Mattare told The Spokesman-Review he received all of the 44 precinct representatives’ votes for his recommendation, but how it will affect his campaign will depend on how much weight people give to the central committee.

Some people do not think favorably of the committee, Mattare said, but many people do.

“No matter what, the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee is the official Republican organization in Kootenai County,” he said. “That’s just the reality.”

Fillios told The Spokesman-Review he has not received the central committee’s endorsement in his past two elections but has still won. Fillios called the central committee a group of “extremists.”

“I consider it an honor that they did not,” he said. “I think their vetting program is woefully inadequate.”

Fillios criticized the central committee of wanting an autocracy with single-party rule, something he said would “spell disaster for the community.”

Four-term state Sen. Mary Souza of Coeur d’Alene, who is running for Secretary of State, sought the central committee’s endorsement. She didn’t get it, after a process she described as “weird” in an April 22 column in the Coeur d’Alene Press.

“The large stack of packets I provided to the full committee, containing my resume, accomplishments, and their required questionnaires, were returned to me in pristine, unread condition. They didn’t want information, they didn’t want my viewpoints,” she wrote. “Their slate of candidates seemed pre-determined months prior to the vetting show, and I have it on good authority that they were planning their hit pieces on non-endorsed candidates way back then as well.”

Kettler said the research is not especially clear that endorsements matter, but voter guides and endorsements can be really important to voters who may be less engaged in the political process.

“Voters will use that information, especially if there’s not a ton of other information around the candidates,” Kettler said.

She said endorsements could also be helpful for a candidacy to be taken seriously, especially for raising money.

Statewide races

The two statewide races this year that are drawing the most attention are the Republican gubernatorial and lieutenant gubernatorial races.

Incumbent Little faces seven challengers, including Lt. Gov. McGeachin, Bonner County Commissioner Steven Bradshaw and businessman Ed Humphreys .

McGeachin has consistently criticized Little for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. While Little was out of state in May 2021, McGeachin used her power as acting governor to issue an executive order prohibiting any government entity from mandating face masks. Little rescinded the order the next day.

Kettler said the pandemic likely played a role in which candidates emerged for which races. Specifically, McGeachin running for governor before Little has moved on is “pretty unusual.”

McGeachin made news nationally last month when she gave a taped speech at the America First Political Action Conference, a white nationalist gathering organized by Nick Fuentes, a far-right commentator and activist.

The governor and lieutenant governor are not on the same page on many things, McBrayer said, and there are pretty distinct factions in the party because of it.

“Everyone is trying to get a sense of who is leading the party in Idaho,” McBrayer said.

Those vying for McGeachin’s lieutenant gubernatorial spot include Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, state Rep. Priscilla Giddings and Boise County resident Daniel Gasiorowski.

Bedke has served in the state House since 2000 and as Speaker of the House since 2012.

Giddings has served in the state House since 2016. In 2021, the House voted 49-19 to remove her from a committee assignment after she shared a link on Facebook of a blog that named a 19-year-old legislative intern who accused a former state representative of rape, according to the Idaho Capital Sun. That representative, Aaron von Ehlinger, was convicted last month. The intern’s attorney is suing Giddings for violating state public records laws.

Local, state politics follow national trends

McBrayer said what’s going on with politics in North Idaho follows a similar trend at the national and state level, as more fractionalization is happening among Republicans.

Riggs said what’s happening within the party is not unique to North Idaho, but it could be a hot spot. Many people are still angry over how the COVID-19 pandemic has been handled nationally, and many people have left cities and are moving to more rural places, like rural Idaho.

They come because it’s a great place to live, but they’re angry, Riggs said.

Fillios said a number of new people have moved to North Idaho in recent years looking to Idaho as “the last bastion of freedom.”

“What is their definition of freedom?” he asked. “I see it as chaos or anarchy. I don’t understand that.”

Nationally, McBrayer said there tends to be Republicans who support former President Donald Trump and Trump’s policies and those that consider themselves more traditional, Reagan-era Republicans, similar to the North Idaho Republicans.

She said the country has seen extreme polarization in recent years and state and local parties have become increasingly nationalized. The COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, has become a topic at all level of politics, she said.

McBrayer said the country is in the middle of a political realignment, something that happens every 40 or 50 years when parties start to change.

“The issues of the parties are changing, the people who support those parties are changing, and the political leaders are changing,” she said.

Laurel Demkovich'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.