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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Incumbents cast out in Kootenai County primary election that backed further right candidates

Fillios  (Kootenai County Commissioners)

Voters in Kootenai County sided with the official local Republican Party that has criticized candidates, including incumbents, as not conservative enough in Tuesday’s primary election.

The entire slate of candidates endorsed by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee appeared headed for primary victories, and thus likely election in November, in solidly red North Idaho. That includes a primary defeat for incumbent Kootenai County Commissioner Chris Fillios, who’d been involved in a public spat with the central committee over comments made to a Democratic group in 2020.

Fillios was defeated by Bruce Mattare, a marketing and finance professional who moved to Coeur d’Alene in 2006. Mattare received 70% of the unofficial tally. There is no Democrat running for that seat in November.

Mattare said he believed his opponent had alienated voters in the county, including over whether the commission should expand to five members.

“He had five years to make the case to his own party, and couldn’t,” Mattare said.

Fillios said the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee and others in the community had succeeded at falsely identifying him as more in line with Democrats than Republicans, a theme that had emerged not just in the commissioner race but for seats in the state Legislature up for grabs Tuesday.

“That fact of the matter is, I’ve been a Republican all my life, but I work for everyone,” Fillios said Wednesday, defending the speech to the Democratic group as a way of reaching out to residents who felt like they didn’t have a choice in local elections.

Republican Central Committee-endorsed candidates for other countywide offices also emerged victorious in the GOP primary. Jennifer Locke received more than 78% of the vote to succeed her boss, Jim Brannon, as Kootenai County clerk. Bela Kovacs received 57.3% of the vote to retain his position as Kootenai County assessor. Duke Johnson, who’d run unsuccessfully to be a member of the Kootenai Health Board of Trustees last year, received 63% of the primary vote to be the next Kootenai County coroner.

No Democrat has filed in any of those races.

Brent Regan, chairman of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, said “from a local perspective, it was a very good night.”

“I’m not going to try to read voters’ minds,” Regan said. “They liked what the candidates we put up were about.”

Republican Central Committee-backed candidates also performed well in state legislative races, including in the 4th legislative district, which encompasses all of Coeur d’Alene. Two incumbents, Reps. Paul Amador and Jim Addis, were defeated by challengers. Amador was beaten by challenger Elaine Price after ballots were counted Tuesday in a race in which Amador was challenged over his conservative bona fides. Price will face Democrat Larry Bieber in November.

“They feel like I’m going to be their voice in Boise,” Price said Wednesday of her supporters. She pledged to focus on restricting the ability of the governor to declare states of emergency, which had been a point of contention between Gov. Brad Little and Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who lost her challenge for the governor’s race despite an endorsement from the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee and former President Donald Trump.

In Kootenai County, McGeachin won 54.9% of the Republican ballots cast. But she lost the state race, with Little taking 53% of the vote statewide.

Regan, despite the strong performance of committee-backed candidates in Kootenai County and local races, acknowledged some separation with the GOP in other areas of the state.

“There’s obviously some kind of stratification there,” he said. “We were focused on Kootenai County” and other areas of North Idaho, he said.

Joe Alfieri received 52.2% of the vote in the GOP primary contest for the other House of Representatives seat in the district, defeating Addis. Alfieri will face Democrat Megan Dardis-Kunz in November .

Incumbent Sen. Mary Souza gave up her seat to run for Idaho Secretary of State. Souza came in third in that three-way Republican primary for the office. Ben Toews, an entrepreneur and tool manufacturing executive backed by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, defeated Tara Malek with 59.7% of the vote to succeed Souza in the Senate.

Addis and Alfieri were among the 19 incumbent GOP members of the Legislature voted out on Tuesday. Those contests stretched beyond just North Idaho, said Jaclyn J. Kettler, an associate professor of political science at Boise State University, and indicated even more volatility than expected in the first election following a census and redistricting.

“What we saw in the Idaho Senate, in particular, a number of those farther right challengers beating incumbents,” Kettler said.

Also among those defeated was state Sen. Jim Woodward, who represents most of Boundary and Bonner counties in Legislative District 1. Woodward, who was seeking a second term in the Senate, was defeated by homebuilder Scott Herndon, who specifically targeted two of Woodward’s actions in the Senate on social issues : a vote in favor of creating a committee to explore issuing driver’s registration cards to Idahoans regardless of immigration status, and a vote against legislation that would have categorized student-athletes by gender and prohibited those born as male from participating in female sports.

“We ran a data-driven campaign to see what the voters cared about, and see the issues where Sen. Woodward was out of sync with the voter database,” said Herndon, who describes himself as an “abortion abolitionist” and “pro-gun advocate.”

Woodward, in a text message, declined comment on the results Wednesday.

Herndon said the state House of Representatives has better exemplified Idahoan’s politics in their policies in recent years, and that he hoped to bring that type of legislation to Little’s desk while in Boise. That’s the kind of relationship that is likely to follow Tuesday’s primary results when the new Senate is seated, Kettler said.

“The Senate’s been a key check on the House, with them not hearing some controversial pieces of legislation,” she said. “If we start to see the Senate more aligned with the House, you have more conservative legislation getting to Little’s desk.”

The elections were a resounding defeat for the group calling itself the North Idaho Republicans, founded earlier this year in an attempt to combat “baseless claims, misinformation and outright lies” circulated by the Central Committee, which has drawn criticism in recent years for endorsing candidates in other contests that were nonpartisan. The Central Committee has disputed those claims.

The North Idaho Republicans group had endorsed incumbents Fillios, Amador and Addis in their races.

Jack Riggs, the former lieutenant governor who helped form the North Idaho Republicans group, said they were outspent and outorganized in Tuesday’s primaries, owing to their recent formation. They were also facing pent-up anger about the pandemic and imposed health restrictions, Riggs said, which he believed hurt incumbents across the board.

“I would say there were some great candidates that lost yesterday not because of anything they said or did,” Riggs said. The North Idaho Republicans group would return stronger in the next elections, he added.

One legislative candidate who emerged victorious Tuesday drew an endorsement from neither of the GOP groups in the region. Former state Rep. Phil Hart, who served from 2004 to 2012 but later lost his home in Athol due to unpaid federal income taxes, received more than 56% of the vote in the three-way primary for the state Senate seat in Legislative District 2, which envelopes Coeur d’Alene to the north and east.

The Kootenai County Elections Office reported 32,066 Republican votes were cast and 3,531 Democratic votes in Tuesday’s primary, with a total turnout of 35.2%. That’s down from the 36.8% turnout in the May 2020 primary, but greater than the 29.4% turnout in the May 2018 primary, the last gubernatorial primary election in Idaho.

Fillios, the ousted county commissioner, said he would serve out his term but didn’t expect to remain in Idaho long after that. The politics, and the system, have shifted too far away from self-governing principles, he said, and the local party apparatus has seized too much power in determining who will fill office.

“My fear is not just for Kootenai County, but for the state, I see bleak days ahead,” he said. “If I’m a medical professional, and I’m looking at relocating to Idaho, why would I do that today?”

Matarre, his opponent, said that the local party had come to endorse him by a vote, and that vote reflected the values in Kootenai County that he pledged to uphold in office.

“I’m going to listen to the people,” Matarre said.