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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Idaho said no to the far right, but Kootenai County said yes, yes, yes

UPDATED: Fri., May 20, 2022

Idaho Gov. Brad Little is cheered by attendees and family after declaring victory in the gubernatorial primary during the Republican Party’s primary election celebration on May 17 at the Hilton Garden Inn hotel in Boise.  (Spokesman-Review wire archives)
Idaho Gov. Brad Little is cheered by attendees and family after declaring victory in the gubernatorial primary during the Republican Party’s primary election celebration on May 17 at the Hilton Garden Inn hotel in Boise. (Spokesman-Review wire archives)

Broadly speaking, Idaho rejected the wingnut right in Tuesday’s major races.

Kootenai County, on the other hand, embraced it, danced with it, gave it a kiss and invited it to stay for breakfast.

The much-watched, much-covered, much-discussed GOP primary in Idaho went well beyond the simple repudiation of extremists at the top of the ticket. Yes, the atrocious Janice McGeachin will be McGone, for the moment, but the state’s politics is still festering with extremism, and nowhere more than the Coeur d’Alene area.

In statewide races, all (depending on your definitions) of the hard-right candidates lost. Trumpy McGeachin fell to incumbent Gov. Brad Little, who is very conservative but seems boringly moderate compared to the Birchers and near-Nazis elsewhere on the ballot.

The rest of rightest-right failed statewide as well: Priscilla Giddings lost her race for lieutenant governor to Scott Bedke; Branden Durst lost his bid for schools superintendent to Debbie Critchfield; and Dorothy Moon lost in the secretary of state’s race to Phil McGrane.

It wasn’t a pure sweep. Former Rep. Raul Labrador defeated Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, who’s been a crucial bulwark against various crackpot ideas. And Moon – a straight-up election denier who wanted to oversee elections (!) – probably only lost because Mary Souza siphoned off a chunk of her votes.

Still, for anyone worried about the radical tilt of the good ship Idaho, the statewide results at the top of the ticket were better than feared.

But.

In Kootenai County, every single one of those candidates won by a mile. The political dominance of the far-right Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, which never met a bigot or a bully it wouldn’t endorse, was sweeping.

McGeachin, an awful candidate by any measure – including the “spoke at a conference with a Holocaust denier” measure – trounced Little in the county returns, 55% to 40%.

Giddings, who doxxed a rape victim, beat Bedke by even more: 63% to 33%.

Moon and Durst won the county by similar margins.

Also: Tax cheat Phil Hart is back! Hart’s high-profile, yearslong refusal to pay his taxes ended with his home (built partly with logs he stole from public lands) being seized and sold in 2015. He won a primary race Tuesday for a Senate seat.

So, for whatever heartening evidence of a moderating slapdown there was in those top races, there were other signals as well. Perhaps none were as clear, in our region, as the KCRCC’s overwhelming wins. In an environment where moderate Republicans have tried to pry the committee’s grip off the community’s throat – and as the North Idaho College board has been briefly restored to some level of sanity following a destructive period of control by a KCRCC favorite – the primary results are sobering.

And across the state, a range of candidates backed by the far-right Idaho Freedom Foundation won and will push the Senate further into the red. That’s a bad sign because the Senate, like Wasden, has been an occasional backstop against the craziest of the crazy.

In other words, the Little-McGeachin race doesn’t really hold up as representative of what happened Tuesday. Another race might sum it up better, one that neither the New York Times nor NPR covered: Sage Dixon versus Todd Engel, in the race for representative of the state’s northernmost District 1.

The incumbent Dixon – once described by Sandpoint’s mayor as “as far right as you can go but … not a nut job” – beat Engel – who has been heroized on the fringe for aiming a rifle at federal agents in the first Bundy standoff.

Dixon won, 52% to 48%, which will have to pass as a victory for sanity. That is really saying something: Dixon, after all, was a member of the Matt Shea road show that traveled to the second Bundy standoff in Oregon to provide support for the occupiers.

But he also seems well-regarded among legislators and is less outwardly crackpotty than many. So far as I know, he has not aimed a sniper rifle at any Bureau of Land Management agents.

Engel, on the other hand, has. He spent more than four years in prison for aiming a loaded AR-15 at federal agents – a conviction that was later overturned, because an appeals court ruled he had been improperly denied the right to represent himself. In the prosecutorial mess that resulted from that case, he wasn’t tried again.

On the strength of this record, he came way too close to beating a real lawmaker. On the modern far right, after all, nothing makes the heart go pitter-pat quite so vigorously as the idea of pointing a gun at a fed.

It’s a relief that more Engel-ish candidates didn’t win at the top tier. But Idaho’s waltz with extremism is far from over.

And in Kootenai County, the dance has become a marriage.

Editor’s note: This article was changed on May 20, 2022 to correct the spelling of Lawrence Wasden on second reference.

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