BOISE, Idaho – Idaho’s Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin wants to be the state’s governor after next year's November elections. But when the man currently holding the job left town this week on official business, she decided not to wait.
McGeachin, a far-right Republican known for her opposition to COVID-19 restrictions and association with anti-government figures, declared herself acting governor and tried to deploy National Guard troops to the Mexican border. She was rebuffed by the guard’s commanding general. She also tried to issue an order blocking vaccine requirements. Gov. Brad Little, a fellow Republican, repealed the order the next day, from Texas.
While divisions within the Republican party - especially among those who look to former President Donald Trump for guidance - are common place everywhere, they are playing in high definition in one of the country’s most GOP-dominant states. The highly-publicized spat displayed how pitched - and to outsiders silly - the battle for control of the Republican Party has become in the Gem State.
And now some prominent mainstream Republicans, worried the state's hard-right drift could scuttle their efforts to grow Idaho's economy, are asking Democrats and Independents to register as Republicans to vote in the party’s May primary.
“Everybody and their dog ought to get out to the primary and have their say so,” said Jim Jones, a former chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court and former Republican Idaho attorney general. “That’s where your vote counts.”
The mainstream Republicans who have controlled the state for decades worry that if far-right Republicans like McGeachin gain control it will be bad for business. Their fear is Idaho will be unable to attract high-paying tech jobs and that highly-skilled workers looking to flee pricey West Coast cities won't move to the state if it's run by extremists.
Little, who hasn't yet indicated whether he'll seek a second term, would be seen as a hard-line conservative in many states. The rancher and former long-time state lawmaker pushed to lower taxes and last year signed a bill that prohibits transgender people from changing the sex listed on their birth certificate.
But he has angered some on the right by encouraging COVID-19 vaccinations. He hasn’t, however, ordered COVID-19 vaccinations or sought to ban them. His temperament and background are reassuring to business leaders of a state trying to expand its economy beyond agriculture by growing a small, but significant, tech sector in the Boise area.
Bob Kustra, the former president of Boise State University who before that was the Republican lieutenant governor of Illinois, said in an opinion piece in the Idaho Statesman, the state’s largest newspaper, the “battle for the soul of Idaho will take place first in the Republican primary in May.”
“This really is about rescuing Idaho from a group of people who have given Idaho a very very bad name nationally,” he said during a phone interview. “The only way that this state is going to rid itself of these far-right radicals is to get more people into that Republican primary.”
McGeachin took flak for this week's power-grabbing moves, including from the more moderate Republican Speaker of the House, who called her actions grandstanding.
But McGeachin is unconcerned, following a strategy used successfully by her far-right colleagues ever since Republicans closed their Idaho primary a decade ago.
She has led efforts against masking and other pandemic mitigation measures. And she pleased supporters by creating an Education Task Force, which was charged with investigating alleged “indoctrination” in the state’s public school system, something McGeachin said was necessary to “protect our young people from the scourge of critical race theory, socialism, communism and Marxism.”
She was also criticized in 2019 for a photo which showed herself with members of an anti-government group. At the time McGeachin said it was her way of supporting a man sentenced to prison for his role in a 2014 standoff near the Nevada ranch of anti-government activist Cliven Bundy.
What worries mainstream Republicans is McGeachin's popularity with the extreme right.
Idaho's Republican primary typically draws more hard-right voters and decides most office holders, especially in statewide races where Democrats usually only get about 40% of the vote.
Those hoping to temper the extremes within the GOP want to convince Democrats and others that they can register as a Republican and effect change in Idaho.
“I think there’s a misconception that somehow a Republican primary or Democratic primary is owned by the party,” Kustra said, noting primaries are paid for with tax dollars.
Discussion of Idaho trending further right invariably turns to the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a Libertarian organization that scores legislation and lawmakers on their votes.
Those numbers are used in primaries against Republicans not deemed sufficiently conservative, and has been effective, particularly in the House, at replacing moderates with hard-liners.
Republican Rep. Dorothy Moon last month reminded voters to check those scores during a failed attempt by far-right Republicans to reconvene the Legislature over vaccine mandates. Only 12 House members showed up, far short of the 36 needed, and her anger spilled over to moderate Republicans.
"Vote ’em out!” she shouted to a crowd of 150 vocal supporters on the Statehouse steps, who shouted back their approval. “Just because they’re nice guys, nice gals, that isn’t enough.”
The Idaho Freedom Foundation generally backs anything that means less government, to the point of no government at all. The foundation has opposed mask or vaccine requirements.
Idaho is currently under crisis standards of care because of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients have packed hospitals, limiting who can get help. The foundation doesn't blame the unvaccinated.
Instead, Wayne Hoffman, the group's president, recently wrote that hospitals are themselves to blame for being overwhelmed with unvaccinated COVID-19 patients.
Hoffman didn’t return a call from The Associated Press.
Far-right opponents also say their supporters use fear, intimidation and misinformation. Many lawmakers are too intimidated, Jones said, to speak up for fear of facing a primary opponent.
In particular, Kustra cites the Idaho Freedom Foundation as a problem. Its fortunes and influence have grown with the closed Republican primary.
“They've had enormous power over the Republican primary,” he said. “I think that's another reason Independents and Democrats have to think about where they vote in the primary. It's about sending a message to the Freedom Foundation that they don't run this state.”