Idaho has been a hotbed of far right organizing for decades. Back in the early 1990s, it helped seed the modern militia movement, and played host to Aryan Nation organizers and other white supremacist groups looking to set up compounds in the remote mountainous reaches of the state.
More recently, Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin appeared as a speaker at a white nationalist event, the “America First Political Action Conference.” She has also denounced the governor, fellow Republican Brad Little, as being a sellout for permitting localities to impose mask mandates during the pandemic. At one point in 2021, she used a period when the governor was traveling to put an executive order in place to ban such mandates. (Governor Little reversed that order when he returned.)
With former President Donald Trump’s backing, the extremist McGeachin ran against Little in the GOP primaries earlier this month. She was soundly beaten. So, too, was the far right candidate running to succeed McGeachin as lieutenant governor, a fighter pilot and state representative named Priscilla Giddings, who was censored by her own colleagues last year for circulating the name of a teenager who had alleged that another former state representative had raped her.
Giddings soundly lost to Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke, the epitome of “establishment” in the state’s politics. In the primary for the secretary of state’s position, a moderate county clerk, Phil McGrane, beat out two opponents who denied the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s November 2020 election victory.
Given how conservative Idaho — which in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was home to some of the most radical unions and progressive politicians in the country — has become in recent decades, the successful rearguard action fought by traditional Republicans against insurgent far right rivals was, on the surface, surprising. After all, recently, in nearby rural regions with a political makeup similar to that of rural Idaho, such as California’s far northern Shasta County, militia-backed politicians have scored big successes at the ballot box.
Since Trump won more than 63 percent of the vote in Idaho in the 2020 presidential election, it would not be surprising if candidates either running with his backing or buying into his signature grievances around stolen elections and politicians he denounces as being “Republican in name only” (RINOs) would do well in the primaries. Instead, they have been resoundingly defeated.
It hasn’t gotten much attention in the national press, but a battle has begun in Idaho between moderate Republicans and the wreckers of the right who want to just blow it all to kingdom come. In 2022, notwithstanding the lurch rightward of much of the GOP throughout the country, the old guard in Idaho seems to have at least temporarily emerged on top.
In part, this may be a belated recognition by Republicans in the state that their voter majorities are not as secure as, on the surface, they would appear to be. Political insiders in Idaho have, over the past few years, talked about the conflict between ideologues and pragmatists having the potential to weaken the Republican Party even in its moment of greatest ascendance.
Like nearby Washington, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado, the state’s population is growing, with increasing numbers of newcomers from more expensive, more liberal states in the west making Idaho their home. Some have even suggested that this means the state is primed to begin a gradual march away from decades of Republican governance and toward a revitalized Democratic Party — though I wouldn’t hold my breath that this will happen any time soon.
The GOP establishment knows that, while candidates such as McGeachin are skilled at throwing red meat to their base, they are less adept at pivoting to the middle come the general election. McGeachin’s taped address to the white nationalist America First Political Action conference earlier this year may not have phased Trump, but it surely spooked mainstream Republicans in Idaho.
In the wake of this event, the Take Back Idaho PAC, its board of directors a who’s who of senior moderate Republicans in the state, called on McGeachin to resign. She didn’t, but her gubernatorial ambitions seem to have been effectively self-sabotaged by her incendiary action.
It’s true that, in many states, Trump’s ongoing death-grip on the GOP remains as tight as ever. Certainly, for example, his intervention was effective in pushing J.D. Vance over the finish line in the Ohio primary contest for the party’s Senate candidate. It was also a key factor in moving Mehmet Oz into the lead in the Pennsylvania primary (although as of May 26, that race, in which Oz maintains a tiny margin over Dave McCormick, remains uncalled, with a recount looking likely).
Yet, below the radar, in many states what remains of the pre-Trumpian “establishment” within the GOP seems to be mobilizing in support of candidates who aren’t entirely in thrall to Trump, to his outrageous claims about fraudulent elections, and to his allies within the militia and white nationalist movements.
The primaries’ loss by Trump-aligned candidates in Idaho mirrors failings by the twice-impeached ex-president’s chosen gubernatorial candidates in Nebraska, in Georgia, and, in all likelihood, in Maryland later in primary season.
If Trump’s star begins to wane in the GOP, as, surely, it eventually will, what happened in Idaho in the spring of 2022 will likely come to be seen as a turning point. That Trump’s backing so spectacularly failed to lift McGeachin’s candidacy shows that even the grand puppet master himself is, at the end of the day, limited in his powers of manipulation.