BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — Last fall, Matt Edwards, a conservative activist from Hayden, sent all 105 Idaho legislators a pledge.
By signing the statement, lawmakers would promise to support what he termed medical freedom and privacy, election integrity and education freedom. They would also vow not to raise taxes, suppress free speech or support government lockdowns.
“The onslaught of events that occurred in 2020 pulled back the curtain to reveal an escalation of authoritarianism with zero accountability that is no longer ignorable,” Edwards wrote in a column published by the Coeur d’Alene Press.
Only four Idaho senators signed the pledge. Since then, Edwards’ political action committee, Citizens Alliance of Idaho, with help from other deep-pocketed right-wing reformers, has spent nearly $200,000 to promote incumbent senators’ primary election opponents.
The pledge is emblematic of a larger rift in the Idaho GOP over conservative values. Amid a push for activist lawmaking in the House on the coronavirus pandemic and identity politics, the Senate has remained hands-off. As a result, incumbent senators have been targeted by challengers who claim to be more conservative.
Next week’s primary election may well be a referendum for voters to decide the direction of the Senate.
“What do Republican voters want Republican elected officials to do in a deeply Republican place?” said Jeffrey Lyons, a political science professor at Boise State University. “Do they want them to adhere to some of these things like limited state government intervention, or do they want the state government to be more activist in pursuing issues that these individuals think are important?”
COVID-19, ‘WOKE’ CULTURE REMAIN KEY ISSUES
A recent campaign ad called Idaho Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, a “liberal” and included a photo of the two-term lawmaker wearing a surgical mask. The man responsible for the photoshopped image, Scott Herndon, a home builder and Bonner County GOP leader who’s challenging Woodward in next week’s Republican primary, doesn’t deny it’s fake.
The mask is meant to send a message, “to suggest that maybe he’s not always Republican,” Herndon told the Statesman in a phone interview. “Maybe his philosophy actually aligns more with the Democratic Party.”
Herndon’s is one of several campaigns that seek to move the Idaho Senate to the right. While primaries often stimulate ideological debates, this year is different. A simmering tension within the GOP boiled over when the Senate blocked House bills aimed at coronavirus restrictions, voting access and identity politics.
“It’s a pretty clear distinction between two different trains of thought in the Republican Party,” said Woodward, a Navy veteran who owns a heavy construction company and hopes to curb property tax hikes in a third Senate term. Woodward pointed to endorsements from anti-abortion and gun rights groups to defend his conservatism.
“I think the Senate has great traditional Idaho values,” he said by phone. “Some of those objections made about bills that have been held up in the Senate, I don’t think they represent the majority in Idaho. We’re looking for stability and long-term predictability.”
Many fresh faces in this year’s GOP primary have attacked incumbents’ record on “medical freedom,” a catch-all phrase that implies the government shouldn’t enforce public health mandates, and “woke” culture or critical race theory.
Brian Lenney, a California transplant making his first foray into Idaho politics, said in a campaign video that Sen. Jeff Agenbroad, R-Nampa, “votes like a California liberal.” Lenney criticized Agenbroad for voting in favor of budgets for educational programs that promote a “woke agenda,” “indoctrinating” Idaho kids with “critical race theory.”
“That’s absolutely spun-up, entirely,” Agenbroad told the Statesman by phone.
“Woke” is defined by Meriam-Webster as “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” Critical race theory acknowledges that racism and slavery of Black Americans “continue to permeate” society, according to the American Bar Association.
RIGHT-WING GROUPS PROMOTE CHALLENGERS
Thirteen of the candidates Citizens Alliance of Idaho supports are running to unseat incumbent senators.
That includes Woodward and Agenbroad, along with Senate Republican leadership: Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise; Majority Leader Kelly Anthon, R-Burley; Assistant Majority Leader Abby Lee, R-Fruitland; and Majority Caucus Chair Mark Harris, R-Soda Springs.
None signed Edwards’ pledge.
“I told him, ‘No, I’m not signing your pledge, I’m going to represent the people in my district,’” Woodward said. “’You’re asking me to blindly follow along with whatever your ideals are, and that’s the same as the Freedom Foundation.’”
Edwards did not return a call from the Statesman requesting comment.
The committee is backing three dozen candidates in total, and all but one — Bryan Smith, a board member of the Idaho Freedom Foundation who’s running to unseat U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson — are vying for a legislative seat. Among the candidates the committee has marketed is Eric Parker, the militia leader who gained notoriety for aiding Ammon Bundy’s family in an armed standoff with the federal government.
Lyons said political advertising can be effective, especially during primary elections when voters must choose between two members of the same party who generally align on most political issues.
“There’s no doubt that these groups … if they’re able to send mailers, help organize yard signs, run radio ads, can really matter,” Lyons said.
In two months, Citizens Alliance of Idaho raised more than $350,000 from a few donors.
Donors include Doyle Beck, also a board member of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, and SMC Properties, an LLC whose manager, Clint Siegner, is a director at Money Metals Exchange. The silver and gold dealer in the past has backed GOP lawmakers who proposed legislation to invest state funds in gold.
Most of the committee’s money — $232,000 — has come from the Citizen Alliance Political Action Committee, which is only identified by a Dublin, Ohio, address on the Idaho secretary of state’s campaign finance website.
Federal records show the committee is managed by Robert Phillips, who is also the proprietor of HenryAlan, a political accounting and consulting firm, according to Ohio secretary of state records.
Boise State Public Radio first reported the committee’s campaign spending last week. The report noted Edwards has promoted alternative COVID-19 treatments and pandemic conspiracy theories on social media.
For Bruce Newcomb, former Republican speaker of the House and a member of the anti-extremism group Take Back Idaho, next week’s election is a watershed for the Legislature.
“This is a turning point where the likes of Doyle Beck and the (Idaho Freedom Foundation) finally lose some strength,” he told the Statesman by phone. “And we start to reverse what’s been going on the last few years and get back to solving the state’s problems.”
ACTIVISM VS. PRAGMATISM
Idaho Gov. Brad Little recently told the Statesman that it’s a law of nature for a body to divide when it grows too large. He was referring to the Idaho Republican Party, which dominates politics in the state, but has cracked under the pressure of the pandemic and partisan strife at the national level.
This year’s primary has highlighted those divisions.
“There is just a lot of energy right now in the Republican Party, and on the right in general, which is in many ways to be expected,” Lyons said. The dial is often turned up in midterm election years within the party that’s a minority in the federal government, he said.
With hardly any Democrats in the local political strata, Idaho Republicans have naturally turned inward, Lyons said.
“So much of the rhetoric and the discussion is about, ‘Are you a fighter? Are you going to fight the Democrats?’ Or, ‘How consistent and true are you to Republican values?’”
A sticking point is how political leaders approach their jobs. Some advocate for a more activist approach — fighting for whatever they label conservative values through lawmaking, Lyons said.
Whereas the governor, who has typically — but not always — aligned with Senate leadership on key issues, such as vaccine mandates, advocates for a hands-off approach — intervening in private business affairs is actually big government, the argument goes.
“I think it’s been construed as being passive, or as being not a true conservative because we’re not fighting,” Lyons said.
Senators say they’re pragmatic about lawmaking. House bills that don’t get traction in the Senate often just have “too many unintended consequences,” Agenbroad said. House Bill 666, for example, which would have held librarians liable for distributing “harmful material” to minors, while backed by an agreeable premise, “missed the mark significantly,” Agenbroad said.
“Putting librarians in jail is not the solution,” he said.
Ultimately, conservatives competing in the primary are more alike than different, candidates on both sides said. The election process is “good for everybody,” Herndon said, “because it sharpens our arguments and ideas.”
And the primary vitriol, while “mean, and vicious, and vindictive,” should make better legislators, Agenbroad said.