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Billionaire donors from East Coast groups left big impression on Idaho primary races

Idaho

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BOISE (Idaho Capital Sun) — In the first four months of 2022, political action committees in Idaho took in more than $4 million in donations and spent more than $3.3 million on campaigns across Idaho.

Groups in Virginia and Washington, D.C., poured at least $391,000 into advertisements and mailers leading up to the May 17 primary — and thousands more are expected to be reported in the months to come as filing deadlines approach at the federal level. Much of the funding came from groups with ties to billionaires who are well-known in conservative politics and filter the funds through national PACs to state-level chapters.

A large portion of the funds from political action committees were donated and spent during the first two weeks of May and showed up in the Idaho Secretary of State database in the past week and a half.

It’s difficult to gauge the influence of those dollars on the election, but it’s safe to say the 2022 midterm election was one of the highest grossing in terms of money raised and spent for statewide and legislative offices. Since Jan. 1, more than 36,600 donors gave about $25.4 million to 782 candidates, about $17.7 million of which had been spent as of May 24.

The Idaho Capital Sun looked at some of the most influential political action committees and the donors who may have swayed voters in the days leading up to the primary election.

East Coast PACs made Idaho primary races flush with cash for advertising

Money from outside of Idaho was plentiful this election cycle, but one of the biggest cash drops came from Club for Growth Action Super PAC. Club for Growth is a 501(c)(4) organization founded in 1999 and based in Washington, D.C., that is focused on tax cuts and conservative economic policies.

The PAC spent $281,996 on broadcast advertisements to oppose Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden in his re-election campaign. Wasden lost his primary election bid to former U.S. Congressman Raúl Labrador with about 38% of the vote to Labrador’s 51%.

Its largest funders, according to a report from The Guardian, are billionaires Richard Uihlein — co-founder of the Uline shipping supply company in Wisconsin — and Jeff Yass, co-founder of a Philadelphia-based options trading group. Club for Growth donated $20 million to far-right Congressional candidates, including U.S. Reps. Josh Hawley and Lauren Boebert, as well as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. All three voted in favor of overturning the 2020 presidential election results.

Uihlein is also connected to the Women Speak Out PAC, which reported spending nearly $45,000 in early May to oppose Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane’s Republican candidacy for Idaho secretary of state. McGrane won the Republican nomination over state Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, by about 4,000 votes.

According to the Federal Election Commission, Women Speak out has received more than $1 million in donations from Restoration PAC since 2021. Uihlein has donated nearly $19 million to Restoration PAC since 2021.

Another PAC called American Principles Project spent $18,000 to advertise in support of Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, in the last days before the primary election. American Principles Project is a conservative organization that has advocated against critical race theory and gender identity in public schools. Ehardt has been one of the main legislative proponents of bills barring transgender students from participating in school sports in Idaho and across the U.S.  

Restoration PAC has donated nearly $1.7 million to American Principles PAC since late 2021.

A Washington, D.C., Super PAC called RGA Right Direction spent close to $47,000 on broadcast advertisements supporting Gov. Brad Little, who had seven opponents in the Republican primary, including Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin. Little easily won the Republican nomination on May 17 with 52% of the vote, with McGeachin coming in second with 32%.

School choice group based in D.C. spent $200,000 to support Idaho candidates

Another outside group was the American Federation for Children, which donated $200,100 to the Idaho Federation for Children PAC on May 13. The organization advocates for school choice and has ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council and the billionaire family of former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

The PAC’s address is listed in Washington, D.C., and it reported spending $200,000 to support eight candidates:

  • Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay
  • Jordan Redman, candidate for state representative in North Idaho’s District 3 race
  • Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale
  • Jaron Crane, candidate for state representative in Canyon County’s District 12 race
  • Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle
  • Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa
  • Rep. Terry Gestrin, R-Donnelly
  • Raúl Labrador, in the race for Idaho attorney general

With the exception of DeMordaunt and Gestrin, all of the candidates supported by the PAC won their primary race. The PAC used Go BIG Media, a company based in Alexandria, Virginia, for all of the advertisements.

In-state PAC funneled money through Virginia media firm for Idaho races

The Idaho Liberty PAC reported its independent expenditures for late April and the days before the primary, and exclusively used a company called Full Reach Media Group based in Arlington, Virginia. A search of the Virginia Secretary of State’s business records showed a business by that name had not renewed its registration with the office by the end of 2021 and was inactive.

With a total of $394,000 in donations from various groups, including $60,000 combined from former gubernatorial candidate and real estate developer Tommy Ahlquist and his companies and $70,000 from the Melaleuca company, the PAC ran advertisements in the following races:

  • $20,000 to support Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, who won the nomination for lieutenant governor.
  • $89,200 to support Idaho Sens. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, and Van Burtenshaw, R-Terreton, who both won their primary races.
  • $135,375 to support Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, and Tara Malek, a candidate for Idaho Senate. Both lost their primary races.
  • $106,425 to oppose Reps. Karey Hanks, R-St. Anthony, Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, and Chad Christensen, R-Iona. All three lost their primary race bids on May 17.

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