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‘Never back down’: How Janice McGeachin rose from anonymity to Trump’s pick for governor

East Idaho Elects

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Take a look at some of the priorities for Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin in her 2022 election campaign run for Governor of Idaho. | BY SARAH A. MILLER

BOISE (Idaho Statesman) – Idaho’s lieutenant governor opened the front door of her campaign headquarters mid-morning on a Wednesday, the lone occupant at the converted office space neighboring a dry cleaning facility and a pest control company. A boat repair lot sits across the street.

The single-story, cinder block building outside of Boise formerly housed a diesel fuel wholesaler. It now acts as the nerve center for Republican Janice McGeachin’s upstart political ambitions for governor.

It’s perhaps a surprise location from which to mount a run for the state’s highest office. But, then again, McGeachin, 59, is a surprise candidate, having emerged from relative anonymity after years away from public office to win the lieutenant governor’s race four years ago as an underdog. Today, hers is a household name throughout Idaho, even if many people are still unsure how to say it. It’s pronounced “Ma-Gee-in.”

With campaign signs and rolled banners tucked in different corners of the space giving it a just-moved-in ambiance, McGeachin’s wood-paneled operations base is nondescript. Supporters and opponents acknowledge, though, she and her growing persona are anything but, with McGeachin increasingly invoking militarized rhetoric and a blend of patriotism and faith as rival political factions signal an intensifying culture war.

“I’ve made my statements about who I am and what I believe in,” McGeachin told the Idaho Statesman in a sit-down interview. “But the media likes to continue to try to destroy my character and my reputation, and, I don’t know, it may be in an effort for us to maybe back down. But I think it’s important that we stand strong.”

Idaho’s first woman to fill the lieutenant governor’s office has fostered a national profile for her unconventional and outspoken approach to the job, drawing comparisons to right-wing firebrands such as U.S. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, and Lauren Boebert, R-Colorado. Each rode the “Make America Great Again” wave under former President Donald Trump that propelled a number of far-right candidates into office. All three politicos now carry the highly sought-after endorsement of America’s polarizing 45th president.

“We’re getting to be too much of a centralized government on the federal level and getting away from what I believe our Founding Fathers’ intent was,” McGeachin said, seated in her campaign headquarters office flanked by a framed photo of her firing an assault-style rifle. “The federal government has gotten to be so big and is interfering so much in all of our lives as states. That’s where the battle is going to be, and that’s why I’m running for governor.”

McGeachin’s May 17 GOP primary is one of Idaho’s most-watched races, largely because it has determined the governor for the past seven elections in the heavily conservative state. The contest includes eight candidates, with the top three fundraisers so far being Little, the one-term incumbent and rancher from Emmett; McGeachin, owner of several businesses in Idaho Falls; and newcomer Ed Humphreys, a financial adviser who lives in Eagle.

The Republican gubernatorial race also stands to have national implications, given Trump’s involvement, as well as the likelihood that its victor will steer the direction of the state for at least the next four years after November’s general election.

FROM THE SOUTHWEST TO IDAHO FALLS

McGeachin was born in southern New Mexico, 35 miles north of the Mexican border, to Allyn and Dorothy Kyes. Following a stint in Arizona, the family moved to Idaho Falls when she was a child after her father took a job at the Idaho National Laboratory, the nuclear energy research hub run by the federal government.

McGeachin remembers the city back then as a great place to grow up — a small and supportive community. That was as true as ever, she said, almost 46 years ago when she was in junior high and the Teton Dam failed, flooding southeastern Idaho. The residents came together and pulled through, McGeachin said.

McGeachin attended Skyline High School, home of the Grizzlies, where she followed in her older sister’s footsteps and was voted homecoming royalty. She also was a member of the Teddy Bears, the school’s choreographed drill team, and involved in student council her sophomore year.

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Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin (then Kyes), lower right, appears in her sophomore year portrait in the 1979 yearbook for Skyline High School, located in Idaho Falls. During her time at Skyline High, McGeachin was a member of the school’s choreographed drill team, involved in student council and also voted homecoming royalty. | Kevin Fixler, kfixler@idahostatesman.com

She met her husband, Jimmy McGeachin, while she was in high school and he attended college at the University of Idaho, she said. The two got more serious when she moved back to their hometown after graduating from the University of Arizona in 1985 with a degree in business administration, majoring in finance.

The two married and are celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary this summer, McGeachin said, fiddling with a thick-banded, diamond-encrusted ring around her right middle finger.

“He’s my best friend, my strongest supporter, and my partner in life,” she said.

The McGeachins had their first child, a daughter, the year after they married. Their son followed three years later.

“I’ve been pregnant twice. And I have had two healthy pregnancies,” said McGeachin, long a vocal advocate against a woman’s right to obtain an abortion.

The McGeachins’ two adult children run an Irish pub the family owns in a historic building they restored in downtown Idaho Falls. McGeachin and her husband also own and operate an auto parts distribution center, a machine shop and two transmission repair shops.

“It makes me feel good that both Jimmy and I have created a life for them that they want to be close to their parents,” McGeachin said. “And we’re both very grateful for that. It makes us feel happy that they want to continue to be part of our companies and continue to stay in our community.”

The family spends leisure time skiing, camping and playing golf, although McGeachin calls herself more of a “hacker” out on the fairways. Among their favorite ski resorts are Grand Targhee and Jackson Hole, both in Wyoming near the Idaho border, and Sun Valley, where the family also owns a home just south of Ketchum.

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Idaho Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin arrives at a rally to support semi-truckers and protest against COVID-19 vaccination mandates for employment held in Boise in March. | Sarah A. Miller smiller@idahostatesman.com

After years in the local Rotary Club and Greater Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce, McGeachin made her first run at elected office in 2000, in the Republican primary for Bonneville County commissioner. She was inspired to enter the race to help address the community’s rapid growth, and what she felt was a lack of planning to go with it, McGeachin recalled.

She lost the primary by just 241 votes to one-term Commissioner Lee Staker, a former state senator who went on to serve 18 years in the post. It remains the only election McGeachin has lost.

After that, she ran unopposed five times in the Republican primary for a state House seat representing Idaho Falls, from 2002 to 2012. McGeachin faced no Democratic challenger in the general election in three out of the five races, easily beating her opponent the other two times with more than 71% of the vote.

McGeachin’s tenure in the Legislature included serving as chair of the House Health and Welfare Committee. Colleagues recognized her as a member of the more conservative wing of the Republican Party, sponsoring anti-abortion bills and stridently opposing the Affordable Care Act, passed under Democratic President Barack Obama.

But, at that time, McGeachin also wasn’t known for bucking the rules and norms of government, as she’s more closely associated with today. In her 3 ½ years as lieutenant governor, she has publicly defied the governor’s pandemic requirements, issued executive orders in his absence and ignored the advice of the Idaho attorney general’s office on release of public records.

Former state Rep. Jeff Thompson, an Idaho Falls Republican who served two terms in the House with McGeachin, drew a parallel between his old friend’s political shift and Trump’s unexpected ascension in the Republican Party in 2016, all the way to the Oval Office. McGeachin now appears to be following the same political formula that led to Trump’s rapid rise, Thompson said, including his defeat of President Joe Biden in Idaho in 2020 by nearly 31 percentage points, despite losing the national election.

“She’s not the Janice that people grew up with,” Thompson, who is running to rejoin the state House, told the Statesman in an interview. “They don’t know who this is.”

LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR WIN ‘AN AFFIRMATION’

McGeachin said she was an early adopter of Trump leading the Republican Party. When he announced his run for president in 2015, she listened to his entire speech and knew instantly she wanted to support him, she said.

“He spoke about the forgotten man in this country and how the government in Washington, D.C., was too beholden to the corporations and the special interests … and that we needed to return the government back to the people,” McGeachin said.

McGeachin’s push to become Idaho’s lead executive is her second campaign for statewide office after a narrow margin of victory in 2018’s Republican primary for lieutenant governor. She defeated four rivals for the job, receiving 29% of the vote to edge former state GOP chair Steve Yates by fewer than 3,000 votes. She went on to defeat Democratic candidate Kristin Collum in the general election with nearly 60% of votes.

“It was an affirmation to me when I won the lieutenant governor’s race,” McGeachin said, before referencing her status as the first woman in the position, and chance of making history again as governor. “(We) broke the glass ceiling, and we’re going to break another glass ceiling.”

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Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin speaks during a meet-and-greet campaign fundraiser at a Caldwell-area winery in April. | Sarah A. Miller smiller@idahostatesman.com

Occupying a largely ceremonial role, the lieutenant governor acts as president of the Senate. But the seat also is viewed as a stepping stone for the state’s next governor, with five of Idaho’s past seven governors, including Little, 68, having served as second-in-command.

Traditionally the officeholder in the bench-warmer spot has waited until the governor chose to end his run, or transitioned to a federal position. McGeachin cited Little’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic for prompting her to run now.

“My disagreements with his decisions of shutting businesses down and managing the pandemic grew,” McGeachin said. “His actions were stepping over into a different branch of government’s purview, and that’s pretty serious to me.”

As part of a 10-point platform in her first 100 days as governor, McGeachin said she will work to prevent and eliminate all pandemic-related public health mandates, add incentives to increase production of firearms and ammunition in the state and strengthen abortion restrictions. Idaho already would ban abortion if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the precedent-setting case of Roe v. Wade.

Other priorities under a McGeachin administration, she said, include seeking the end of the state’s tax on groceries, opening public lands for mining of rare earth minerals and managing the state’s growth.

“As I have traveled across our beautiful state, I have listened to our people,” McGeachin said in a speech from the Capitol steps in March. “We will restore health freedom and end the threat of medical tyranny. We will expand our Second Amendment liberties and secure our state. We will make Idaho a sanctuary for life, protecting the unborn and protecting our elderly from abuse.”

Taking Trump’s lead, McGeachin told the Statesman she thinks the former president won the 2020 election over Biden, though no evidence has been produced of widespread voter fraud, as Trump and his allies have claimed. Former U.S. Attorney General William Barr, whom Trump handpicked, has said of the president’s election allegations: “It was all bulls–t.”

McGeachin is advocating for a nationwide audit of each state’s voter rolls as part of her gubernatorial platform, and also elimination of all mail-in ballots in Idaho elections. She committed, however, to accepting the results of the state’s May primary, believing voting irregularities in Idaho — where Trump won big — were not large scale.

FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES

Unseating an incumbent is no easy task, and McGeachin is up against an opponent in Little who has fundraised more than $2 million, or roughly triple her donation haul, according to Idaho secretary of state records.

Throwing her hat in the ring for governor, McGeachin appealed to Trump for his endorsement over Little. She said she took a pair of trips, to Trump Tower in New York City and his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, to explain her role as vice chair of his presidential campaign in Idaho before serving as a delegate at the Republican National Convention in 2016 and 2020. It worked, despite Little’s own past support for Trump.

“I admit, to a certain extent, it was a little bit surprising,” Little told the Statesman during an April phone interview, adding he didn’t know why Trump endorsed his chief rival.

Among her longtime supporters, McGeachin counts Doyle Beck, a retired construction company CEO and conservative political activist who also is a fierce backer of Trump. In addition, Beck is the state committeeman for the Bonneville County GOP and a board member for the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a powerful right-wing lobbying group.

Since 2016, Beck and his family have donated the second-most money among Idaho residents directly to Trump’s campaigns and political action committees, eclipsing $250,000, according to Federal Election Commission records. Beck is second only to businessman Frank VanderSloot, who, as owner of Melaleuca Inc., a personal health company also based in Idaho Falls, is ranked on the list of the world’s 400 wealthiest people by Forbes. (VanderSloot and his wife, Belinda, each donated campaign maximums of $5,000 to Little.)

Beck and his wife, Lynn, each contributed campaign maximums to McGeachin for the primary, according to Idaho secretary of state records, as well as tens of thousands of dollars more to several far-right candidates, political action committees and the Republican National Committee. Beck, who also has penned several newspaper op-eds defending McGeachin, told the Statesman he backs her because she’s “honest, transparent and conservative.”

Beck said he’s never spoken to Trump about McGeachin the “three or four times” they’ve met, and thought his prior campaign donations to the former president played no role in McGeachin earning Trump’s endorsement. Beck is not sure how McGeachin made the connection to Trump, he said, but she did it all on her own. McGeachin told The New York Times that Trump called her the day after she defended the former president in a June 2021 appearance on Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson’s TV show, and she “slipped in” her intent to challenge Little during the conversation and asked for Trump’s support.

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The Janice McGeachin for governor campaign displays signs and pamphlets that prominently show former President Donald Trump’s endorsement. | Sarah A. Miller smiller@idahostatesman.com

“One of the big questions we’re seeing in general about elections this year is about how much effect Trump will have,” said Jaclyn Kettler, a political science professor at Boise State University. “Will that be a really impactful endorsement, or not really a defining kind of factor in determining outcomes?

“McGeachin has the endorsement, which is something she has really highlighted in her campaign materials. Clearly the campaign believes it’s an important credential to highlight,” she added.

TIES TO HATE, MILITIA GROUPS IGNITE CONTROVERSY

Since winning the lieutenant governor’s office, McGeachin has regularly garnered the spotlight for her combative relationship with Little. She also has sparked controversy over her repeated interactions with fringe, extremist and racist figures.

In February, McGeachin made national headlines after she appeared in a recorded video at a right-wing political event founded by a man who has repeatedly made antisemitic statements and is associated with white supremacists, according to a U.S. Department of Justice court filing. McGeachin thanked those in attendance at the America First Political Action Conference held in Orlando, Florida, for “joining our efforts.” U.S. Rep. Greene also spoke at the event.

Without naming McGeachin, Little disavowed her appearance at the conference on social media, saying it was “extremely unfortunate anyone in elected office in Idaho must make statements like these.”

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Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, as Senate president, presides over a session in March. | Sarah A. Miller smiller@idahostatesman.com

McGeachin drew similar scrutiny over several incidents that included members of the Three Percenters, which the Anti-Defamation League labels an anti-government militia movement. Shortly after taking office, she posted — and hastily deleted — a photo to Facebook posing in front of her Capitol office with two men flashing the movement’s hand gesture. A month later, she administered an oath to members of the Real Three Percent of Idaho, including Eric Parker, the group’s leader, who said she once told him if she were elected, he would have a “friend in the governor’s office.” Parker endorsed McGeachin for governor last year.

After an onslaught of negative attention tied to the AFPAC event, including calls for her to resign, McGeachin responded by chastising the media — a common target of her contempt, including consistent use of the phrase “fake news media” popularized by Trump. In her statement, she challenged news outlets for accusing conservatives of “believing everything ever said by anyone with whom they share a stage,” adding that she does not support “identity politics or other discriminatory views.”

“I’ve already addressed it, and that story just needs to go away,” McGeachin told the Statesman, declining to field questions about her appearance at the conference.

Former Ada County Sheriff Gary Raney, a Republican, recently launched a political action committee with the support of a dozen retired members of Idaho law enforcement to advocate against McGeachin for governor. Defend & Protect Idaho said the effort is a response to what they call rising instances of “dangerous extremism” and “militia mentality” around the state, and McGeachin’s ties to them.

“She courts people who use intimidation and violence to terrorize other people,” said Raney, who retired after a decade as sheriff in 2015. “Idaho deserves law-abiding leaders, not divisive leaders. Janice McGeachin does not do that.”

At a March rally in southeast Boise for semi-truckers headed to Washington, D.C., to protest pandemic-related restrictions, McGeachin defended her fiery platform and her supporters to the crowd gathered on a small lawn next to a highway offramp truck stop.

“Sometimes they refer to us as being ‘extreme’ for our views,” McGeachin said, before reading a quote from the late Republican U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater. “ ‘Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.’ ”

McGeachin said she doesn’t concern herself with unflattering characterizations, or any of the other things people say about her. Trump calls her just about every other week to inquire about the campaign, she said. In one recent check-in, McGeachin said, she sought his guidance.

“Because of some of the media attacks I’ve had recently, I asked him for some advice,” McGeachin recalled. “You know, ‘Mr. President, how do you deal with some of this stuff when you were kind of under fire?’ He said: ‘Never back down.’ ”

Machele Hamilton, the state GOP vice chair and a close friend to McGeachin, said that approach is one of the qualities she admires most about the lieutenant governor.

“She does not cave with pressure, and stands up for what she believes,” Hamilton told the Statesman in a phone interview. “No matter how much people are trying to tear her down, she just has an ability to ignore it and move on with what she feels is right.”

mcgeachin with hamilton
Machele Hamilton, left, a House District 12 Republican primary candidate, and Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, take questions during a meet-and-greet campaign fundraiser at a Caldwell-area winery in April. | Sarah A. Miller smiller@idahostatesman.com

FEUD WITH THE GOVERNOR

As a result of many of her more controversial decisions, McGeachin has become a third rail of Idaho politics. Some lawmakers, including longtime friends, refuse to talk about her, or request to go off the record.

Those who will speak about McGeachin’s early days in office describe her as friendly, a social butterfly who would host small parties in a rental condo during the legislative session, and go for drinks after work. Those aren’t the types of invites she gets from her old colleagues anymore.

“I know she liked to have a good time,” said Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, who served three terms with McGeachin in the House and used to rent a place on the same floor of a building three blocks from the Capitol. “We still talk, but haven’t for a while.”

Idaho Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said McGeachin’s relationship with Republican leadership has soured during her time as lieutenant governor. She’s no longer shown herself to be the “very personable, outgoing, kind” lawmaker he knew when she was a member of the state House and the two would occasionally collaborate on bills, he said.

“I’d say she’s more withdrawn today,” Winder, who supports Little, told the Statesman. “She does get national exposure for our state, and, at least in my opinion, it hasn’t been to the benefit of the state as a whole.”

He wondered aloud whether the change is because she no longer feels supported by the state GOP, or because the majority of lawmakers are more in line with Little.

Little and McGeachin have become famously locked in disharmony. Much of the ongoing feud appears to have arisen from the governor’s decisions during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic — helping inspire her to become the second lieutenant governor since 1932 to take on the Idaho governor in a primary, according to Kettler’s analysis. The two positions run for election separately, rather than as a unified ticket.

Once the pandemic plunged local economies and governments into turmoil during a 37-day statewide, stay-at-home order, McGeachin began openly flouting Little’s public health rules. She protested at rallies, in direct violation of the orders, before showing up to the reopening of a brewpub in North Idaho that defied the governor’s requirements.

“I stood with them when Mr. Little sent his law enforcement into their business and threatened to take their license away,” she told a crowd at a rally last week in Meridian. “I stood with them then, and I stand with them today.”

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Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin presented her 10-point gubernatorial platform for her first 100 days in office during a press conference on the Idaho Capitol steps in March. | Sarah A. Miller smiller@idahostatesman.com

In addition, McGeachin threw open the doors of her family’s pub in Idaho Falls before the order preventing bars from reopening lapsed. She argued, however, that her actions did not violate the governor’s restrictions, because her pub also includes a restaurant.

Also in 2020, McGeachin appeared in a video montage, along with other Idaho elected officials, posted to YouTube by the Idaho Freedom Foundation. During her segment, she listed Americans’ “inalienable” rights while seated in the driver’s seat of a truck brandishing a Bible, and then a handgun.

Her relationship with Little finally boiled over last year when McGeachin leveraged the Idaho Constitution, which bestows power upon her position when the governor is out of state, and issued a pair of pandemic-related executive orders.

First, in May, she banned mask mandates by state and local authorities while Little was attending a Republican Governors Association conference in Tennessee. In the second, in October, she prohibited public schools and the state’s Department of Education from requiring COVID-19 testing or vaccinations. In each case, Little returned the next day and rescinded McGeachin’s order, calling the first instance an “irresponsible, self-serving political stunt.”

She also tried to deploy the Idaho National Guard to the U.S.-Mexico border, according to Little and Maj. Gen. Michael Garshak, who heads the state’s National Guard.

McGeachin told the Statesman she didn’t issue the orders thinking the governor would automatically reverse her statewide decrees.

“I was hoping that he would see the virtue of keeping it in place,” she said.

McGeachin herself donned a mask at times around the Capitol during a statewide peak of COVID-19 from the delta variant, telling the Statesman she did so out of respect for others who were there. She said she does not dispute that masks are effective in preventing the spread of the virus, particularly N95s and hospital surgical masks.

However, McGeachin declined to say whether she has been vaccinated for COVID-19, or if she has ever contracted the virus, calling both “personal questions.”

MCGEACHIN BUILDS LOYAL FOLLOWING

Ask Nampa resident Amy Henry, and she’ll eagerly explain how McGeachin’s one-day executive order banning masks was overdue, and a game-changer for Idaho schoolchildren. The unorthodox move was a big part of why she became a passionate McGeachin supporter, and now helps organize some of her campaign events.

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Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin greets Randy and Colleen Crawford, of Caldwell, at a meet-and-greet campaign fundraiser at a Caldwell-area winery in April. | Sarah A. Miller smiller@idahostatesman.com

“If you ask the kids,” Henry told a small crowd gathered during a fundraiser at a Caldwell-area winery, “the very best day that they had last year, it was the one day that she (issued) the executive order for them to go to school without a mask.” The room erupted in cheers and applause, as one attendee shouted, “FREEDOM!”

Henry, a former Boise School District junior high teacher, said her 12-year-old daughter was bullied and beaten up, and their home address released online, leading to stalking, death threats and two break-in attempts. The violence and intimidation tactics came after the family decided last year that their daughter would go without a mask at her school in the Nampa School District during the middle of the pandemic.

Repeatedly passed off by school district officials, Henry said, she reached out to the governor’s office for help. Little’s staff never returned her “umpteen-million” phone calls, she said. A spokesperson for Little said staff has no record or recollection of Henry contacting the governor’s office.

Henry then met McGeachin during a rally against requiring schoolchildren to wear masks in the classroom held on the Capitol steps, and explained her family’s traumatic experience. McGeachin not only listened to her and other parents, Henry said, but also their children.

Henry, who founded a conservative activist group that she calls Parents for Freedom and Liberty, has since gone all-in on McGeachin’s run for governor.

“I’ve said many times, I’d jump in front of a bus for her,” she told the audience at the winery fundraiser. “But I think that this is the time that if we don’t make the changes that need to happen, Idaho’s gone for our kids. There’s no future for them, and I mean that wholeheartedly.”

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Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin takes a question from an attendee during a meet-and-greet campaign fundraiser at a Caldwell-area winery in April. | Sarah A. Miller smiller@idahostatesman.com

Henry said she was also a supporter of the task force McGeachin launched last spring when she thrust herself — and the state — into the fray of national turmoil over the content taught in public schools.

Members of her initiative claimed, without substantiation, that Idaho schoolchildren were being “indoctrinated.” After four meetings, the task force delivered a set of vague recommendations.

Regardless, McGeachin’s faithful following has continued to grow.

“She’s marvelous. I just wish she was better in presenting herself,” said Dr. John Lee, a retired veterinarian who lives in Nampa, while attending the winery fundraiser with family. “But she’s a hard worker for what we stand for — maintaining our republic. I sure hope she becomes our next governor.”

A NIGHT ON THE TOWN

Pull open the door on a Saturday evening dinner rush at The Celt Pub & Grill in Idaho Falls, and you’ll find nary a seat, except for maybe one at the bar.

The soup of the day is beef taco, and the $5 drink special is a melon berry rosé sangria. McGeachin claims the in-house smoked chicken wings are the best in the state.

McGeachin’s family businesses, particularly the pub, have become targets for harassment, she said, on account of her political ideology. In one case this spring, a touring musician took to social media to announce a last-minute cancellation of his scheduled concert there when he found out McGeachin was a co-owner.

“We just like to keep our businesses separate from the politics as much as possible,” McGeachin said, picking at her fingernails. “It’s just the impact that it has on my family is not easy all the time, because they have to deal with the fallout, and our employees have to deal with that. And that’s what’s not fair.”

Celt Idaho Falls
Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, her husband and their two adult children share ownership of The Celt Pub & Grill, an Irish-themed bar and restaurant in downtown Idaho Falls. After buying and restoring the historic building, the McGeachins are celebrating the pub’s 10-year anniversary in 2022. | Kevin Fixler kfixler@idahostatesman.com

McGeachin also garnered criticism after federal records revealed that she applied for and received more than $314,000 in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, even though she previously said she is opposed to government programs that “foster dependency.” In a social media post, she defended accepting the coronavirus relief payments for her family’s businesses, saying that their employees needed the funds because they had been harmed by government shutdowns and other public health requirements.

“She’s touted her business acumen as a reason why she’s qualified,” said David Roth, former chair of the Bonneville County Democratic Party, now running to challenge U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, in November. “That’s all great, but if that’s why you can do it, then you open yourself up for people to look at the businesses.”

The McGeachins are known for frequenting their pub. On an early April evening, they’re there for dinner and a few rounds of drinks, while the family’s matriarch is home from the campaign trail.

Assorted $1 bills folded into origami shapes, including hearts and bow ties, decorate the side of a Jameson Irish Whiskey mirror above the bar. Dark wood moulding with ornate Celtic inlay pay tribute to the pub’s overarching theme, as do a row of soccer scarves and flags from the nations of the United Kingdom hanging overhead.

The rotation of bartenders appears to be playing to their VIPs, frequently stopping to check in on the McGeachins and their daughter. One of the bartenders approaches the party of three to enlist use of a cellphone to take photos of the family from behind the bar.

“3-2-1,” he says, tapping the phone’s touch-screen shutter. “One more for prosperity.”

Delivering the phone back to McGeachin’s daughter, he has some advice.

“The family who drinks together stays together, right?” the bartender says.

After briefly stepping away from dinner, Janice McGeachin returns, but is stopped by an older patron at the bar, who is enjoying his second beer and identifies himself as Skip. “Excuse me, I really like what you’re doing here,” he says, to which she thanks him, and chats for a moment.

Suddenly, the bartender is zipping through the aisle asking those seated if they would like a shot. A customer at the end of the bar, from Montana, wants to buy everyone a “duck fart.”

The fowl-named drink is a layered shooter, made of one part Kahlua, one part Irish cream and one part whiskey. The bartender uses a backwards-facing spoon to pour each alcohol into the glass in layers and prevent them from mixing, before handing out the drinks to curious recipients.

“To Montana …” the shot buyer offers to his group of new best friends.

“… Where men are men, and sheep are scared!” Jimmy McGeachin belts back, a joke about bestiality.

Shortly after, the McGeachins settle up with a crisp $100 bill, and make their exit.

FAITH AND FOREBEARERS

McGeachin said she leans on her Presbyterian faith and her trust in God when she encounters obstacles. Her campaign events typically begin with prayer, and she routinely mentions her unwavering belief in God and his plan for the state, and nation, out on the stump.

“When I am struggling, I know where I need to go to get strength, wisdom, encouragement. It’s a daily process,” she said.

McGeachin lists the First Presbyterian Church of Idaho Falls on her campaign website, but said she hasn’t regularly attended the church for a couple years. She more often drops into one in the Wood River Valley, she said, and another, more worship-based congregation in Idaho Falls called Watersprings Church. Around town, it’s known more colloquially as the Cowboy Church.

The pastor of the Cowboy Church, Scotty Brown, looks the part. He founded the congregation, according to its website, after he went on a solo, three-day horseback ride through five Idaho counties to connect with God and receive his guidance. The pop-up ministry has since grown, and now takes up weekly Sunday residency in the conjoined convention center at the Shilo Inn Hotel, a stone’s throw from the highway interchange of Interstate 15 and U.S. 20.

Online, the church describes its belief that marriage is the exclusive union between one woman and one man. It defines homosexuality as a form of “sexual immorality,” grouping it with adultery, incest and bestiality.

A federal appeals court overturned Idaho’s ban on same-sex marriage in 2014, and the U.S. Supreme Court legalized it across all 50 states a year later.

On Palm Sunday, the week before Easter, several hundred people arrived at the Cowboy Church — well more than the sign on the wall listing a maximum occupancy of 100. The hourlong service mixed prayers, Christian-inspired acoustic country and a weekly poem, all built around Brown’s sermon.

Wearing a black Stetson, Brown looked out onto the congregation filled with people of all ages and launched into a 40-minute lesson from the Book of Revelation about where to put one’s faith, and how to prepare for judgment. About halfway through, he reminded attendees about various forms of sin in the eyes of God.

“When they passed gay marriage, they opened Pandora’s box. Because sin is progressive, right?” Brown told the congregation. “Pretty soon it’s just going to be normal and natural to be a pedophile. Well, what’s after that? Sex with animals.”

McGeachin, through a campaign spokesperson, declined a follow-up request from the Statesman for comment about her church’s positions on same-sex marriage and the LGBTQ community.

Another source of inspiration for McGeachin can frequently be found hanging around her neck. Inscribed with the words, “Slay Girl Slayyy,” the oblong, aluminum pendant was a birthday gift from Hamilton, her friend and a Republican candidate for state House District 12 in Nampa.

“It’s just about all women supporting each other,” McGeachin said. “Politics isn’t always viewed as a place for girls. So when women — especially conservative women — try to get involved in this, we need to have encouragement as much as we can.”

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Jennifer Curtiss, of Nampa, left, poses for a photo with Idaho GOP vice chair Machele Hamilton, center, and Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin at a meet-and-greet campaign fundraiser at a Caldwell-area winery in April. | Sarah A. Miller smiller@idahostatesman.com

McGeachin named Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, and former Republican U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, of Idaho, as two women she admires. Each was the first woman to serve in their positions, too, and she credited them both for their fearlessness and no-nonsense approach to politics.

Hamilton, also McGeachin’s part-time director of communications this past legislative session, said the pendant epitomized her feelings toward the lieutenant governor, and is also a message she hoped her friend would keep close to her heart out on the campaign trail.

“I thought it was a perfect saying for Janice, because of everything she’s going through, and how much everyone makes her something she is not,” Hamilton said by phone. “Just put your head down and keep going. That’s exactly the sentiment behind it — just get it done, girl.”

Idaho is one of 20 U.S. states that has never had a female governor. Hamilton, however, prefers to keep the focus of McGeachin’s candidacy on her credentials.

“It’s not all about ‘I am woman, hear me roar,’ ” she said. “I believe she’s the best person for the job, and the fact that she is a woman is a bonus.”

A FAR-RIGHT RALLY AS ELECTION NEARS

Two weeks before Idaho’s primary election, McGeachin stepped onto an outdoor stage on a Wednesday evening in front of a crowd of more than 1,000 people gathered at Julius M. Kleiner Memorial Park in Meridian for a rally in her honor.

After Little backed out of a scheduled debate, McGeachin organized the event for the same night with a slate of fellow far-right candidates. Also joining were nationally known special guests — “freedom fighters,” as McGeachin dubs them — including former Fox News commentator Michelle Malkin and Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers, who each endorse McGeachin. Malkin has promoted anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Rogers is outspoken that the 2020 election was stolen, and — after making antisemitic statements and calling for the public hanging of political foes in an AFPAC speech — was censured by the Arizona Legislature in March.

Stationed along the perimeter of the park’s amphitheater lawn were members of the right-wing citizen group the Idaho Liberty Dogs, wearing holstered handguns, walkie-talkies and earpieces. A cadre of Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group with links to white supremacy, also stalked the grounds. One carried the Betsy Ross American flag, with 13 stars in a circle, which today is used as a symbol for several hate and anti-government movements, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports.

McGeachin Rally
A member of the Idaho Liberty Dogs, a right-wing citizen group, stands guard with a holstered handgun, walkie-talkie and earpiece at a campaign rally for Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin in her bid for governor, held May 4 at Julius M. Kleiner Memorial Park in Meridian. | Kevin Fixler kfixler@idahostatesman.com

“We can never give up. This is our country, and we’re going to take it back!” Rogers shouted to the crowd. “We need Janice McGeachin. We need you, you’re a fighter,” she said, spurring McGeachin to dash on stage to embrace her booster.

Amid a deluge of partisan cheerleading, anti-LGBTQ speech and Trump worship from invited speakers, Idaho’s lieutenant governor took hold of the mic. As a man in the audience yelled a vulgarity about Little referencing the female anatomy, drawing laughter from the crowd, McGeachin accused the incumbent governor of losing touch with Idaho values, and turning his back on residents during the pandemic.

Under her vision for the state, McGeachin said, businesses and churches will never be forcibly closed, as happened during the stay-at-home order out of concern for public health. Proms and school sports seasons will never again be canceled, she promised. And Idaho will reduce its financial dependency on the federal government, she said, building to a crescendo.

“This election asks one simple question: ‘Is my Idaho your Idaho?’ ” McGeachin said, to loud applause and supporters standing up from the camping chairs they brought from home.

During one of her final pitches to voters, McGeachin closely followed the path laid out before her by right-wing conservatives in the Trump era. She committed to tightening voting requirements, protecting individual liberties, eliminating leftist ideology she claimed is being taught in public schools, and “ending the barbaric practice of murdering pre-born babies” — unconditionally, she said.

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Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin attends a rally to support semi-truckers and protest against COVID-19 vaccination mandates for employment held in Boise in March. | Sarah A. Miller smiller@idahostatesman.com

“It’s not enough to just silently nod along,” McGeachin told rallygoers. “We must actively support those with the courage to resist tyranny. Idahoans have a critically important choice to make — a choice that will determine the course of our state for years to come.

“It is time to make Idaho free again,” she said.

Idaho Statesman reporters Ian Max Stevenson and Ryan Suppe contributed.

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