During his successful 2018 campaign to become Idaho’s governor, Brad Little pulled off one of the great stealth attacks on a political rival in recent memory. You may remember the story that only became public after Little’s election.
As a conservative who was still more moderate than his Republican primary opponents, Little needed to navigate the choppy waters of a party taken over by President Donald Trump, and he found a way to do it.
Little’s task: prevent then-Congressman Raul Labrador from securing Trump’s endorsement, thereby signaling to the Trump-loving base of the party that Labrador was the anointed one. Little — or at least his political operatives — settled on a very Trump-like strategy. They would disqualify Labrador in Trump’s eyes. They produced a mash up tape of Labrador’s not infrequent criticisms of Trump and got the tape to the White House. Almost best of all, they did so without leaving fingerprints.
Labrador is heard on the tape belittling Trump in 2016 for being “a big whiner,” for not being a “gracious” loser and for threatening to sue anyone who crossed him, which Labrador called “just a ridiculous and a preposterous way to run a campaign.” Trump was reportedly ready to support Labrador, but the tape nixed a Twitter endorsement and Trump ultimately stayed out of the Idaho race. Little won the primary and then easily dispatched Democrat Paulette Jordan in the general election.
The Idaho Press’s Betsy Russell wrote about the incident and what it said about Little the politician. Russell quoted College of Idaho political scientist Jasper LiCalzi, saying, “It shows that Little understands politics — he’s not some naive person.” Little’s campaign operatives, LiCalzi added, “didn’t just fall off the potato truck.”
So how to explain the governor’s unilateral political surrender in the battle against the worst pandemic in a hundred years? Why has Little allowed a collection of his biggest political adversaries — and I don’t mean Democrats — to define the terms of the debate around sensible, science-based public health measures?
There is an old rule in politics about picking your enemies carefully. Little needs to start naming his enemies. He’s fighting — not very effectively — COVID-19, but he is also at war with science-deniers, militia-backing armed thugs and people who want him to be a one-term governor. Why isn’t Little fighting back with all the tools of a tough politician who “didn’t just fall off the potato truck”?
For starters, why doesn’t Little take on the dangerous, clownish militia agitator Ammon Bundy?
Bundy and his followers are apparently some of the people who have repeatedly disrupted Idaho health district and school board meetings and even shut down school events. They intimidate and threaten public officials outside their own homes.
The Kansas City Star reported on Bundy and his multi-state network — “Ammon’s Army” — in October. This network, the paper said, “includes militia members, anti-maskers, conspiracy theorists, preppers and anti-vaccination activists. Its rapid growth has been boosted by the joining of Bundy’s far-right paramilitary supporters cultivated from armed standoffs over the years with a large base of new activists radicalized through protests over COVID-19 health directives.”
By refusing to name Bundy and his violence-threatening followers as real enemies of Idaho, Little is giving the radicals a pass. He should be defining them as the dangerous outliers they are, standing in the way of sensible public health measures. He should be asking: “Are you on Bundy’s side or are you on the side of an overworked, overwhelmed ICU nurse?”
The same goes with the odious Wayne Hoffman, the mouthpiece of the increasingly radical Idaho Freedom Foundation, a group that has opposed Little at every turn on virtually every issue and is now stoking the ludicrous fiction that wearing a mask to protect yourself and your fellow citizens is somehow a violation of your constitutional right to make someone else sick.
“It’s become a familiar pattern,” the Idaho Falls Post Register said in a recent editorial. “Hoffman and those of his ilk spread lies about the pandemic. The protestors take up those falsehoods and lead campaigns of intimidation to hobble any effective response to the pandemic at the local level. And so they are deeply culpable for the wave of death that is bearing down on us.”
Yet, Little’s response to these self-important Neanderthals is so lame as to be laughable: “We’re marshaling all our forces. And yet, the enemy, this plague, continues to advance.” The governor actually said that during a news conference last week, while pleading ineffectively for “compliance” with public health measures that his real enemies attack hourly in every corner of the state. He’s not marshaling anything, he’s abdicating.
By not naming, shaming and holding responsible the public health deniers who have crippled Idaho’s response to the virus, Little has discarded a major and valuable weapon in the fight. The “enemy” is indeed the virus, but the enemy is also a gang of deplorables hampering a more effective response.
It’s not like any of these people — Bundy, Hoffman, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin and any number of COVID denying legislators — are friends of Little. All of them, and add Labrador, who was photographed in the big indoor mall in Boise last weekend violating the city’s mask order, would knife Little in a heartbeat. Heck, they are already doing so.
Hoping to show Little that an overwhelming number of Idahoans support a governor willing to lead more aggressively on the pandemic, a new grassroots group — The Idaho 97% — organized, as one of the founders Emily Walton told me this week, “to let him know we need him to run Idaho.” Walton said, “There has been no public voice for the vast majority of Idahoans who want to see the government function.” Little should be leading this majority and calling out the clowns in the minority.
“Brad Little, I think, comes across a little bit as, oh, he’s just a nice rancher, almost a naive guy, but he’s a tough politician, too,” LiCalzi, the College of Idaho political scientist, said of candidate Little in 2018. He noted that Little didn’t hesitate to attack his Democratic rival with negative TV ads, and he cut Labrador off at the knees. What’s happened to that political fire?
“I think it’s clear,” LiCalzi said, “he’s not somebody who’s going to just let someone run over him.” But getting run over is exactly what has happened as Little has allowed his most committed political opponents to get away with a campaign of misinformation, intimidation and denial. These should be the people defined as responsible for so much death and disease, but by his wimpy response to these knuckleheads Little has brought the blame on himself.
Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.