It’s not enough that Idaho’s traditional Republicans — the business community and mainstream conservatives — want to rescue the Gem State from the far-right in next spring’s primary election.
Until that broader coalition reopens the closed Republican primary, Idaho is condemned to fighting one skirmish after another.
You don’t have to look far to see what’s provoking them.
Start with a Legislature being dragged toward perpetual dysfunction by acolytes of the Idaho Freedom Foundation.
The diversity that Idaho businesses see as key to their future is driving far-right lawmakers to distraction. They slashed the state’s already tight higher education budgets in retaliation against cultural awareness programs. Under the guise of rooting out critical race theory, they’ve telegraphed to public schools that they don’t want American history taught accurately.
Not only have they mishandled COVID-19 within their own chambers, they’ve gone out of their way toward encouraging the surging pandemic that overwhelmed the state’s hospitals — and put them on the brink of rationing lifesaving health care.
Time after time, they reflected the IFF’s antipathy toward public schools and programs that serve young children — refusing federal funds toward early childhood education, that shore up the state’s struggling child care resources or would have provided schools with the means to test for COVID-19 outbreaks.
And an emerging slate of candidates reflects those priorities:
l Gubernatorial challenger Janice McGeachin, who in her current role as lieutenant governor flirts with militia groups, thumbs her nose at doing the public’s business in public and transforms Idaho into a national laughing stock whenever Gov. Brad Little’s absences from the state leave her in charge as acting governor.
l Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, who may wind up as McGeachin’s successor. She’s facing House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, and former Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, in the primary for lieutenant governor. Giddings’ chief accomplishment in office — so far — was to publicly ridicule the young woman who former Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, R-Lewiston, sexually exploited. For that, he was essentially booted out of the Legislature and is now facing rape charges in Ada County. Like von Ehlinger, a House ethics committee found Giddings’ behavior “conduct unbecoming.”
l Bonneville County Republican activist Bryan Smith, who is making his second run at 2nd District Congressman Mike Simpson. Smith’s claim to fame was a predatory business model that attached huge legal fees on people who got behind on their medical debt. No wonder he so vigorously opposed Medicaid expansion.
All of this matters because in ruby red Idaho, the Republican primary is the default election. Candidates who secure the GOP nomination in May often face token opposition or no opposition at all the following November.
“Everybody and their dog ought to get out to the primary and have their say so,” former Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice and former Republican Attorney General Jim Jones told Keith Ridler of The Associated Press. “That’s where your vote counts.”
But the key to winning what former Boise State University President Bob Kustra calls a “battle for the soul of Idaho” is getting people to overcome their reluctance to vote in the GOP primary: independents, moderates and even some Democrats.
For each of them, it means momentarily registering as a loyal Republican. Some can look past it. Others may be willing to do so occasionally. But more than a few just have a visceral reaction to making a public statement they can’t reconcile with the truth.
If enough of them refuse to participate, then the GOP’s partisan base enjoys a tremendous edge.
After a decade in use, Idaho’s closed GOP primary has yet to achieve its aim. The ultra-partisan base has not nominated a governor. It has not gained control of the congressional delegation. Its ambitions to dominate the Legislature have been blunted.
But for how long? The influx of casual Republican voters into the primary ebbs and flows; the base remains.
Just the threat of being challenged from the right in a primary setting that favors the base is enough to intimidate some officeholders — especially in this age of Donald Trump.
If the GOP establishment and business community are serious, they need to get behind efforts to reopen Idaho’s primary elections. These people possess the resources and the political smarts to promote and pass a voters initiative to do just that.
Idaho could look to Washington’s top-two primary. In this case, the primary screens out the two candidates with the most votes — regardless of party affiliation — and sends them into a run-off in the general election. In a one-party state, that’s likely to elect a centrist.
However good her prospects against Little in a low-turnout closed GOP primary, McGeachin would not stand as good a chance against Little if the two of them squared off in a November general election.
Or it could imitate Alaska’s Measure 2. Passed on last year’s ballot, this measure combines an open primary, in which the candidates winning first through fourth advance to the general election ballot. And the election in November would operate under ranked-choice voting, similar to how New York City conducts its mayoral election.
Either way, it’s time for a change. How much longer is Idaho going to wait until it restores the voice of ordinary voters? What more do you need to see? — M.T.