Legislative Primary Preview: Idaho

This post is a guest piece by Cameron Douglas, a former Republican staffer at the Idaho House of Representatives.

At first glance, Idaho looks like one of the less interesting states in the union, politically. There isn’t all that much at stake – the legislature in 2023 will be supermajority Republican, just like it has been since 1995. (The Republicans have held the majority in the Idaho Legislature since the 1960 elections.) But the real action in Idaho is in the primaries, and those primaries are an interesting bellwether into the direction of the GOP in one of the most conservative states in the nation.

Governor Brad Little is up for reelection and is likely to win, but he did come under fire for some of the coronavirus restrictions he allowed: while Idaho was wide open in comparison to the vast majority of states, many conservatives both in the Legislature and in the broader public were annoyed that Little refused to take the Ron DeSantis path and stop localities or private entities from enforcing their own mask or vaccine mandates. 

The 2022 legislative session saw a great deal of rancorous conflict, particularly in the House, between Republican leadership and the right flank of the party – a group of legislators who I’ll call the Freedom Caucus, in a nod to the firebrands in Congress of the same name and relative ethos, and to the Idaho group being loosely associated with the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a hard-charging libertarian-conservative think tank that has gained some notoriety here in recent years. (I should note that there is an official group called the Idaho House Freedom Caucus; I’m using the term as an unofficial and relatively neutral descriptor for the group that, depending on who you talk to, could be touted as “the only real conservatives” or denounced as “those crazy extremists”).

Some of the main issues at play are the grocery tax (the Freedom Caucus wants to repeal it, leadership prefers expanding the tax credit Idaho residents get to cover the cost of it), education (the legislature passed a ban on the teaching of critical race theory in 2021 and Idaho’s universities, Boise State in particular, have basically put a fig leaf on it and carried on teaching it anyway; the Freedom Caucus wants to see them more aggressively punished). There was inter-chamber conflict on a few other social and culture-war issues: the House passed bills to ban transgender surgery or hormone treatments in minors and to restrict access to pornographic materials in libraries, to which Senate President Pro Tempore Chuck Winder said, “I don’t think you’ll see some of the craziness that the House seems to like to do get very far in the Senate.” The Senate also declined to take up several House bills that would have reduced the governor’s ability to implement pandemic-related mandates, and ban such mandates from being enforced in the future.

With a bare minimum of 24 new House members (out of 70) and 11 new senators (out of 35), there’s a good chance Idaho politics will look very different a year from now, and the way it goes will have big implications for what the future of red-state governance looks like.

Interesting Republican Primaries

And now for the primaries – where the real action in Idaho is. Some of these races will play a big part in determining which faction of the GOP sets the agenda in Idaho going forward.The House, already the more conservative of the two chambers, will in all likelihood be moving rightward, as a substantial group of senior Republicans – Chairmen Fred Wood (Health and Welfare), Clark Kauffman (Agriculture), Marc Gibbs (Resources and Conservation), Steve Harris (Revenue and Taxation), and Rick Youngblood (Appropriations) – retire. All except Harris are moderates by voting record, and Harris drew the ire of the Freedom Caucus for siding with the Speaker and refusing to allow grocery tax repeal to get a hearing in his committee. The House will also have new leadership for the first time in a decade, as Speaker Scott Bedke is running for Lieutenant Governor. Bedke’s most likely successors are all to the right of him.

The Senate’s future is less clear. The three most conservative senators – Christy Zito, Regina Bayer, and Steve Vick – are all retiring, as are two of the more moderate Republicans, Lee Heider and Patti Anne Lodge. We already know the Senate will get at least one moderate Republican House member, Linda Wright Hartgen, who only has one opponent from the Constitution Party in district 25, and one House member who is Freedom Caucus-adjacent, Doug Okuniewicz, who is unopposed in district 3.

District 34 – House Seat B

Generally I’ll go in order by district number, but I would be remiss if I didn’t start with this, the Frazier-Ali of Idaho primary season. In District 34 – Madison County, which primarily means the city of Rexburg, home to BYU-Idaho – incumbent Representative Ron Nate is facing former Representative Britt Raybould, who ousted Nate from the seat in 2018 before Nate took it back in 2020. Nate is a BYUI economics professor and is the de facto leader of the Freedom Caucus in the House – it was Nate who stood up every single day of the 2022 session to attempt to circumvent the committee process and bring his grocery tax repeal bill to the floor. Raybould, the CFO of her family’s farm, was a more conventional Republican during her single term, and will have considerable establishment backing from party leadership who would be delighted to be rid of Nate.

The old District 34 had parts of Bonneville County along with Madison, and Nate was strong enough in Bonneville to put him over the top despite losing Madison by about 100 votes. Madison has added about 1000 people since the 2020 election. 

I’d put this one as a pure toss-up; gun to my head, I’d have to give an ever-so-slight edge to Raybould, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see this one go either way.

District 1 – Senate

Two-term incumbent Jim Woodward is facing a challenge from conservative activist Scott Herndon. Woodward is ideologically roughly in the middle of the Senate Republican caucus’ bell curve; Herndon is chairman of the Bonner County Republican Central Committee and has been endorsed by Freedom Caucus legislators Senator Christy Zito and Representative Heather Scott. Herndon has run for this seat before, coming in third in the 2018 primary. Advantage: Woodward.

District 1 – House Seat B

The incumbent here is Sage Dixon, one of the most conservative committee chairmen in the House; his challenger is Todd Engel. Engel was convicted in 2017 for playing a role in the 2014 armed standoff with federal agents at the Cliven Bundy ranch in Nevada, though charges were dropped and the conviction was thrown out in 2020. Engel has been endorsed by Lieutenant Governor (and Trump-endorsed candidate for governor) Janice McGeachin. I’d guess Dixon is a heavy favorite, but Northern Idaho is a weird place.

District 4 – Senate

This is the seat – the urban core of Coeur d’Alene – being vacated by Mary Souza to run for Secretary of State. Representative Paul Amador had long signaled his intention to run for this seat, but House Appropriations Chairman Rick Youngblood’s last-minute retirement convinced Amador to stay in the House and angle for a senior appropriations role. 

The two Republican candidates are Tara Malek, an attorney, former prosecutor, and wife of former Representative (2012-2018) Luke Malek. She’s been endorsed by Take Back Idaho, a moderate Republican PAC. Facing her is businessman Ben Toews. Advantage Malek.

District 7 – Senate

A lower-stakes race, but one to keep an eye on nonetheless – incumbent Senator Carl Crabtree faces a challenge from, among others, Cindy Carlson, a protegee of lieutenant-gubernatorial candidate Priscilla Giddings. Expect Crabtree to take care of business fairly easily, especially with two other challengers in the mix, but this will be an interesting test of the Freedom Caucus’ power and reach.

District 8 – Senate

Expect chaos in this four-way race for the open seat vacated by Christy Zito, who is leaving her spot as the most conservative member of the Senate to take up leadership of a gun rights group. The one current officeholder, Representative Terry Gestrin, is slightly right of center of the House Republican caucus; former Mountain Home City Council member Geoff Schroeder, who’s been endorsed by the moderates at Take Back Idaho; and two right-wing challengers Gary Freeman and Jon Krueger. Gestrin is the only one of the four not from the city of Mountain Home.

District 9 – Senate 

District 9, at the far western end of the Treasure Valley reaching to the Oregon border, has two hotly-contested races between sitting incumbents. The first is a clash of the titans in the Senate, with Assistant Majority Leader Abby Lee facing Local Government and Taxation Committee Chairman Jim Rice. Lee’s most prominent endorsement is Attorney General Lawrence Wasden; Rice’s is Congressman Russ Fulcher; the rest of Senate leadership appears to be staying neutral. In addition to the two sitting senators, gun manufacturer Jordan Marques and education activist Kayla Dunn (who would be Idaho’s only African-American senator if elected) are challenging for the seat. I give a slight edge to Lee because the new district is more Lee’s territory than Rice’s, but anything could happen here.

District 9 – House Seat B

The other District 9 incumbent battle is between Representatives Judy Boyle and Scott Syme. Boyle is aligned with the Freedom Caucus; Syme is among the House’s most moderate Republicans. I’m not sure which direction to lean on this one: the new lines are mostly Boyle’s old district, but Syme will have significant institutional support – his wife Patti is the chair of the Canyon County Republican Central Committee. Expect this one to get chippy, as there’s a great deal of past hostility between the Symes and the Freedom Foundation. 

District 10 – Senate

District 10 includes Middleton in Canyon County and Star in Ada County, along with several rural areas. Current Representative and Freedom Caucus co-ringleader Tammy Nichols is the frontrunner; businessman Scott Brock, who in 2020 came in third in the primary and played spoiler to an attempt to unseat the retiring Patti Anne Lodge, is also seeking the seat. I’m leaning Nichols as the favorite, who will take up the mantle of conservative gadfly in the much more institutionally hostile Senate in 2023.

District 11 – Senate

The heir apparent to this open seat in Caldwell is House Judiciary Committee Chairman Greg Chaney. He is being challenged from the right by Chris Trakel, a Marine veteran and Republican precinct committeeman who came in third (out of five) in the race for mayor of Caldwell last year. Lean Chaney.

District 14 – Senate

Another major incumbent battle in this district, which now includes the Eagle portion of Ada County and all of Gem County. Senator C. Scott Grow of Eagle is facing Education Committee Chairman Steven Thayn of Gem County. Katie Donahue, a Freedom Caucus-friendly candidate, is also on the ballot. I truly have no idea which way this one goes, but it’s well worth watching.

District 22 – House Seat A

The last of the incumbent battles pits Freedom Caucus ally and first-term representative Greg Ferch against sixth-term representative John Vander Woude, who’s less of a maverick but still on the House’s rightward flank, in this south Meridian seat. This one should be fairly comfortable for Vander Woude, who is something of an institution in the House: current vice chair of the Health and Welfare Committee, former Majority Caucus Chair, and onetime challenger for Majority Leader in 2018. 

District 31 – House Seat A

In this district in the northeastern side of the state (Clark, Fremont, Jefferson, and Lemhi Counties), incumbent Karey Hanks, a Freedom Caucus stalwart, is facing former Representative Jerald Raymond. Raymond is running on a joint ticket with Senator Van Burtenshaw and Representative Rod Furniss in seat B. He won the seat in 2018, but lost to Hanks in the 2020 primary by about a point (in the old District 35). 

Hanks is finishing her second non-consecutive term – she defeated then-incumbent Paul Romrell in the 2016 primary for seat B, but was ousted by Furniss in 2018. She then went on to switch over to seat A when she defeated Raymond in 2020.

The district lost Butte County, a former Hanks stronghold, and added Lemhi County, which only narrowly went for Dorothy Moon in the old District 8. With that in mind, I’d give the advantage to Raymond, but this figures to be another high-spending race.

District 33 – House Seat A

This seat, based in Idaho Falls, will be another very interesting bellwether for where the Republican electorate in Idaho is leaning in 2022. The incumbent is Barbara Ehardt, one of the most conservative committee chairs in the House. Ehardt, a former Division I women’s basketball coach, has led efforts in Idaho and in other states to pass laws to keep male-born trans athletes out of women’s sports, and co-hosted a visit from Glenn Beck to the Capitol during the 2022 session. Her opponent is Jeff Thompson, a more moderate former representative who served from 2008 to 2018. Ehardt has been controversial at times, but she’s been successful at positioning herself at the right flank of the non-Freedom Caucus Republicans (enough so to be given the chairmanship of the Environment, Energy, and Technology Committee), so I’ll predict she staves off the challenge.

District 35 – House Seat B

Here on the state’s eastern border we have another Freedom Caucus member facing a well-funded challenger. Josh Wheeler has raised quadruple the money that incumbent Chad Christensen has up to this point, though it’s likely that Christensen closes that gap somewhat. No sense of a likely winner, but a guarantee that this will be another grueling race.

Closing Thoughts

We’ll have a fairly good idea in May of the new balance of power in the Idaho legislature, as what is almost certain to be record turnover changes the dynamic. We’ll have to wait until December for the real kicker – the election of a new Speaker for the first time in a decade. Spare a glance for Idaho as you’re following state politics this year; it’ll be an interesting bellwether for where the Republican Party is headed.