Don’t let anyone tell you Idaho politics is forever unchangeable. One of the biggest changes in its politics in the last generation is happening as we speak, and not very many people have even noticed.
It is a change within the state’s dominant Republican Party, and its implications will become unavoidably clear in the coming year.
A quarter-century ago, you’d get a consistent answer about who ran Idaho politics: “IACI.”
That was simplistic. The Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry did not run everything. But between it and its members—most of Idaho’s biggest businesses then as now were members—their coordinated influence was unmistakable and vast. Part of it was that the state’s Republican Party was thoroughly aligned with that community, its leaders tight with the state’s business executives; jointly, they formed the core of the state’s establishment. The last two governors, C.L. “Butch” Otter and Brad Little, have been exemplars, just slightly clearer than their recent predecessors. The state GOP broadly was there too, top to bottom. This was so clear it seldom needed to be spelled out.
Today the situation is far more complex and conflicted, a transition which has been in motion for more than a decade, now coming to a head, the fissures inescapable. The energy and activism in today’s Idaho Republican Party is in the insurgent wing of the party, the volatile, explosive sector for which angry Trumpism is only barely satisfying. They aren’t an establishment, and don’t want to be an establishment—because they don’t seek to build or manage anything (a key difference from Idaho Democrats)—but would rather raze whatever they encounter, especially the establishment, corporate or otherwise. Including the Republican establishment.
Consider the just-announced group called Take Back Idaho, “aiming to restore reason and responsibility to the Idaho Legislature.” Members include former Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Jones (disclosure: his blog posts appear on my website), former House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, former Senate President pro tem Robert Geddes, and former Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. The chair of the group, Jennifer Ellis, is a former president of the Idaho Cattle Association. They’re all state Republican organization veterans.
Their analysis of where the Idaho Republican Party is now: “Three factors seem to account for the sad state of affairs of that once-admired party. First, the party adopted a closed primary election in 2011, which ensures that the most extreme and disruptive candidates end up on the general election ballot in this essentially one-party state. Second, the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which draws substantial support and direction from out-of-state interests, has managed to gain a stronghold over a sizable minority of Republican legislators. Third, the national political environment in the United States has taken a drastic turn for the worse in the last five years.”
The insurgents have not taken over Idaho politics yet, but they’re close. They’re approaching parity in the Idaho House (and could gain effective control there when a new speaker is chosen), have a significant base in the Senate, and the office of lieutenant governor. In 2022, they’re mounting a strong challenger to take over offices from governor on down. Their progress has been impressive.
Years ago, statements from the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry reflected a smooth support for the GOP-led government. This last year, they have been full of warnings and criticism. IACI has released polls showing that proposed insurgent legislative efforts were unpopular. It pressed legislators not to do what many insurgent Republicans wanted to do about vaccine policy (to ban businesses from imposing mandates). In line with top state businesses, it has supported education efforts many insurgents deeply oppose.
Last month, state Representative Chad Christensen (very much an insurgent) sent a social media message to IACI’s president, Alex LeBeau, that “Alex, I don’t want to see your face at the Capitol Building. You should stay away. At least stay in the Governor’s office.” (This was later pulled, for whatever that’s worth.)
That message would have been inconceivable at the turn of the century.
In Idaho, business interests have become disconnected from the activist wing of the Republican Party.
The world is changing before our eyes.
Randy Stapilus is a former Idaho newspaper reporter and editor and blogs at ridenbaugh.com. He can be reached at [email protected]. His new book “What Do You Mean by That?” has just been released and can be found at ridenbaugh.com/whatdoyoumeanbythat and on Amazon.com.