Idaho avoided a full-on political catastrophe as the state’s Republicans largely decided who will hold public office.
But by no means has Idaho shed the ongoing influence of an ultra-conservative, authoritarian Republican Party.
Pick your metaphor. The bullet was dodged, but the glass is half empty. Consider:
l An incumbent Republican governor, riding a wave of economic expansion and sitting on massive budget surpluses, won renomination with, hum, less than 53% of the vote. Not exactly a ringing endorsement from his party, particularly when you consider that the governor’s principal opponent is a serial embracer of the most odious positions floating around the alt right universe. At least take heart that there will not be Proud Boys providing security at the inauguration next January.
l A competent, serious, civil secretary of state candidate, Phil McGrane — you should thank your lucky stars – was selected to oversee Idaho’s elections. McGrane’s two election denying opponents garnered 57% of the primary vote. Had this been a two-way race — a sane and sober conservative versus a Trumpified “stop the steal” clown — the clown would have won. This bullet was caught in the teeth.
l A very conservative speaker of the house, the longest serving speaker in state history, received just over 51% in a contest for lieutenant governor against a candidate so loathsome her own colleagues censured her for misconduct in a rape case.
l A mostly invisible state school superintendent lost to a much more competent challenger who received less than 40% of the vote in a race where the second-place finisher, a former Democrat turned alt right favorite, was cited in April by a Washington state judge for “contempt of court on four occasions related to the custody agreement with his ex-wife.” The ex-wife also accused him of child abuse.
l One of the longest serving congressmen in Idaho history commanded 54% in a contest against a truly mediocre line-up of no-names and a guy the incumbent had to vilify as a corrupt medical debt collector.
And that was the good news.
The Legislature seems almost certain to be as radically right as it has been and, depending on leadership elections and committee assignments, a swing farther right seems entirely possible.
While it is true that some of the most irresponsible right-wingers lost in what was generally a bloodbath for incumbents, and support for public education may — may — have been bolstered, the trend line of crazy stuff was hardly bent and certainly not broken.
Idaho will come to rue the day it handed over the attorney general’s office to a political provocateur who made his reputation, such as it is, by repeatedly battling his party’s leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives. Raul Labrador really doesn’t want to run state government’s law office, he wants to be governor and he will spend the next four years employing every scheme he can devise to make Gov. Brad Little’s life miserable.
The state’s expensive penchant for quixotic but performative legal battles will now only increase. Labrador will surely move out many of the career lawyers who have made the office a largely nonpartisan source of legal advice and representation. His chief argument against longtime incumbent Lawrence Wasden, who will be remembered as one of the most effective and least political AGs in recent history, was that Wasden refused to sign on to the bogus legal challenge Texas mounted against the 2020 presidential election.
Labrador will enter office running for governor and he’ll bully and bluster his way to the front of that line. Few politicians in recent Idaho history have been so thoroughly disliked by his peers, but now he, again, has a platform. Watch him use it, use it to the detriment of the state and its taxpayers.
So, what should Little do now?
Well, he’s entitled to a few moments of satisfaction that he defeated an opponent who openly courted white supremacist support, denied a deadly pandemic, did her part to destroy public education, brandished her Bible like a light saber and was endorsed by the malignant force from Mar-a-Lago, but then what?
Barring some remarkable and exceedingly unlikely outcome in November, Little will have four more years to make his mark on Idaho. What will he do? After all, there are only so many regulations you can eliminate, tax cuts for the wealthy you can engineer or draconian abortion bills you can sign.
He might take his “mandate” as a call for a return to sanity in the state’s conservative world. He could use the presence of militant, government hater and independent gubernatorial candidate Ammon Bundy on the general election ballot to isolate Bundy and his type. Call them out for what they are — a threat to democracy. It’s past time for yet another reckoning of Idaho’s reputation for harboring dangerous nuts like Bundy. Little could lead the repudiation, and at no cost to his political future.
He could address, forcefully and candidly, the intolerance and ignorance that goes with banning books in school libraries, and he could shame the alt right efforts to intimidate educators and health care workers. He could speak out against the shameful targeting of trans kids.
He could disown the Idaho Freedom Foundation and its blatantly disruptive agenda. They hate him. He should make them an example.
The governor could make an early trip to Coeur d’Alene to meet with the new board of the venerable community college there that, momentarily at least, has been rescued from the clutches of the crazy wing of his own party.
A governor who cared about Idaho could appeal to the better angels that certainly must be lurking out there. If he wanted to, he could.
Like most of America, much of Idaho is crying out for real, principled political leadership — from the right and the left. Not slogans or appeals to the worst in us, but real substance about real things.
The Idaho primary settled nothing about the overall direction of the state’s politics, which will, barring real leadership, continue to wander, neck deep, in a swamp of conspiracy and grievance.
Rejoice for a moment that some of the absolute worst did not happen this week but take no comfort for little is likely to change.
Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.