The pandemic has made the fissure dividing Idaho's Republican party even wider

click to enlarge The pandemic has made the fissure dividing Idaho's Republican party even wider
Ever since COVID hit, Idaho Gov. Brad Little and Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin have been at war over how to respond.

Idaho state Rep. Priscilla Giddings was unrepentant. As she stood before the Idaho House of Representatives in mid-November, she was charged with sharing a far-right blog post outing and shaming a woman who had accused an Idaho legislator of rape, and then being dishonest and uncooperative when the House Ethics Committee tried to question her about it back in August.

But Giddings, referencing the Bible, Hitler-opposing pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and "communist China," insisted that her "intent was pure," that she only shared the article because it had "both sides of the story," and promised that she "will continue to fight for freedom."

And when she ended, a crowd of those watching burst into applause and cheers.

"If there is another outburst like that," Speaker of the House Scott Bedke said, "we will clear the gallery."

Over two-thirds of the House voted to censure Giddings, stripping her of one of her committee assignments.

And it pushed Luke Malek, a former state representative from Coeur d'Alene, to make a decision. He'd announced his 2022 run for Idaho lieutenant governor more than a year ago, but decided he'd drop out long before the May 17 primary. Giddings was running for the same position. So was Bedke.

With them all running as Republicans next year, Malek was worried he would split the vote with Bedke, paving the way for a Giddings victory. (Giddings' campaign had not responded to the Inlander's questions by press time.)

"I couldn't have Priscilla Giddings as lieutenant governor on my conscience," Malek says. "She actually would have influence in that body despite the fact that she does not respect basic decent principles. That's a scary thought."

He'd seen exactly the sort of damage a lieutenant governor could do: Idaho Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin had gone to war with Idaho's governor, preparing to challenge him for his seat next year.

In other words, in a deep red state like Idaho, the true fight isn't between Republicans and Democrats, but between mainstream Republicans and more pugilistic and reactionary conservatives.

To Malek, it's the difference between those in the "problem-solving lane" and those who say, "Let's turn a nonissue into something we can raise our name ID and cash over."

But Branden Durst, a Boise Republican candidate for state superintendent of schools, characterizes it as a fight between business-aligned Republicans and "constitutional conservatives."

"I never identified with the business Republicans," says Durst, a one-time conservative Democratic ex-legislator who says he finally switched to the GOP in 2016. "My family is not wealthy."

And if there's one thing everyone can agree on it's that the pandemic has become the wedge that has been hammered in deeper and deeper, widening that divide.

"The pandemic has done everything for this election cycle, in my race and a lot of other races," says Durst. "The pandemic has crystalized a lot of issues."


Idaho Gov. Brad Little is a Republican.

But in the eyes of some of his fellow Republicans, Little's leadership was so toxic that even those who hadn't fought against him were unworthy of the Republican label.

After Idaho state Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, declined to override Little's veto of legislation constraining the governor's pandemic-era emergency emergency powers, the Bonner County Republican Central Committee passed a resolution calling upon him to resign, accusing Woodward of siding with Little's "anti-freedom agenda."

The view was hardly universal — a former Bonners Ferry mayor decried the Bonner County Republicans leadership as "newly minted radicals who are trying to co-opt our party" in the Coeur d'Alene Press — but there's no question that COVID has intensified the rhetoric of the critics of Little.

"I think he's felt lonely a lot," Malek says. "There has not been a lot of vocal support."

Little has tried to hew to a middle ground. Unlike Washington's Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, he never imposed vaccine mandates or mask mandates, calling on Idaho to follow "personal responsibility." But unlike, say, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, he hasn't tried to ban local school districts from implementing vaccine or mask mandates.

"He's playing both sides, and he's not done either very well," Durst says of Little. "Why can't he be more like DeSantis? Why can't he stand up that way? Frankly he's in a safer political position to do it."

Despite Little championing the vaccines, Idaho has the second-lowest vaccination rate in the country.

When COVID first hit, and Little joined most governors in imposing a shutdown order, his lieutenant governor responded with outright defiance: McGeachin reopened the tavern her family owns in a display of contempt for Little's lockdown order. In an Idaho Freedom Foundation video decrying Little's lockdowns, McGeachin made an appearance holding a gun and a Bible, sitting in a pickup truck draped in the American flag.

And when Little has ventured out of the state, McGeachin has been more than happy to wield the governor's pen. He left briefly in May, and McGeachin issued an executive order banning mask mandates. Little reversed it as soon as he returned, calling it "an irresponsible, self-serving political stunt."

Little left again in early October. McGeachin tried the same ploy, extending Little's limited ban on state agency vaccine mandates and applying the ban to schools and colleges. Again Little reversed it, citing the Idaho attorney general's opinion that he wasn't giving McGeachin control of his office every time he left.

Durst says some people love McGeachin's approach while others condemn it as inappropriate grandstanding.

"There's a power struggle," Durst says. "I would say those tactics from [Lt. Gov.] McGeachin have been incredibly divisive."


Meanwhile, Bedke, the House speaker running for lieutenant governor, has tried to straddle the divide between the two wings of his party in his own way: In April 2020, he warned Little that "the way you exercise legislative powers now will affect how the Legislature views those powers when it next convenes."

And this year, he attempted to make good on his warning, supporting bills intended to strip away some of the governor's pandemic authority.

Malek says he hopes Bedke views his opposition to the governor as a mistake, but says he gives Bedke the benefit of the doubt that he's trying to find solutions.

"The speaker has been trying to wrangle a House of Representatives that is very diverse. I think there's a lot happening behind the scenes that we don't see," Malek says.

While Bedke has opposed government vaccine mandates, he's also resisted calls from McGeachin to ban private vaccine mandates, like those imposed by hospitals. For observers like Durst, Bedke's not aggressive enough.


Gov. Brad Little (has not officially announced a re-election campaign)
Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin
Ed Humphreys
Ammon Bundy

Rep. Priscilla Giddings
Speaker of the House Scott Bedke

Last month, the Idaho Legislature met to debate pushing back against Biden's vaccine and testing mandates. But while a bill passed in the House to further limit vaccine-related restrictions in the state, it couldn't pass the Senate. Durst blames Bedke.

"The speaker didn't play hardball with the Senate," Durst says. "And he needed to."

But Giddings' approach draws detractors too: Malek points to the $6 million early learning grant that Giddings helped convince a slim majority of the House to reject back in March.

Her objection? Since the grant involved a partnership with the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children, an affiliate of a national organization that believes in the concept of White privilege, the Legislature would be "voting for social justice ideology to be given, through grant money, to our little ones."

"She accused them of being 'critical race theory apologists,' and killed the bill," Malek says. "Just conjured it up out of nowhere."

But in her fears about "critical race theory" — an academic term conservatives have repurposed to attack a broad array of left-wing racial justice concepts — Giddings is hardly alone in Idaho.

In April, McGeachin picked Giddings to serve on her "task force examining indoctrination in Idaho education based on critical race theory, socialism, communism, and Marxism."

Sure, the task force got McGeachin accused of McCarthyism by plenty of those inside and outside Idaho. But it also got her invited on Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight, and that led to a high-level Trump Tower meeting afterward with Donald Trump himself.

And in November, McGeachin was handed the ultimate trump card: an endorsement from the former president.

"She will make a fantastic Governor, and will never let you down!" Donald Trump wrote, while McGeachin trumpeted in a press release that "President Trump at great personal cost fought not only our enemies abroad, but he also had to fight... even some from within his own Republican Party."

McGeachin had echoed Trump's election conspiracy theories by calling for "forensic audits" in all 50 states of the 2020 election results.

Malek doesn't deny that Trump's endorsement carries weight in Idaho.

"Obviously, that's a mark in her column, but I think Idahoans are looking for more than an endorsement from Trump," Malek says. "The extremism that Janice McGeachin has shown in the disregard for decorum and decent policy in the lieutenant governor's office would be a disastrous thing for Idaho."

McGeachin has received plenty of flak for her embrace of figures like far-right activist Ammon Bundy, calling the words of the man who kicked off the 2016 Malheur National Wildlife Refuge standoff in Oregon "truly inspiring" in a Facebook post a few years ago.

But if there's one advantage Little has over McGeachin, it's the field of other candidates competing to challenge the governor, which includes Republican Party activist Ed Humphreys — who Malek calls "indistinguishable" from McGeachin — and Ammon Bundy himself.

And unlike Malek, Bundy shows no signs of stepping aside to avoid splitting the vote with McGeachin. ♦

This article has been corrected to fix a mischaracterization of Branden Durst's view of Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin's tactics.

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Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters was a staff reporter for the Inlander from 2009 to 2023. He reported on a wide swath of topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.His work investigated deep flaws in the Washington...