Spokane Valley Republican and once-and-future state Rep. Leonard Christian is something of an expert at losing.
He lost the race for county auditor in 2010, the race for state House in 2014, the race for county assessor in 2018, and another race for state House in 2020.
"One of my best financial supporters says, 'You've got to pay off sometime. This is a stranded investment going nowhere,'" says a chuckling Christian, who was appointed to the state House in 2014 before losing in the ensuing election.
And just because his opponent this year, fellow Republican and incumbent Rob Chase, was a QAnon-dabbling conspiracy theorist, it didn't necessarily mean Christian had a great shot at winning.
If anything, Chase was a lot gentler than the man he took over for: the equally conspiratorial Matt Shea. Until Shea decided not to run in 2020, he'd repeatedly shrugged off attempts to unseat him, including from members of his own party. Reams of critical reporting — about the gun Shea pulled during a road rage incident and his never-fully-explained "Biblical Basis for War" document that seemed to endorse killing males who didn't yield to theocratic rule — only seemed to make him more beloved in his district.
And yet this year, the comparatively moderate Christian defeated Chase in Shea's district, 50 percent to 47.6 percent.
Maybe it was because Christian's persistence finally paid off. Maybe his name wormed its way into voters' brains. Maybe it was the recent redistricting (though the Legislative District 4 didn't get any less Republican, we don't know whether the kind of Republican in the district changed).
Or maybe it's that Shea wielded conspiracy theories like a weapon — using them to whip up crowds and inspire an intensely loyal podcast following — while Chase seemed more content to wander down conspiratorial rabbit holes without any particular destination in mind. Voters like confidence, after all.
Or maybe voters have finally rebelled against extremists.
"I think you saw that nationwide," Christian says of moderates triumphing at the polls. "A lot of the Trump-backed candidates didn't fare well."
And yet, just across the state border, Idaho showed that the far right is alive and well. While incumbent Idaho Gov. Brad Little, a Republican, waltzed easily to victory, the battle for second place was neck and neck, with Democrat Stephen Heidt edging out independent Ammon Bundy by only three percentage points. (Little received three times as many votes as Heidt.)
Who's Bundy, you ask? Well, remember how Shea got investigated for "domestic terrorism" because of his involvement with an armed standoff at an Oregon national wildlife refuge? Well, Bundy actually led that standoff.
In fact, in more than three-quarters of Idaho's counties, including most of North Idaho, Bundy actually beat the Democrats. It's hard to tell how much of that is about the weakness of Democrats in Idaho, how much is about conservative backlash against Little, and how much is about Bundy's own strength.
What's more, Bundy's fundraising haul of over $640,000 is 22 times what Heidt raised. One slickly produced ad featured Bundy in a U-Haul truck promising to pay the moving costs for liberals who vowed to leave the state if he won.
"No one is saying you have to leave," Bundy said, turning to the camera to give a wink — complete with an audible "ding!" sound effect. "But if you're going to stay here, then you have to work like the rest of us."
Devin Burghart, director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, found the ad telling.
"Toward the end of his campaign, where he was talking about liberals and poor people from the state, he was widely cheered by a lot of folks," Burghart says. "That says a lot about both the state of politics of Idaho and the direction folks like Ammon Bundy want to take it."
He says one legacy of Bundy's campaign this year is how he introduced parts of the far right to each other. The same thing happened in the 1980s and '90s in Idaho, he says, with permanent results.
"These disparate types of far-right activists together under one umbrella began to work with one another, sharing ideas and building a larger movement that wasn't dependent on any one organization or individual," Burghart says. "That changed the landscape out here for a number of years." ♦