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Two top Idaho officials driving heated race for governor

A sitting governor, his second in command and a controversial antigovernment militant all vying for the top spot may make this year’s Idaho gubernatorial race one of the strangest in the nation.

BOISE, Idaho (CN) — The last several years of American politics have seen no small share of unconventional contests. But the current gubernatorial race in Idaho may be shaping up to be one of the wildest yet.  

Positioned as the front-runner is Governor Brad Little, seeking reelection for the first time after winning the job in 2018. Little has enjoyed a long career in Idaho politics, serving in the state Senate for nearly 10 years before being elected to two terms as Idaho’s lieutenant governor under Governor Butch Otter.

But despite Little’s history with the lieutenant gig, it is that job’s current occupant that has challenged his reelection. Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin, also a Republican, is making a bid for the top job after a strained relationship with the governor has commanded most of her time in office.

While winning an election against your own second-in-command could prove complicated, experts say it would be wise to remember that Little is no stranger to challenging races.

Ross Burkhart, professor of political science at Boise State University, notes the GOP primary for governor four years ago was filled with well-known, well-funded political heavyweights — and Little, armed with support from Idaho’s GOP establishment, still triumphed.

“Governor Little does, indeed, have an intense month of work to do with an Idaho GOP that is increasingly fractionalized, a victim of its own electoral success as it has become a giant tent for the politically ambitious,” Burkart said. “However, the governor’s task may be a bit easier this time.”

With Little now squaring off with his own lieutenant governor, questions have swirled on how their political relationship brought them to this point and how it might influence the race.

McGeachin, who has seen much of her support come from the far right and was endorsed by former President Donald Trump last year, has clashed with Little over his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and has worked against the governor on several occasions. This past May, when Little temporarily left the state for a governor’s conference, McGeachin used her status as acting governor to issue an order barring state officials, cities and universities from adopting mask mandates — all without the governor’s consent.

She repeated a similar stunt again in late 2021, when Little was on a tour of the southern border. Both times Little revoked the orders immediately upon returning to the state.

McGeachin also fell into some hot water this past February when she made a taped speech to the America First Political Action Conference in Florida, a white nationalist gathering that reportedly saw attendees cheering for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Her speech garnered immediate pushback from top Republicans in the state, including Idaho GOP chairman Tom Luna and Little himself — though he refrained from naming McGeachin directly.

“It is extremely unfortunate anyone in elected office in Idaho must make statements like these but let me be clear — I fully reject racism in all forms,” Little said in a tweet a few days after McGeachin’s speech. “There is no place for racism and hate in the great state of Idaho. As governor, I will continue to stand up for Idahoans’ values and work to make our state a place where our children and grandchildren choose to stay.”

But does this explosive relationship with the governor coupled with her far-right base make her a strong candidate? Political experts are not convinced.

“I am uncertain about whether Lieutenant Governor McGeachin today is as strong a candidate as was either [Raul] Labrador or [Tommy] Ahlqiuist in 2018,” Burkhart said, mentioning Little's challengers in that race. “McGeachin's issue positions are more extreme than theirs were, and her association with white nationalists is likely to play poorly with a substantial amount of the Republican electorate.

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He added: "Generating noise and heat is not the same as delivering votes. McGeachin’s campaign and persona definitely appeal to a far-right segment of the GOP electorate, but that appeal is limited.”

While polling data for the governor’s race is scant, surveys that have been done certainly indicate Little is the one to beat. A poll released by the Idaho Dispatch at the top of the year reported that nearly 60% of Idaho voters say they plan to back Little. McGeachin trailed in a distant second with just 18% support, and no other candidate managed to crack double-digits.

Clearing away the other candidates and leaving it to a hypothetical one-on-one between Little and McGeachin did not improve her standing much, according to the poll. When voters were given a direct matchup between the two, 64% went for Little while McGeachin received just 24%. Another 12% said they were still undecided.

That’s not to say Little doesn't have some baggage of his own. In 2020, he signed two anti-transgender bills that barred transgender women from competing in women’s sports and barred all transgender people from changing their sex on their birth certificate. This year, Little also approved a controversial abortion bill banning the procedure after six weeks — a law that was challenged in court just a week after being signed.

But Little is not backing down from his record as governor. This month, he announced he would not participate in a planned televised debate ahead, claiming that his accomplishments in office are “non-debatable.” The debate was canceled shortly after, when McGeachin also dropped out.

The decision sparked some outcry, but Burkhart says the move will likely play to the governor’s favor.

“While there is a hue and cry over the governor’s decision to refrain from the scheduled debates on KTVB and Idaho Public Television, depriving McGeachin and his other more obscure opponents of a platform is probably smart politics on the part of the governor at this stage of the campaign,” he said.

Whoever prevails in the GOP primary will face off in November with a much different opponent: antigovernment militant Ammon Bundy.

Bundy first came to prominence when he led the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, in protest of federal control over land Bundy and his followers believed should be privately held. He is also the son of cattle rancher Cliven Bundy, who led a 2014 armed standoff with federal law enforcement in Nevada over grazing fees.

Bundy’s run-ins with the law have not slowed with time. In 2020, Bundy was arrested twice in a 24-hour span for trespassing at the Idaho capitol building. This past March he was arrested again for not wearing a mask inside a courthouse and for missing a court date, and was arrested twice more a month later — again for misdemeanor trespassing at the Idaho capitol building.

With Bundy coming into the race with no political experience and with a slew of controversial news stories at his back, it’s unclear if he can transform his following into actual votes. And according to political scientists, those odds are not in his favor.

“Ammon Bundy is an expert at generating publicity for his causes, as well as receiving national media coverage, but he is unlikely to translate that publicity into votes for governor,” Burkhart said. “While it may energize his followers to be arrested for various trespassing charges at public facilities, including the Idaho statehouse, if these police and legal news items are the extent of his media coverage, then it likely turns off the vast majority of the electorate. I do not anticipate his campaign to receive much electoral support in the general election.”

One thing, however, is almost certain going into the governor’s race: do no expect much from Democrats.

While the Democratic Party nominated former Idaho representative Paulette Jordan for the governor’s race four years ago that saw her rake in more than 231,000 votes — the most a Democratic candidate for governor has ever received in the state, but still shy of the 361,000 earned by Little — no competitive Democratic candidate has emerged this cycle.

“The Democrats have not had a sniff of legislative power since 1990, or held executive power since 1994, or held any statewide elected office since 2006,” Burkhart said. “The party is in constant rebuilding mode and has not fielded candidates in many legislative districts this election campaign, and has just one contested primary for a statewide elective office (U.S. senator), unlike the Republicans.”

With a minimal showing from the Democrats and long odds stacked against Bundy, the winner of the Republican primary on May 17 may be well set up for a smooth general election come November — and put them in a position to oversee the next four years of GOP-dominated politics in the Gem State.

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