Idaho GOP's power struggle underscores fissures in party

The Idaho Republican gubernatorial primary between Gov. Brad Little and Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin is mushrooming into an ugly back-and-forth between the two state executives and emerging as another battlefield in the fight between two broader factions within the GOP.

The two lawmakers have squabbled in recent months over the state government’s response to COVID-19. Little, a more traditional conservative, has refrained from issuing orders barring mask or vaccine mandates, a move supported by some of his counterparts in other states like Texas and Florida.

But the state constitution allows the Idaho lieutenant governor to essentially serve as the acting governor if the sitting governor leaves the state, a quirk that allowed McGeachin, a hard-liner, to sign an executive order in May banning mask mandates and to issue another order earlier this month banning vaccine mandates.

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Both orders were swiftly rescinded upon Little’s return to the state, with the October spat setting off a stinging rebuke from the governor accusing his No. 2 of “political grandstanding” and putting in stark relief how even a conservative stronghold like Idaho is not immune from divisions afflicting the broader Republican Party.

“It’s been I think a very uncomfortable marriage for the two of them. I would say it’s definitely been headed towards divorce for a long, long time,” said Dan Cravens, the chairman of the Bingham County GOP. “There was really an ideological gap right from the beginning between the governor and lieutenant governor.”

Little, who first won his seat in 2018, has yet to formally announce his reelection bid, but neither he nor his allies have signaled he’s ready to step down. The sitting governor has established a reputation as someone in line with GOP orthodoxy during his time rising from a state senator to lieutenant governor to the governor’s mansion.

McGeachin, meanwhile, rose to prominence as an ally to the Tea Party movement in its prime and mulled a primary challenge to Rep. Mike SimpsonMIchael (Mike) Keith SimpsonIdaho GOP's power struggle underscores fissures in party Rivers, hydropower and climate resilience The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate path uncertain after House approves Jan. 6 panel MORE (R-Idaho) in 2010 before declining to run. She was a former member of the state House before becoming a delegate for former President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package Trump calls Milley a 'f---ing idiot' over Afghanistan withdrawal First rally for far-right French candidate Zemmour prompts protests, violence MORE at the 2016 Republican National Convention and vice chair of Trump’s Idaho campaign committee. She too won her current seat in 2018.

Little and McGeachin, who Cravens said hail from the “Reagan” and “libertarian” wings of the GOP, respectively, had quarreled over various issues since rising to their offices, but the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic broke those divisions out into the open.

Little has advocated for leaving decisions regarding mandatory masking and vaccinations to localities and health departments, while McGeachin pushed for more stringent efforts forbidding mandates, a stance likely to curry favor with voters wary of government overreach in a state with a long-documented mistrust of Washington and Boise.

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“There’s concerns over potential vaccination mandates, there’s concern with just basically government having a heavy hand in people’s lives. And here in Idaho, we’re more conservative than most states, and people put a high, high value on freedom,” Cravens, a Little supporter, said. “And that frustration gets focused towards political leadership and questioning what they could have done different with regards to COVID.”

Little has gotten support from his allies, who say he handled the pandemic well in particularly trying times.

“I don’t agree with everything that he did, but I think he’s done an outstanding job,” state Sen. Mark HarrisMark HarrisIdaho GOP's power struggle underscores fissures in party Hillicon Valley — Presented by Ericsson — Facebook faces critics on kids' safety North Carolina political operative pleads guilty to ballot fraud MORE (R) told The Hill.

But the governor has been hit with incoming fire from his detractors, including McGeachin and her allies, who say more could be done to protect individual liberties throughout the pandemic.

“For more than 19 months now, our governor has been tone deaf to the voice of the people. And so this wasn’t just an action that was made without any thought or consideration,” McGeachin said in an interview with The Hill, referencing her executive orders.

“I think it’s obvious that Lt. Gov. McGeachin is very receptive to the people of Idaho who didn’t want the mandatory mask mandates, and they don’t want the mandatory vaccine mandates,” state Rep. Dorothy Moon (R) added. “Either you’re in tune with the people or you’re not, and I just don’t think Gov. Little is in tune with the constituency in this state.”

Those criticisms have, in turn, fueled questions among some in the party over Little’s conservative bona fides.

“No,” Kootenai County GOP Chairman Brent Regan said when asked if the governor was viewed as a conservative. “Little is seen for what he is: a lifelong bureaucrat.”

The spat threatens to continue, with McGeachin warning she’ll issue more executive orders should Little again travel outside of Idaho.

The intraparty feuding has set the stage for Idaho to become a new front in broader infighting within the GOP.

Several Republicans who spoke with The Hill said they viewed the May 17 primary as a microcosm of the internal divisions within the party.

“It’s a leftover of what the Tea Party was,” said Butte County GOP Chairwoman Kay Lynn Smith, a self-described moderate who voted for Trump, referring to the enthusiasm behind McGeachin. “I think when Mr. Trump came into power at the time, it gave them a boost and it gave an identity to politics for some people that felt that they weren’t being represented.”

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For their part, McGeachin’s allies have no intention of easing off Little and his wing of the party, with Moon saying conservatives would fight against the state’s “blue management” — a direct knock on Little and other Idaho leaders.

The internal clash, both in Idaho and nationally, has shown no signs of abating. And even though the governor’s mansion is not currently at risk for Republicans in the Gem State, that fighting has left some with concerns for the GOP’s future more broadly.

“It’s concerning. I like competition. I think competition is good, different ideas are good,” said Harris. “But I see this primary election is almost more divisive and angry than an exchange of different ideas, and that concerns me.”