State Watch

Conservative earthquake rocks Idaho

Idaho Gov. Brad Little won the Republican Party’s nomination for a second term on Tuesday, easily outpacing a conservative challenger who had former President Trump’s support.

But Little’s allies in the state legislature were far less fortunate, as a conservative wave fueled by anger at the outcome of the 2020 elections and Little’s own effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic crashed over what is already one of the most ruby-red states in America.

Twenty incumbent state legislators either lost their seats or lost races to move from the House to the Senate on Tuesday.

Among them: state Sen. Carl Crabtree (R), chairman of the Senate Education Committee; state Sen. Jeff Agenbroad (R), chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee; state Sen. Jim Patrick (R), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee; state Sen. Fred Martin (R), chairman of the Health and Welfare Committee; and state Sen. Peter Riggs (R), Martin’s vice chairman and the son of former Lt. Gov. Jack Riggs (R).

None of the five would pass as moderate in almost any other state. But all five lost to challengers who painted them as roadblocks to conservative progress.

“For quite a few races particular in the Senate, it was challenges from the far right that defeated those incumbents,” said Jaclyn Kettler, a political scientist at Boise State University. “It looks like the Senate will now be moving farther to the right.”

In recent years, Idaho’s state House has been the bastion of archconservatives who have passed new restrictions on abortion, transgender rights and critical race theory. Some, but not all, of those policies have met procedural deaths in the state Senate, which has been run by what passes in Idaho for more mainstream Republicanism.

“The House is the branch that has really generated the outrageous bills,” said David Adler, a longtime Idaho political analyst. “Not to say that the Senate is particularly moderate. It’s just less far right.”

Tuesday’s results were not a complete victory for conservatives, as several of the most conservative members of the state House went down to defeat. At least six members of the state House lost renomination bids, and two others are trailing as late ballots remain to be tallied.

But conservatives declared victory. Early Wednesday morning, the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a powerful force in conservative politics in the Gem State, tweeted, “Conservatives are having a solid night, especially in the Idaho Senate.”

Conservatives who had been frustrated by roadblocks took their revenge. And while Little won the right to run for a second term, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden (R) — a five-term incumbent and the longest-serving statewide elected official in Idaho — did not.

“People are frustrated with what happened over the last two years, and they’re frustrated with the fact that our attorney general gave bad advice to the governor and told him that he could keep extending these emergency orders,” said former Rep. Raul Labrador (R), who defeated Wasden by a wide margin. “They took it out on the legislators who were maybe sitting on the sidelines.”

Labrador, a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus who once challenged Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for the position of House majority whip, was among the Idaho Republicans who questioned the validity of the 2020 elections. He said he would have joined a lawsuit brought by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) that sought to overturn election results in six battleground states. Wasden was among the few Republican attorneys general who did not join Paxton’s suit.

“I think it was a huge factor” in Wasden’s loss, Labrador said of the Texas suit in an interview Wednesday. “He didn’t join it because he had given legal advice to our governor that he could change election rules throughout the pandemic.”

The results will not shake the GOP’s control of Idaho state government; the state has not elected a Democratic governor since Cecil Andrus won reelection in 1990, and Republicans control 28 of 35 seats in the state Senate and 58 of 70 in the state House.

But the realignment is likely to put a once traditionally conservative state on the new vanguard of the far right.

“You’re going to have a Senate that is going to stand up to the governor. You have a House that is going to continue to stand up to the governor,” Labrador said. “There’s supposed to be a check and balance on each other, and the reality is that the legislature was not being a strong check on the executive.”

State Watch