Can divisive culture warriors be booted out of an extremely red state?

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Idaho may not be the reddest state in the country, but one credible survey places it in the top five. All the statewide elective offices are held by Republicans, and both houses of the Idaho Legislature have lopsided GOP majorities.

Although Idaho has been dominated by the GOP for several decades, the legislature has generally been pragmatic and reasonable. That is, until the party was able to close its primary election to all but registered Republicans 10 years ago. That, plus the election of Donald Trump, the malign influence of Fox News and the increasing involvement of a plethora of right-wing organizations, has turned the state into a battlefield of the culture wars. Those organizations include the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council and the State Policy Network (SPN), which has affiliates in every state.

The SPN group in Idaho bears the ill-fitting name Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF). The organization has developed significant clout in the Idaho Legislature in recent years with its hard-edged culture war tactics and dark money support. Legislators defy the IFF’s wishes at their peril. It is a principal reason for the increasingly extreme legislative body.

A sampling of the culture war issues dealt with by lawmakers in the last two years provides a flavor of the extremist nature of the body. There have been numerous bills to hamstring the state’s ability to stop the spread of the coronavirus. A law was passed to prevent the teaching of critical race theory, although legislators were unable to say what it is or where it could be found in the state. We’ve seen legislation to protect the licenses of doctors who prescribe horse dewormer for COVID-19, to send librarians to jail for giving out “materials harmful to minors” and to criminalize medical treatment of transgender kids. Oh, and of course, the House passed a massive election “reform” bill, despite voter fraud being virtually non-existent in the Potato State.

In response to this alarming situation, several Idahoans from across the political spectrum, including me, came together last year to form the Take Back Idaho Committee (TBI) to educate and motivate Idahoans of all stripes to replace divisive culture warriors with responsible representatives in the May 17 GOP primary election. That will include convincing independent voters to register for the Republican Party, since that is where most legislators are selected in Idaho.

There are several issues TBI is using to discredit IFF and its hard-right supporters. Public education is our primary issue, something that is vitally important to most voters. 

The education issue is being turned against IFF-supported candidates by using the group’s own words. Its agenda is to do away with public education. IFF’s president has proclaimed: “I don’t think government should be in the education business. It is the most virulent form of socialism (and indoctrination thereto) in America today.” IFF legislators have fought against adequate education funding in Idaho, then claimed that Idaho schools are failing. It seeks to discredit the school system by making the false claim that kids are being indoctrinated with critical race theory. 

In Idaho, as elsewhere across the country, the heart of most rural communities is the local public school. Sports and other school activities bring the community together. If that school fails, the community suffers. When IFF is asked how kids will be educated if it is successful in closing the public schools, and no private school is nearby in this rural state, it points to online schools — the very same schooling that IFF railed against as unacceptable during the pandemic.

This is an issue that resonates with a wide cross-section of voters. If Terry McAuliffe lost the Virginia governorship on the education issue, it was for his incredible mishandling of it. Education in Idaho and elsewhere has largely been a matter of local control by elected school boards. They have been good stewards in this state and elsewhere. It is IFF and its affiliates that want to put control of schools in the hands of extremist legislators who will see that kids are indoctrinated to their extreme way of thinking.

The way to win elections against IFF and its SPN affiliates is to take the contest to them, rather than sitting back and defending against their specious claims. TBI has shown that IFF and its supporters have made no contribution to solving the chronic problems of the state — educating our kids for good jobs, fixing its deteriorating infrastructure or working with business and agriculture to meet the challenges of the future. That’s what governing used to be and can return to being if we are able to get rid of these extremists.

Idaho will be a test case this year to see whether extremist organizations and their acolytes can take over and control a sovereign state or whether they and their supporters can be ousted by energized locals who support responsible, pragmatic government. If the extremist culture warriors can be booted out in this extremely red state, it can be done anywhere.

Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as Idaho attorney general (1983-1991) and 12 years as a justice on the Idaho Supreme Court (2005-2017). He is a regular contributor to The Hill.

Tags American Legislative Exchange Council Donald Trump Fox News Idaho Idaho Freedom Foundation Terry McAuliffe

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