What Idaho’s Republican Primary Tells Us About America’s Culture Wars

For years, Idaho has been at the vanguard of the culture wars that are playing out in conservative states across the country.

It was the first state to attempt to restrict transgender girls and women from competing on women’s athletic teams, passing legislation that became a model for states across the country. It was among the first to explicitly ban “critical race theory” from public schools and target diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in public institutions. And the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a far-right Idaho political group, took an early lead in a nationwide campaign to remove books from libraries based on their content.

But Idaho Republicans have increasingly disagreed over how far to take these efforts. Capitol police in Boise had to intervene ina 2022 fight over proposed “parental freedom” legislation that, among other things, would have created a $1,000 fine if a school didn’t give parents what they want. This year, two prominent far-right Republicans were recorded quarreling over the party’s direction — an exchange that InvestigateWest said illustrates “a fracture among key far-right figures in Idaho politics, in a state where many races turn on contests of conservative purity.”

The Idaho Republican primary on May 21 continued the Legislature’s march to the right. Candidates who were aligned with the highly conservative Idaho Freedom Foundation picked up a net of eight seats, according to the group’s own tally. And in a state with so few Democrats, GOP primary winners are typically all but a lock to win in November’s general.

Yet these GOP purists fell short of one important milestone: enough members to outright control the legislative agenda. Some moderates fended off challengers from the right. Some incumbent hard-liners lost their seats.

The primary results were the latest reminder that Idaho Republicans remain far from united. And there are signs that the rift is leading frustrated Idaho voters to reject incumbents in general — conservative and moderate alike.

Here are some takeaways, based on local news reports and ProPublica’s interviews with experts in Idaho politics.

Incumbents Are at Risk

A surprising number of incumbents were knocked out of office in May. Almost all of the 87 Republicans in office were on the ballot. Of the 47 who faced challengers, 15 lost their seats.

It wasn’t the largest-ever purge, but it included the historic takedown of the GOP Senate leader by a newcomer to Idaho with no legislative experience.

Ron Nate, president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, wrote in a blog post that the primary was “a good night for friends of liberty and a bad night for establishment good-old-boys.”

He noted that 11 of the ousted GOP incumbents had F grades on the group’s “Freedom Index,” while three of the losing incumbents had an A grade going into the election.

But this apparently resounding victory for the group’s ideas seems less so considering that prior to the election, the Freedom Foundation gave F’s to 47 Republicans who were on the ballot and A’s to only 10. In other words, about 23% of the foundation’s least-favorite lawmakers lost reelection races, while 30% of its favorites lost.

At least some of this housecleaning may reflect voter disgust with both warring camps in the Legislature.

“There’s a lot of people who are just frustrated, and so some of it kind of went into an anti-incumbent” wave, said Jaclyn Kettler, associate professor of political science at Boise State University.

What Idaho’s Republican Primary Tells Us About America’s Culture Wars 1

Jaclyn Kettler, a political science associate professor at Boise State University, has studied Idaho elections for years. After last month’s GOP primary, she says, “things will shift more conservative, but there were some high-profile defeats and wins in both factions” of the Republican Party.


Credit:
Sarah A. Miller for ProPublica

Kettler pointed to a recent survey of about 1,000 Idahoans. Although it found that a majority of Republicans thought Idaho was headed in the right direction, a substantial minority — 30% — said it was on the wrong track.

Urban Conservatism Is Real

Some of the most important losses for moderates happened in the populous Treasure Valley region, home to Boise and its fast-growing suburbs.

It’s one of few parts of Idaho where Democrats and middle-of-the-road Republicans have traditionally held power, but its electorate has changed with the arrival of more and more right-leaning voters from California.

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, the highest-ranking Republican in the Senate with eight terms of service,lost his seat to Josh Keyser, who was raised in Southern California and moved to Boise in 2018. Keyser’s website said he was vice principal at a Christian school.

Winder had clashed with legislators to his right and was a critic of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which has pushed to slash government spending across the board, worked to repeal the Idaho Medicaid expansion that was enacted by voters, claimed that Idaho’s schools are indoctrinating children into leftist politics, and more.

Stephanie Witt, professor of public policy, administration and political science at Boise State University, told ProPublica the upset for Winder and other Boise-area incumbents illustrated a stark new reality.

“It’s hard to overstate the number of California relocations and their interest,” Witt said.

“We’ve had people that were good legislators, very conservative, in the Treasure Valley,” she said, “but they’re being painted like they’re Bernie Sanders acolytes.”

Winder noted the changing politics of Idaho in an interview with the Idaho Press after the election.

“I think we’ve had a huge influence from out-of-state people moving here,” he told the publication. “All in all, Idaho is going to be fine, but good mainline Idaho people are going to have to get more involved in the party.”

Some Less-Populated Areas Snub the Far Right

In contrast to the wins for right-wing candidates in the capital city and its suburbs, several legislators far from Boise won reelection by wide margins, despite attacks from their county GOP committee claiming they failed to support the Republican platform.

East Idaho, known for agriculture, a national nuclear laboratory and a large membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also narrowly voted to oust a hard-line conservative incumbent. Julianne Young, an East Idaho Republican who introduced legislation to make “gender” and “sex” synonymous in state law, trailed her opponent by two votes, though she says she will request a recount.

In rural North Idaho, voters kicked out Sen. Scott Herndon, a conservative firebrand whose legislative agenda included making abortion illegal for rape victims. Herndon lost to former legislator Jim Woodward, who said he wants to see some health-related exceptions to the state’s abortion ban, according to Politico.

This year’s results revealed that some conservative Idahoans went into the voting booth with a “traditional Idaho trait: that you don’t like to be pushed around,” said Jim Jones, a Republican who previously served as attorney general and chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court.

Jones, an outspoken critic of polarized Republican politics, is pushing for a ballot initiative this fall that would replace party primaries with a single, nonpartisan primary. The top vote-getters would then face off in a ranked-choice vote in the general election. Jones says the initiative would take power away from the fringes and put a premium on appealing to all voters.

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Jim Jones, a former chief justice of the Idaho State Supreme Court, speaks to volunteers working in support of a Idaho open primaries ballot initiative.


Credit:
Kyle Green/AP

Attacking Libraries Can Backfire

The outcomes also offered a partial verdict on one of the most explosive issues in America’s culture wars.

Idaho’s GOP last year held a no-confidence vote against 14 legislators statewide who in 2023 failed to support letting parents sue libraries over books considered “harmful to minors.” (The no-confidence vote also swept in Idaho’s Republican governor.) Nine of the 14 survived the GOP primary.

Kettler said the state and local Republican Party members who condemned incumbents over the library issue might be “more ideologically extreme” than most voters.

Idaho GOP Chair Dorothy Moon did not respond to interview requests from ProPublica. According to the Idaho Statesman, Moon said in her election night speech, “I think we’re fighting for the heart and soul of the party and the heart and soul of Idaho.”

The Idaho Public Policy Survey — the survey of about 1,000 residents conducted in November — found overwhelming support for libraries. About 62% of the 374 self-identified Republicans who responded said they trust the choices of libraries and librarians.

Of the lawmakers who survived the primary despite their party’s censure of their library vote, about half were from East Idaho.

“My view is that, in eastern Idaho, the voters were sick and tired of all of the culture war fighting,” said Jones.

The Jury on Public Education Is Still Out

One of the highest-profile losses for incumbents was a Boise-area Republican who thwarted tax-funded vouchers that would allow parents to send their children to private school using public funds — a central policy goal of right-wing purists who describe it as “school choice.”

Julie Yamamoto led Idaho’s House Education Committee when it rejected voucher legislation. Challenger Kent Marmon, who embraces school choice, painted Yamamoto as a liberal.

A Virginia-based political action committee called Make Liberty Win produced fliers saying Yamamoto voted to support “porn in school libraries being shown to minors,” Idaho Education News reported, a claim she called “garbage.”

The losses for voucher foes like Yamamoto weren’t uniform. The Senate’s education chair, who has questioned the benefits of voucher proposals, retained his seat. And the Senate lost a key voucher supporter in Herndon, the North Idaho Republican; his challenger has spoken out against public support for private education, according to Idaho Education News.

It is unclear what the outcome portends for Republicans when they take up school spending issues next year.

Idahoans regularly list public education as a top priority. In sparsely populated parts of Idaho, which often lack private schools, the public schoolhouse is a gathering place for football games or performing arts — the “heart of the community,” as Jones says.

But advocates for “school choice” in Idaho appear to be finding an audience.

The recent state policy survey found that 60% of Republicans favored letting Idaho parents use $8,000 of public school money to enroll their student in private or religious school. About twice as many Republicans said they “strongly favor” that idea as “strongly oppose” it.

Kettler said national conservative groups seized on that sentiment and spent heavily on Idaho’s primary races this year, seeing Idaho as a place to advance conservative school policies such as vouchers.

These groups decided, Kettler said, that “it’s worth investing.”