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2022 Idaho primary election: Republican governor’s race features fierce political rivals

Door to the Office of the Governor at the Idaho State Capitol building on March 23, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
Otto Kitsinger
Door to the Office of the Governor at the Idaho State Capitol building on March 23, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Voters will head to the polls on May 17; winner will advance to Nov. 8 general election

Idaho’s governor’s race has all the makings of a national spectacle and has Republican Party officials in Idaho sitting on pins and needles.

“I say this is a primary like no other,” Idaho Republican Party chairman Tom Luna told the Idaho Capital Sun. “When I go to my national Republican meetings, the party chairs always have the opportunity to stand up and talk a little bit about their state, and every state has a story. But when I get up there and say I’ve got my sitting lieutenant governor running against my sitting governor they’re like, ‘OK, you win.’”

In Idaho, the governor and lieutenant governor don’t run for office as part of a joint ticket the way a U.S. president and vice president would.

It isn’t just that incumbent Republican Gov. Brad Little and incumbent Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin are running against each other. They are now bitter political rivals who have publicly feuded and criticized each other throughout most of the past two years.

Twice when Little left the state and McGeachin served as acting governor in his absence, McGeachin used that temporary authority to issue executive orders that banned mask mandates and, on another occasion, COVID-19 testing and vaccination requirements. Little immediately overturned those executive orders and accused McGeachin of abusing her power. Now, Little doesn’t always tell McGeachin when he’s away. He points to a legal opinion from the Idaho Attorney General’s Office stating it is “reasonable” that the governor’s absence from the state doesn’t prevent him from discharging his duties. There is a trigger clause in the Idaho Constitution that says the lieutenant governor is to serve as acting governor under a number of scenarios, including the governor’s “death, removal from office, resignation, absence from the state or inability to discharge the powers and duties of his office …”

Little said McGeachin’s use of executive orders while serving as acting governor was “an irresponsible, self-serving political stunt.”

McGeachin refers to the incumbent governor as “Little Brad,” or a RINO (Republican in name only) and says he is beholden to big corporations and the establishment.

Little and McGeachin aren’t the only two Republicans running in the GOP gubernatorial primary. A total of eight candidates are on the ballot, also including Ed Humphreys, Ashley Jackson, Lisa Marie, Steven Bradshaw, Ben Cannady and Cody Usabel. On the Democratic side, only little known candidate Stephen Heidt is on the primary ballot, while Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad will run a write-in campaign for the Democratic primary.

The winner of the May 17 primaries advances to the Nov. 8 general election, which will also feature independent and third party candidates.

Where Idaho’s Republican gubernatorial candidates stand on the issues

During a March 17 press conference on the steps of the Idaho State Capitol, McGeachin laid out her top priorities should she be elected.

Her “conservative vision for a free and prosperous Idaho” includes the prohibition of medical mandates and vaccine requirements, support for a 50-state audit of the 2020 election that President Joe Biden won, eliminating Idaho’s corporate income and grocery tax, cutting property taxes and making Idaho a “Second Amendment sanctuary state,” defending against so-called “cancel culture.” McGeachin also called for reducing what she called Idaho’s dependence on federal funding, as well as for supporting school choice, eliminating Common Core curriculum in public schools and pushing for the overturn of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

“As I have traveled across our beautiful state I have listened to our people, and I hear you loud and clear,” McGeachin said March 17. “On the very first day of my administration, Idaho will have a governing agenda that is crafted by the people of Idaho.”

McGeachin said her first priority is to “restore health freedom and end the threat of medical tyranny.”

Humphreys’ top priorities include promoting more school options and overhauling Idaho’s public school funding formula so that money follows the student to a family’s school of choice, even to private and religious schools that do not now receive taxpayer funds.

“Education has to be No. 1,” Humphreys said. “We have a broken education system. My opponent, the current administration, feels that throwing more money at education is the only solution. I believe Idaho can lead America with an innovative approach to education.”

Humphreys also supports eliminating Idaho’s income tax, which he said would force the state to focus only on essential and reasonable programs and, he estimates, give back $3,000 per year to the average working Idahoan, which Humphreys said will spur the economy.

Removing the income tax would kill the largest source of revenue for the state’s general fund. Collected income tax makes up about $2.45 billion of the state’s general fund, which had a total of $5 billion in revenue for fiscal year 2021.

Humphreys also supports vocational training and career-technical education, which he says can help prepare young Idahoans to work immediately after high school and confront the state’s rising housing costs. Humphreys also backs criminal justice and reentry reformsincluding a proposal to issue documents necessary for employment – like a state-issued ID, a copy of a birth certificate and a Social Security card – to everyone who completes incarceration to help them reenter the workforce.

As for the incumbent, Little said the three areas he has focused on during his first four-year term continue to set his agenda for the next four years if voters re-elect him. This year, Little and the Republican-controlled Idaho Legislature used a projected $2 billion budget surplus to help pass the largest income tax cut in state history, pass investments in transportation and infrastructure, and approve one of the largest funding increases for K-12 public schools in state history. That proposal included a 12.5% increase in state funding with $47 million in additional funding for kindergarten through third grade reading and literacy. Little says most Idaho school districts will use that money to launch or support all-day kindergarten, but they are free to use the money how they sit fit at the local level. Previously, Idaho has only provided state funding for half-day kindergarten, which is optional for families.

“We are not telling districts what to do. We’re telling them the results we want — that our kids are reading — and then let the superintendent, the trustees and the teachers in the classroom figure out how to get there,” Little said. “The Legislature and governors tend to want to put a bunch of code on the books and intent language and appropriation bills. I want to say, ‘Here are the general results we want, we trust your good judgment and your knowledge of your local school district and your kids to get there.’”

Although Little did not debate his Republican challengers this year, he said he is running on his record.

“If the good people of Idaho support me in my goal to win this nomination, what has happened in the past is going to happen in the future,” Little said.

Idahoans never got to see Republican candidates for governor debate before primary

From the Republican field of eight candidates, three gubernatorial candidates (Little, McGeachin and Humphreys) met the qualifications to participate in the televised Idaho Debates, including providing proof of an active campaign and fundraising.

However, Little refused to participate in a pending televised Idaho Debates gubernatorial debate and then McGeachin backed out, prompting organizers to cancel the only planned statewide televised gubernatorial debate.

Little was the first sitting governor seeking re-election in more than 30 years to decline to participate in the Idaho Debates, according to the Idaho Press Club.

Little said he isn’t debating because his record is undebatable.

“My record, I believe is, undisputable,” Little told the Sun. “The people of Idaho know what we have got done. Not that everybody doesn’t always stay on message during debates, but I feel like my record is so strong. The fact that the promises I made four years ago, I have fulfilled. I have spent enough time out all over Idaho that I am quite confident that Idahoans, knowing my record, will know that I did what I said I was going to do, and you can’t argue about the trajectory and the prosperity that is taking place in Idaho at this point in time.”

“Whether it be media interviews, town halls, Capital for Day, fill in the blank, I have done all of those and I stand by my comments, my actions, my reactions, my responses to questions at all of those, from one end of the state to the other,” Little added.

Humphreys, who is challenging Little and the rest of the Republican gubernatorial candidates, criticized Little for not debating.

“If you are an incumbent who is truly acting in Idahoans best interest, you should be proud to answer questions and stand by both your administration and your accomplishments,” Humphreys told the Sun. “You have no honor if you are not willing to participate in debates and participate in the electoral process.”

During a March 17, press conference McGeachin said debating her opponents is part of the job, but she also backed out of the gubernatorial debate once Little backed out, said Idaho Press Club president Betsy Russell, one of the debate’s organizers.

Could feuds and controversies hurt any of the GOP candidates?

McGeachin did not respond to multiple interview requests from the Sun over the past two weeks.

Although McGeachin’s profile has been elevated considerably since being elected lieutenant governor in 2018 and announcing her gubernatorial campaign in 2021, she is not a political newcomer.

A business owner from Idaho Falls, McGeachin was elected to five terms in the Idaho House of Representatives, where she served from 2002 to 2012. She served as chairwoman of the Idaho House Health and Welfare Committee in 2011 and 2012, where she supported recession-era cuts to Medicaid programs and opposed the state health insurance exchange.

In 2018, McGeachin became the first woman elected lieutenant governor in Idaho state history.

McGeachin announced her campaign for governor in May 2021 and was subsequently endorsed by former President Donald J. Trump last November.

But aside from her use of her power while serving as acting governor, McGeachin has faced other controversies as she campaigns for the position of the state’s top elected official.

In March, McGeachin delivered videotaped remarks to the America First Political Action Conference, which is hosted and attended by white nationalists and Holocaust deniers.

Last week, McGeachin promoted and participated in a campaign event that featured former Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin, who the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti Defamation League says has ties to, and has shared stages with, white nationalists and far right extremists.

Since spring, McGeachin has repeatedly been warned by state officials and budget administrators that she faces a projected budget deficit for her office, most recently estimated at $2,067,83, when the 2022 fiscal year ends June 30. McGeachin has been working without a paid staff since the April 15 pay period and told state officials they may withhold her salary and benefits to help avoid a budget shortfall. McGeachin’s budget problems arose after a district judge ordered her to pay almost $29,000 in legal fees and costs to the Idaho Press Club after McGeachin lost a lawsuit over her withholding public records related to her 2021 education task force. The task force itself, which McGeachin said she created to root out so-called “indoctrination” in public schools, was also controversial. The overwhelming majority of public comments Idahoans made were in opposition to McGeachin and the task force or supportive of schools.

Last week, an Idaho taxpayer who is active in Republican politicsfiled a complaint asking the state to investigate whether McGeachin’s posted office hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays violate a section of state law requires Idaho’s public officers to keep their offices open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays.

“Attention is focused on the gubernatorial election because of the great significance to the state and its future,” said political scientist David Adler, who has studied and taught Idaho politics and constitutional law for decades. “I don’t anticipate it to be a particularly close election. I think the lieutenant governor has engaged in so many missteps that it hurt her chance to make it a competitive race. I think the governor enjoys pretty significant support among Republicans and even, indeed, among independents.”

In addition to McGeachin, Rognstad’s campaign team did not respond to an interview request this week from the Idaho Capital Sun and Jackson did not respond until Friday evening, after this article was submitted for publication. Little and Humphreys participated in lengthy, on-the-record interviews with the Sun.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.