Governor Little 'Not DeSantis Enough' for Idaho Conservatives Idaho Governor Brad Little, R-Idaho, speaks at the White House in Washington, D.C., on July 16, 2020, during an event on Rolling Back Regulations to Help All Americans. (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
By Charlie McCarthy | Friday, 11 June 2021 09:14 AM
A primary challenge to Gov. Brad Little, R-Idaho, by his own lieutenant governor shows the Republican Party's in-state split and symbolizes the national GOP's quandary.
Little, a moderate, is being challenged by Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, a conservative who has centered her campaign around coronavirus pandemic restrictions.
McGeachin, a strong supporter of former President Donald Trump, took advantage of Little temporarily being out of state to issue a short-lived statewide order banning local governments from enforcing COVID-prevention mask mandates. The action drew comparisons to those of Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., the first governor to essentially ban local municipalities from implementing mask mandates.
Little, meanwhile, has been criticized for his heavy-handed approach to pandemic restrictions.
"A lot of people were saying [Little’s] not DeSantis enough," said China Gum, who advised former GOP Rep. Raul Labrador's 2018 gubernatorial campaign against Little. "DeSantis is a lot more symbolic of what Idaho Republicans want.
"I don’t understand why Brad Little has been more California in his approach, more shutdown on this issue."
Or as Boise County GOP Chair Eric McGilp said: "Half the party or more is on the DeSantis train. We would like a DeSantis."
An advisor to Little told Politico the governor's team believes he’ll win because McGeachin represents a vocal minority. Others are not so sure.
"Everybody says, 'oh, it's about the economy, about the economy, about the economy.' Sure. But it looks as if the Republican Party is moving away from economic issues, because in a place like Idaho, it's already so strong," the advisor said.
"So where do you go next? I mean, there's been critical race theory discussions here in Idaho, discussions about diversity programs in Idaho. The conversations are starting to change in this Republican primary. The litmus test is no longer, 'did you vote for a tax increase? Are you Pro Life? Are you Pro Gun?'"
Idaho’s 2022 Republican gubernatorial primary is the only one in the nation in which a sitting governor is being challenged by a lieutenant governor of his own party. As in several other states, the governor and lieutenant governor are separately elected.
The battle between Little and McGeachin symbolizes a struggle within the national GOP.
"Our party is struggling with its identity. It's going to come to an ugly head," Butte County GOP Chair Kay Lynn Smith told Politico.
"We are so bipolar right now. [Idaho is] one of the big strongholds for the ultra-conservatives and they’re looking to make this their kingdom. Moderates and a lot of the people who had the money and the power are aging out and losing interest. They’re not interested in supporting a party with radicals."
While McGeachin pleased conservatives with her statewide order, Little’s leadership during the pandemic has been a success if one looks at the state owning the sixth-lowest unemployment rate in the nation and ranking 41st in COVID-19 death rate.
With Idaho boasting a good economy and Republicans largely in agreement about low taxes, gun rights, and fewer regulations, McGeachin's campaign has instead centered around mask mandates – something that appeals to personal freedom and bashing the federal government.
Lewis Country GOP Chair Rebecca Crea told Politico there's a feeling among many party members that Little was too strict with pandemic restrictions. She said Little was a "Republican in Name Only" (RINO) who won his office in 2018 thanks to slick ads and a crowded GOP primary.
"People are paying attention now," she said. "You had people not paying attention [in 2018] and they vote for people simply because they have a cowboy hat, and Little is a rancher.
"We want him to be more of a governor than he is. Janice has been for the people all the time. She’s on the ground. She knows the people. And everyone loves her."
McGeachin protested the governor's brief stay-at-home order, issued in the spring of 2020, when she spoke at rallies.
"The tension between the governor and the lieutenant governor is to be expected because they are of completely different political persuasions," Dean Mortimer, a Republican and former state senator and representative, told Politico. "So we got a conservative lieutenant governor and a middle-of-the-road governor and there is going to be a difference of opinion."