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Primary sets stage for a different Idaho Senate

“The House becomes less radical, the Senate becomes more radical,” said former longtime GOP Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. “Who’s the backstop?”

BOISE, Idaho —

This story originally appeared in the Idaho Press.

An effort by a slate of far-right candidates to take over Republican-held offices in Idaho largely failed at the state level in last week’s primary election, but results were more mixed in legislative races, and the Idaho Legislature will see significant change next year.

Already, due to redistricting, retirements, lawmakers running for higher offices and primary election results, there will be nearly 50 new faces in legislative chambers — 18 in the 35-member Senate and 31 in the 70-member House – and that’s not counting any additional changes as a result of the general election in November.

And while some of the loudest far-right voices in the House will be gone – including Reps. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, the de facto leader of the “liberty” legislators, Chad Christensen, R-Iona, and Karey Hanks, R-St. Anthony – the Senate likely will have far more members from that wing of the Idaho GOP. That includes some moving over from the House, some who defeated high-ranking Senate committee chairs, and some making unexpected comebacks, like tax-protesting former North Idaho Rep. Phil Hart.

“The House becomes less radical, the Senate becomes more radical,” said former longtime GOP Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. “Who’s the backstop?”

House Assistant Minority Leader Lauren Necochea, D-Boise, who also is chair of the Idaho Democratic Party, said, “Everyone is really talking about the changes to the Senate. … If all of the far-right Senate candidates who came out of the primary prevail in the general election, we’re going to see a very different Senate with a far-right turn in Senate leadership.”

Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, noted that due to primary election defeats, the Senate is losing key committee chairs and longtime senators. Those include Senate Education Chairman Steven Thayn of Emmett; Tax Chair Jim Rice of Caldwell; Commerce Chair Jim Patrick of Twin Falls; Health and Welfare Chair Fred Martin of Boise; and Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee Co-Chair Jeff Agenbroad of Nampa.

“That’s a huge loss,” Winder said. “He did such a great job this year stepping in as co-chair.” And with that budget-writing panel’s Senate vice-chair, Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, also falling to a challenge from the right in the primary, “It’s going to leave a big hole there.”

Also defeated in the primary were JFAC member Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, who fell to Idaho Freedom PAC-endorsed candidate Scott Herndon in the primary; and Sen. Peter Riggs, R-Coeur d’Alene, who lost to the PAC’s pick, Carl Bjerke. In addition, JFAC member Sen. Mark Nye, D-Pocatello, retired.

The morning after the election, Winder said, “I’ve had several members call me already and ask me what I was going to do. I need to think about it. We lost a lot of seniority out of the group.”

The House side of the joint committee already was losing its House co-chair, Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, and vice-chair, Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, to retirement. In addition, there are four more House departures, three who lost in the GOP primary and a fourth, Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, who stepped down to run unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor.

All told, that’s 11 members of the key 20-member panel who won’t be back next year, and that’s before any November election changes.

But the changes in the Senate may have even more impact. “The House has passed a slew of extreme bills that then died in the Senate,” Necochea said, “and this is their strategy to take away the Senate’s ability to stop those harmful things.”

She cited House-passed bills to criminalize librarians if minors check out “harmful” materials; to impose felony penalties on doctors and parents if minors receive gender-affirming medical care; and far-reaching changes to Idaho election laws that she said “would have made it absurdly difficult to vote in Idaho.”

“Idahoans were protected from the grim reality of these bills actually being enacted by a Senate where cooler heads sometimes prevailed,” Necochea said. “I predict broad consolidating around Democratic candidates for the Senate in key races, because I hear from so many longtime Republicans that they don’t recognize their party any more.”

Winder doesn’t think the Senate changes go that far. He noted that the Senate also gained some more moderate Republicans in the primary, including former Rep. Linda Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, who faces only a Constitution Party challenger in November.

“When you look at the core of the caucus, it’s still the same,” Winder said. “We lost some up north, we gained some. … All of our leadership team stayed together. So all in all, I have great hope for the new members coming in and for the ability of the existing members to work with the new members coming in. We’ll maintain the civility and collegiality and thoughtfulness of the Senate.”

Two of the Senate’s most outspoken conservatives, Sens. Christy Zito, R-Hammett, and Regina Bayer, R-Meridian, retired; former Mountain Home city councilman Geoff Schroeder and Meridian City Council President Treg Bernt, both of whom were recommended by the anti-extremism Idaho 97 Project, won the GOP primaries for those two seats.

Meanwhile, seven current House members won primary races for Senate seats, including two endorsed by the Idaho Freedom PAC, Doug Okunewicz of Hayden and Tammy Nichols of Middleton; two other conservatives, Ben Adams of Nampa and Codi Galloway of Boise; two more mainstream Republicans, Hartgen and Laurie Lickley of Jerome; and one Democrat, James Ruchti of Pocatello, who is seeking Nye’s seat.

Ysursa said he hopes Winder’s right. “I’m optimistic that cooler heads will prevail,” he said, but added, “I might be naïve.”

North Idaho saw the most far-right wins in the GOP primary, with every seat in District 4 in Coeur d’Alene, for example, claimed by Idaho Freedom PAC-endorsed newcomers. But eastern Idaho saw more mainstream Republicans prevail, with Hanks losing to former Rep. Jerald Raymond; Nate losing to former Rep. Britt Raybould of Rexburg, and Christensen losing to Josh Wheeler of Ammon.

Results were more mixed in the Treasure Valley, where GOP primary losses include Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, the lead sponsor of the librarian bill; and Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, the outspoken critic of the Idaho Freedom Foundation whose bid for an open Senate seat lost out to Idaho Freedom PAC-endorsed candidate Chris Trakel.

Tom Luna, Idaho Republican Party chair, said he believes Democrats are gearing up to turn Idaho blue the way the party successfully shifted political winds in Colorado and Nevada.

“They see opportunity because we are a fast-growing state,” Luna told a GOP unity rally at the state Capitol on Wednesday. “It’s a fascinating story about how the Democrats flipped a very solid red state in Colorado to a blue state, and then decided, huh, I wonder if this will work in Arizona, I wonder if it would work in New Mexico, I wonder if it would work in Nevada, and it did – and now they’re here. We’re in their crosshairs. So we don’t take anything for granted.”

Necochea confirmed that Idaho Democrats have seen upticks in fundraising, both from the national party and from in-state sources; by July, she expects the party to have 16 staffers. “We are ramping up,” she said. “Our party is stronger than it’s been in a long time.”

“Idaho continues to get national attention, national press for our extremist politicians,” Necochea said, “and many Idahoans are weary of that and want to be part of turning the tide.”

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

This story originally appeared in the Idaho Press. Read more at IdahoPress.com

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