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State of the Republican Party in Idaho after COVID-19 causes rift inside the Statehouse

After Gov. Little and Lt. Gov. McGeachin publicly sparred over the state's COVID-19 pandemic response, what's the state of the Idaho GOP in 2021?

BOISE, Idaho — There's been a lot of talk about the future of the Republican Party after the assault on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters. Seventeen Republicans voted to impeach or convict President Trump for incitement of insurrection.

Here in the Gem State, Republican lawmakers are working to sidestep a member of their own party by attempting to cut Gov. Little's powers during an emergency.

To get a better idea of the climate within the Idaho Republican Party, KTVB spoke with party chairman Tom Luna to discuss the party's stability and strategy moving forward.

"We're a big tent and that tends to invite a lot of opinions and a lot of passionate conversations," Luna said.

Idaho's Republican big tent has been especially full over the past year. 2020 began with two very different opinions from the state's top two Republican leaders on how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On one side, Gov. Brad Little, who, using his emergency powers, issued a five-week stay-at-home order and shutdown of non-essential businesses.

"Our goal isn't to arrest people. Our goal is to keep Idahoans safe by maintaining this stay-home order," Gov. Little said in March.

On the other side, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who publicly disagreed with Little, and even urged Idahoans to openly defy his order.

We recognize that all of us, by nature, are free and equal and have certain inalienable rights," Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin said in October 2020 Facebook video from Idaho Freedom Foundation.

By the legislative session, all but eight of the 58 Republicans in the Idaho House voted to limit Gov. Little's emergency powers. The Senate has yet to take up the issue.

"So what's happening in the Legislature today, this isn't that uncommon," said Luna. "The issue is uncommon because we've never been in a pandemic.  But what's happening with the, you know, they're all on the same page but they're not on the same paragraph yet."

He added that the Idaho GOP hasn't taken an official stance on the policy but would either support or oppose whatever becomes law.

Established Republicans have since come forward, blasting their fellow GOP lawmakers for their attempt to limit Little's power. 

In an op-ed letter, Congressman Mike Simpson and former Idaho House Speaker Bruce Newcomb called on lawmakers "to end the political jockeying and untruths about emergency declarations and do what is right for the people of Idaho..."

But Luna insisted there's no divide within the state party, just differences. He said this is how government works, even those within the same party will have different opinions.

It certainly isn't anything new for the Idaho GOP. Little's predecessor, Gov. Butch Otter, was often challenged by Tea Party Republicans in the Legislature. But how much more can the "big tent" hold?  

"I think if we take our eye off the ball and not unite and continue to unite around what we recognize is the real threat, that just like Colorado, just like in Nevada, just like New Mexico and now Arizona, that not too long ago, not too many election cycles ago, were solid red states are now purple and even blue.  That if we take our eye off the ball, that is the challenge for the Republican Party," Luna said.

Luna told KTVB that behind the scenes, GOP lawmakers talk of both of the need to come together and maintaining their individual opinions.  

"Understanding that at the end of the day, we have to find common ground and we have to move forward, right.  But at the same time making sure everybody's voice is heard, everybody feels like they've been heard and treated fairly at the legislative level and at all levels," Luna said. "But if people feel like they haven't been heard or haven't been treated fairly, that's when you really struggle keeping people united."

The Idaho Republican Party is also focused on the state's growing population. Newcomers mean new voters. In the past year, the number of registered Republicans has grown by more than 113,000. But which opinions in the big tent will they support?

"We recognize that in a fast-growing state, it creates dynamics that we've never experienced before," Luna said.

Another dynamic to consider is that nearly 339,000 Idaho voters are unaffiliated. Their numbers have also grown over the last year, by nearly 29,000.

Luna said the GOP's research shows unaffiliated voters tend to vote Republican in Idaho. But what kind of Republican voter? One who still wants former President Donald Trump as their party leader, or one who is in favor of a new direction?

"I think the Republican Party is going to move forward with a number of people who want to be president in 2024, and we've heard from many that already want access and opportunity to engage with Republicans in Idaho. Donald Trump is the former president and the Republican president and so going forward I expect him to continue to be involved, and how that evolves I think is still a decision he's going to make and then ultimately the party will make," Luna said

Voters will have their chance to say which voice and opinion they like the most in the GOP big tent. 

The May Republican Primary is a little over a year away in May 2022. On the ballot, the race for governor, one Senate seat, both House seats, as well as state legislative races.     

   

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