Lessons Learned in the Primary Elections by Brian Almon
Better tactics can secure statewide victory.
Conservatives were disappointed Tuesday night when establishment-backed candidates won all but one statewide race. Brad Little, Scott Bedke, Phil McGrane, and Debbie Critchfield all comfortably won their races. The only conservative victory at this level came from Raul Labrador, who defeated four-term incumbent Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.
On the other hand, conservatives scored huge victories in legislative races. Several notorious establishment figures lost, including Senators Jeff Agenbroad, Fred Martin, and Carl Crabtree, while conservative stars Codi Galloway and Tammy Nichols won.
The question is: how to replicate these successes at the state level?
There are four important lessons we can draw from Tuesday’s results:
1. Field great candidates.
Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin won a crowded primary in 2018 with just 28.9% and 51,098 votes. She improved on that margin in 2022, winning 32.38% with 90,682 votes. However, Governor Little went from 37.3% and 72,548 votes in 2018 to 52.76% and 148,213 votes in 2022. McGeachin’s positions and principles were fine but she had trouble with her delivery. Her stump speeches and TV commercials came across as disjointed and unconfident. The controversy over her office’s budget, while perhaps not her fault, made it difficult to hear her signal within the noise.
Ed Humphreys, who finished in third, was a better speaker and generally avoided controversy. Questions about his youth and inexperience dogged him for the entire campaign, however. He also attacked the lieutenant governor, the candidate with whom he most closely aligned, which may have turned off conservatives. His attacks were erratic - he claimed that she was just political insider and denounced her as a right-wing extremist for sending a video message to the America First Political Action Conference.
In the lieutenant governor’s race, Priscilla Giddings could never shake the controversy over her social media post linking to the name of the woman who accused Aaron von Ehlinger of rape. When von Ehlinger was convicted a few weeks ago, the media tarred Giddings as a defender of rapists. Fighting against such obvious hit pieces takes up time and energy that would be better spent campaigning on the issues.
On the other hand, our most successful candidate had mostly upsides. Raul Labrador had name recognition from his time in Congress and his previous run for governor. He is an articulate and engaging speaker. He avoided scandals. The only lines of attack from opponents was that he had worked as a lobbyist after his stint in Congress and that he had accepted an improper donation from a Republican county committee.
If conservatives are to win statewide in Idaho, we need good candidates who are well spoken, avoid controversy, and are already well known. We need to be developing a bench full of these sorts of men and women.
2. Stop splitting the vote.
In 2018, Raul Labrador came within 9,000 votes of becoming the governor who would shepherd Idaho through the COVID-19 pandemic. We cannot know for certain whether enough of Tommy Ahlquist’s 51,000 votes would have gone to Labrador, but it seems likely. It is clear, however, that 63% of Idaho Republicans rejected Brad Little in 2018. Until we have a runoff election in Idaho, conservatives need to stop splitting their votes and allowing the establishment picks to win with less than 50%.
In 2022, Brad Little won with more than 50% of the vote, so this does not apply here. Had McGeachin and Humphreys split a majority there would have been much finger-pointing on Tuesday night. Consider the race for Secretary of State, however. Phil McGrane defeated Dorothy Moon by around 4,000 votes. Mary Souza, running on essentially the same platform as Moon, had ten times that margin. Souza probably cost Moon the election. No other Republican should ever get Souza-d!
Consider the race for US Senate. Four candidates launched quixotic campaigns to defeat incumbent Mike Crapo, earning a combined 33% of the vote. If conservatives had united behind a single candidate, perhaps a real race might have developed.
Vote splitting can benefit conservatives if there are two establishment candidates in a race. Branden Durst ran against Debbie Critchfield and Sherri Ybarra for State Superintendent, losing by about 15,000 votes. We should be wary about it being used to harm our cause.
For Idaho conservatives to win statewide, we must stop splitting the vote. We need to unite around one conservative standard-bearer for each race.
3. Donate wisely.
715 donors gave nearly $450,000 to Ed Humphreys during this campaign. Another 1,757 gave more than $650,000 to McGeachin. However, they were dwarfed by the 2,863 donors who gave Governor Little over $2 million.
In the lieutenant governor’s race, 953 donors gave more than $800,000 to Scott Bedke while 1,581 donors gave $630,000 to Priscilla Giddings. Despite having only two thirds as many individual donors, Bedke won by more than 24,000 votes.
How much would it have taken to get these candidates over the top?
Conservatives donate lots of money. We tend to give much more to charity than progressives, and many political organizations rely on the largess of conservative donors. The Heritage Foundation, the American Conservative Union, and the NRA exist because we send them our hard-earned cash.
Imagine if we focused our money on our state. Imagine if, instead of fielding dozens of candidates, we picked one or two rock stars and focused our money on their campaigns. Once we have donated the max to individual candidates, we could give the rest to a PAC that will assist a slate of fantastic conservatives.
Donors forked over more than $50,000 to the four US Senate challengers. Might that money have made a difference to a candidate that actually had a chance of winning?
If we want to see conservatives win statewide races, we must wisely put our money where our mouths are.
4. Narrow the issues.
Every Republican in Idaho is basically pro-life, pro-gun, pro-cop, and supports the troops. Our differences are more esoteric: How should we fund education, and how can we structure school choice? Should we subsidize private businesses? Should government intervene to protect employees’ medical freedom? How can we keep obscene materials from children? How do we keep Marxist racial and sexual ideology out of public schools?
Most voters are swayed by appeals to the big issues. Bedke sent out a mailer saying that he was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police and unfairly accusing Priscilla Giddings of being as anti-cop as AOC or Nancy Pelosi. Candidates who were endorsed by Idaho Chooses Life accused their opponents of not being committed to the pro-life cause. The real issues in Idaho were obfuscated by bickering over things that nearly every Idaho Republican claims to agree on.
If conservatives are to win statewide in Idaho, we need to narrow the issues. Glenn Younkin won the governorship of Virginia with a singular focus on public schools. We must keep our focus on the issues that differentiate our candidates from the establishment. Make them answer for giving tax breaks and subsidies to billion-dollar corporations. Hold them accountable for allowing Marxist indoctrination in our schools.
Idaho is a red state, but not as conservative as outsiders believe. Big business, big pharma, and big lobbies control much of our discourse and prevent us from making Idaho as conservative as we wish. Yet our success in the state senate races shows that there is a path to victory here, as long as we are willing to follow it.
Brian Almon is a writer and small business owner. Find his work at gemstate.substack.com and follow him on Twitter at GemStateBrian. He lives with his wife and four children in Eagle.