Let’s go ahead and address the elephant in the room: The state’s top-rated conservative legislator, Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, lost his re-election bid last Tuesday. It’s a heart-wrenching defeat, and a difficult one to ignore. Since he joined the Idaho Legislature, Nate has been an unapologetic defender of liberty.
Some people claim, inaccurately, that Nate’s votes merely copied the Idaho Freedom Index, the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s popular analysis of legislation. In reality, Nate’s a pro-free market legislator, a college economics professor who is conservative to the core. He probably would have voted the way he did with or without the Freedom Index; the Index merely substantiated his consistency to, and belief in, constitutional principles, limited government, and free enterprise.
Because of his principled consistency, the bounty on Nate’s head was substantial; showing him the door, the insider crowd thought, would be a way to break the back of the movement. GOP nominee Doug Ricks has made Nate’s adherence to the Legislature’s liberty agenda a central theme of his campaign.
But Nate is just one of 105 lawmakers. Looking at the statewide election results proves one contest does not an election picture make. Following the primary election, there remain several liberty-leaning members of the Idaho Legislature who were similarly targeted and survived their primaries. Those legislators are expected to be joined this winter by the likes of Tammy Nichols of Middleton, who won an open seat, and new faces from eastern Idaho like Julianne Young and Chad Christensen, who beat House committee chairs Julie Van Orden and Tom Loertscher, respectively.
Additionally, some of the most moderate and liberal legislators—Reps. Christy Perry, Kelley Packer, Luke Malek, and Sen. Marv Hagedorn—lost their bids for higher office and won’t be back. Regardless of the general election results, you can expect that there will still be more liberty-minded legislators serving in Boise this winter than there has been in modern history.
As for top-ticket races, there’s a very good chance that former Rep. Janice McGeachin, who won her own hotly contested primary, will become the state’s next lieutenant governor.
And what of that race for governor? The fact is that two-thirds of Idaho Republican voters selected a candidate—Raul Labrador or Tommy Ahlquist—who promised a more conservative agenda than that of Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who won with a 38 percent plurality. The lesson here is that if Little wants to be a successful governor—certainly more successful than retiring Gov. Butch Otter has been over 12 years—it would be prudent for him to move to the right as well.
Several times before I’ve made the pronouncement that the conservative movement in Idaho is alive and well, and I’ve been right each time. Each time I spoke in response to an election cycle in which media pundits, who have little understanding of Idaho politics, wrapped themselves around an election anecdote to paint an inaccurate picture. That’s happening again in the wake of Ron Nate’s primary loss. In 2014 and 2016, years in which the GOP primaries started to become increasingly ideologically competitive, the media pointed to one or more high-profile conservative’s demise and assumed that meant a change in direction for the Legislature or the end of conservatives altogether.
For example, in 2014 establishment forces, led chiefly by Otter, defeated Sen. Monty Pearce of New Plymouth and Rep. Lenore Barrett of Challis in the Republican primary. Two years later, voters sent packing Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll from Cottonwood and Shannon McMillian. These were symbolic, heart-wrenching losses. And, though substantial, the voids were quickly filled by others who believe in, and are devoted to, the cause of liberty. That is the case today. After Tuesday’s election, we find ourselves as good as we were before, and perhaps even marginally better.