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Edging still further

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News reports say former state Representative Luke Malek has started work toward running for lieutenant governor in 2022, and that he wants to “work together to solve problems rather than divide people.”

Three thoughts come immediately to mind. First, this sounds like an excellent and needed sentiment, Second, if he’s going to pursue this, he’s wise to get an early start, because what he’s trying to accomplish won’t be easy. The third is that, based on what sounds like a philosophical organizing principle, he may have mistaken coming election cycle for that of something like, say, 1972.

He’s in the right party to win; a working majority of Idaho voters have written off listening to or considering Democrats before they even know who’s running. But as to what it takes to win a Republican Party in today’s atmosphere, well, solutions don’t seem to be of much interest, and neither does unity.

Malek would, moreover, be stepping into the middle of the political hurricane in which that whole dynamic may be put to the test.

There’ve been no formal announcements, but many Idaho political people at this point would be surprised if Idaho’s current lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin, doesn’t run for governor, presumably against incumbent Brad Little, who’s widely expected to seek a second term.

The two have been at odds, a lot, sometimes even going without speaking for extended periods, and this has not been (at least not primarily) personal: They come from different wings of the Idaho Republican Party. You could fairly consider Little as establishment and business-oriented with a political view probably not drastically different from a Phil Batt or a Dirk Kempthorne. McGeachin is part of the activist, rabble-rousing crowd more like a Sarah Palin or a member of the U.S. House Freedom Caucus, appealing to Donald Trump superfans, more interested in raising hell than in crafting policy.

If they go head to head next year (opening the lieutenant governor spot on the ballot, to circle back to Malek), what happens?

We’re still a year and a half from that primary election, but the trajectory right now is clear. As the writer Chuck Malloy said in a recent column, “Can she win? Absolutely.”

Malloy cites a collection of – well, we’ll call them activists – ranging from the anti-maskers to the militia types and well beyond, who would fall naturally into a McGeachin base. Little has a base too, mainly of mainstream Republicans. But let’s look at the numbers.

In this year’s election Trump, who lost nationally and decisively (you can forget about debating that point), won Idaho with 63.9 percent of the vote, compared to 59.2% in 2016, and with a much larger turnout; the numbers indicate he is more popular in Idaho now than he was four years ago. Anyone running in Idaho not as a Trump acolyte has a serious numbers problem.

That’s of a piece. Two years ago, in a seven-way Republican primary, Russ Fulcher won the Republican nomination in the first congressional district with 43.1% – nearly three times the second-place finisher – running as the leading candidate of the Trump-activist side of the party. (Malek came in third, with 14.3 percent.) That same election, the similarly-positioned McGeachin, running in a five-way for the Republican lieutenant governor nomination, won with 28.9 percent, which was nearly twice her nearest competitor.

True, Little – on that same day – won his primary with 37.3 percent. He had two main competitors, both seeking to pick up votes from the same segment of the party Fulcher and McGeachin were appealing to; in effect, they split the vote of that segment. Had either of those candidates not been in the race, Little probably would not have won.

That dynamic was less true in past election years; in 2014, for example, C.L. “Butch” Otter of the mainstream wing, running for re-election as governor, defeated Fulcher in what was meaningfully a two-way, though not overwhelmingly. But conditions seem to have changed since then.

Idaho politics has been remarkably stable for many years. In 2022, it may take a shift – not of party, but of world view. And candidates like Malek, and maybe Little, may be challenged navigating it.
 

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