The American Redoubt Series: The anatomy of a one-party state

How Idaho has become more conservative since the 1990s

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

Editor’s Note: In last week’s political article we discussed some of the factors that contributed to a building of mistrust for the federal government after events like Ruby Ridge and the siege at Waco. This week, we’ll focus on North Idaho and discuss the rightward shift that has occurred since the 1990s, while also taking a look at how the American Redoubt movement has affected politics in the region.

When Cecil Andrus was elected governor in 1970, Idaho’s political complexion was more balanced than it is today. Described as a “lunch-bucket Democrat,” Andrus gained national attention for being one of the first western politicians who sought office on a platform of conservation. He also enjoys the distinction of being the last elected Democrat to serve as Idaho’s governor.

Though the governor’s office would be controlled by the Democrats for 14 years, the House and Senate had been under Republican majority since the early 1960s.

However, legislatures were known to work with colleagues across the aisle on everything from education to infrastructure in those days. All that seemed to change in the 1990s when Idaho began its slow transition from purple to red to the deep red state it is today and the Republican party began dividing on ideological lines.

What caused the shift?

The short answer: Californians. The long answer: It’s complicated.

Southern California was beset by a series of disasters in the early 1990s, including a devastating earthquake, the Rodney King riots and a recession that left many scrambling to pick up the pieces. As a result, the state lost 1.8 million more people than it gained between 1992 and 2000. During that same period, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona collectively gained 1.4 million more than they lost. It is estimated over half of the immigrants that settled in Idaho in that period came from California.

Former Democratic lawmaker and Hope resident Kermit Kiebert remembers the good ol’ days when Democrats and Republican worked hand-in-hand on the issues.

Kiebert served in the Idaho Senate for District 1 from 1975 to 1987. He spent six of those years as minority leader. In those days, District 1 usually sent a Democrat to the statehouse, but that all changed in the mid-1990s. Kiebert says it was thanks to an influx of out-of-town conservatives.

“What happened over time is we got a demographic change,” Kiebert said. “We went from being more policy-oriented to more of an ideologue community.”

Kiebert believes people migrating from states like California had a direct impact on the shift in Idaho politics.

“We had very few minorities here as compared to a lot of other places,” he said. “That seemed to draw a lot of people that were very much more radical in their views with respect to race and politics. A lot of retired policemen and firemen that moved here were very, very conservative and very, very Republican. They took over the Republican party pretty much in total and organized themselves very well.”

As Kootenai and Bonner counties became identified as “resort communities,” more and more retirees flooded the area. High Country News estimated in 2013 that more than 500 California police officers had retired in North Idaho, most notably Mark Fuhrman, who committed perjury during the O.J. Simpson trial.

“It’s amazing,” said Kiebert. “These people are now anti-government, but they’re all on a government pension. That’s a little bit of hypocrisy there, you know.”

Coeur d’Alene City Councilman Dan English has witnessed the rightward shift first hand. Serving as Kootenai County Clerk for 15 years, English monitored more than 100 local elections and began noticing in the mid-1990s that less and less Democrats were being elected to office.

“It was in 1993-1994 that there had been a lot of Democrats in Kootenai County and North Idaho,” said English. “There was more of a balance. Then, they really took a thumping.”

Like Kiebert, English also attributed the rise of Republicans elected to office to outside influences.

“I don’t think a whole lot of folks who were already here changed their minds too much,” said English. “We’re a retirement, resort community, so we attracted more folks moving here from Southern California … I think it wasn’t so much from the inside out that people were changing, but from the outside.”

English said the Idaho GOP’s decision to close its primaries in 2012 was another reason why the margins between parties widened. With a closed primary system, voters registered as any other political party would no longer be allowed to vote for GOP primary candidates.

“If you happen to end up as anything but a Republican on the general election ballot, you’re kind of out of luck,” he said. “Our closed party registration had diminished voter turnout in the primaries, therefore it has probably hurt Democratic chances also.”

With a closed primary system, voters registered as any other political party are no longer allowed to vote for GOP primary candidates. English said he feels Idaho’s primaries should be open to all party affiliations.

“If (the GOP is) going to have a totally closed primary, they ought to have an inter-party process and, most importantly, pay for it,” he said. “But if they’re going to use public funds, and I know they do, it really seems like taxation without representation because every taxpayer pays for that election. … If they’re not willing to sign up for party registration, they’re being excluded from the process. I think the deliberate point of it was to reduce voter turnout.”

By 2002, English realized he was the only registered Democrat to hold office in Kootenai County. Recognizing he was an endangered species, English decided to have some fun with his campaign.

“We made up some wooden nickels with ‘Save the Last One’ on them,” he said. “I’m the last Democrat who turned out the lights of the Kootenai courthouse back in early 2011.”

English said that while certain parts of Idaho had always strongly identified as Republican, the situation today is too imbalanced.

“The idea is not to reverse it the other way, but to somehow, eventually, get a little closer to the middle,” he said. “There are a lot of people that want to have some middle ground again.”

English said the closed primaries furthered a fracturing of the Republican party into the “main street” or moderate Republicans and the ideologues on the far right. The closed primaries also influenced a term bandied about in Idaho: “Republican In Name Only,” or RINO, which refers to Democrats that switch party registration to Republican in order to vote in the important GOP primaries.

“The ironic thing is, some Republicans are now seen as RINOs,” he said. “Are you Republican In Name Only because you’re to the left of what it used to be, or the right of what it used to be?”

The Rise of the GOP

When Idaho state senator Shawn Keough first ran for District 1 in 1995 as a Republican, she was entering a long-held blue district comprised of lunch-bucket Democrats.

“When I first ran for office, Boundary, Bonner, Kootenai, Shoshone and Benewah Counties’ elected officials were predominantly Democrat,” Keough wrote. “They were fiscally conservative, looking out for the underdog and considered themselves more as independent and less as affiliated with the Party in my observation.”

The 1996 fall election saw a rush of Republicans take the statehouse, which included Keough.

In 1991, the Idaho State Senate was split evenly between 21 Republicans and 21 Democrats. The Idaho House seated 56 Republicans to 28 Democrats the same session. Ten years later, Republicans held 32 seats to the Democrat’s three while the House had seated 61 Republicans to just nine Democrats. Though Democrats picked up a handful of seats in the statehouse during the early 2000s and 2010s, the discrepancy continues to this day.

“I was inspired and encouraged to run for office by a number of individuals in our community including folks like Mike Boeck, Erval Rainey, Pete Wilson, Darrel Kerby as well as others,” wrote Keough. “Rep. Jim Stoicheff also was an influence even though he was of the opposite party than me.”

After serving Idaho’s District 1 for more than two decades, Keough believes the term “conservative” encompasses a wider spectrum of ideas today than when she was first elected.

“’Conservative’ meant being fiscally responsible, balancing the budget, less government and/or local government closest to the people was a better government than Boise and D.C.,” she wrote. “Today it also means much more and is defined differently and through the lens of the person defining it. For me, conservative remains those items above and being responsible and grounded in common sense.”

One of Keough’s challengers in the 2012 and 2014 primary was Danielle Ahrens, who is currently Legislative District 1 Republican Chairman for Boundary and Bonner County.

Ahrens picked up 30 percent of the GOP primary vote against Keough in 2012, but in 2014 she had increased her vote share to 46 percent — not enough to win the primary, but a sign of the effect Ahrens had on conservative Christian voters.

To Ahrens, being a successful politician means knowing and listening to constituents’ concerns.

“It’s incumbent on leaders in the community to sit down and talk with one another,” said Ahrens. “As the saying goes, ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.’ If you’re running for office, it’s incumbent on you to listen.”

Ahrens said the divide in the nation today is not conducive to a productive government.

“The polarization is crippling us,” she said. “If we’re doing what’s right for our kids and grandkids, it’s incumbent on us to set up a better society.”

Though Ahrens withdrew from the 2016 GOP primary to make way for Republican candidate Glenn Rohrer — who earned 44 percent of the GOP primary vote that year, but lost to Keough — she has again entered her hat in the 2018 District 1 race.

“(I decided to run because) I love people, I love serving people,” said Ahrens. “My whole family has been in public service. … Our motto was ‘Service Above Self.’ … I have a matrix of values and ideals I take from the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and my faith, but I also value other peoples’ ideas coming into the mix.”

Ahrens said she is energized by the Redoubt movement because it shows a resurgence of people becoming involved in their government again.

“Any cultural movement in tribalism is fascinating to me,” said Ahrens, who holds degrees in psychology, business and a minor in cultural geography. “People gravitate where there are other people of the same values, principles and ideals. … The Redoubt movement is a rebirth of those ideals.”

When asked what impact the Redoubt movement has had on North Idaho politics, Ahrens said it has made “a tremendous difference. My passion is getting conservative Christians in office. Virtually anyone getting into office now is a conservative Christian with Redoubt values – God, family and country.”

Election of the Ideologues

According to the Idaho Transportation Department, 7,356 people surrendered their out-of-state driver’s licenses in Bonner County between 2011 and 2015. Of the total amount of people changing their licenses to Idaho, 46 percent hailed from California and Washington – 3,400 of the 7,356 total.

During this time period, Idaho’s District 1 began saw the inclusion of candidates that were running on platforms of less regulatory government, Second Amendment rights and issues aiming to strengthen state rights over federal influence.

After Sage Dixon edged out incumbent Republican Rep. George Eskridge in the 2014 primaries for House of Representatives District 1B race, he went on to win the general election with over 65 percent of the vote.

“I, and those who encouraged me to run, felt that we needed conservative representation in our State Legislature,” wrote Dixon. “Two primary issues were the State Health Care Exchange and reclaiming Idaho lands for Idaho hands.”

The District 1A seat went to outspoken Heather Scott of Blanchard, who used the 2014 win to bring more conservative values to Boise.

Running on a platform that bespoke of losses to freedoms amid constant overreach of the federal government, Scott gained a loyal following among the conservative mindset.

Her political career rose sharply in 2015 after a North Idaho veteran in Priest River suffered a stroke and found that his name had been added to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) by a health professional. When a person’s name is added to the NICS, they may be in jeopardy of losing the right to own firearms if a mental health inspection deems it appropriate.

Scott urged her followers on social media to gather in front of the vet’s home to stop the VA from confiscating the man’s guns. Dozens turned out, including Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler, and most marked the protest a victory when the VA announced it would not be conducting an inspection of the vet’s home.

“With your direction and support, I stood as the tip of the spear on the House floor in fights against crony capitalism, special perks for elected officials, the insertion of international code into our state law, and the unconstitutional use of our tax code to legalize gay marriage,” Scott’s bio reads on her website.

While a darling of the conservative right, Scott’s controversial actions and statements have often enraged both Democrats and moderates throughout the state.

In 2015, Scott was photographed posing next to a Confederate battle flag at a Priest River Timberfest event. In 2016, she was removed briefly from her committee assignments after she claimed female members of the Idaho House got leadership positions only if they “spread their legs.” Scott was reinstated to her committee assignments a month later after she wrote an apology to the House.

After armed militants occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge building in Oregon, Scott accompanied Rep. Dixon and other conservative representatives from neighboring states to conduct “a fact-finding mission” in the area. The Bundys were protesting the right of the federal government to own the land in which they had assessed the Bundys grazing fees in the decades before.

More recently, Scott again made headlines after reposting an article defending white nationalism on Facebook in the wake of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

During the 2016 election, Scott boycotted a candidates forum sponsored by the Sandpoint Reader, telling her followers in a Facebook post that the forum was a “trap”  where conservative candidates’ words would be twisted. Scott defeated Democratic challenger Kate McAlister with more than 62 percent of the vote.

Rep. Scott was contacted but declined to comment for this article.

A Sign of the Times

Whether the influx of conservatives from locales like southern California and coastal Washington came as part of a migration identified as the American Redoubt or independently, it’s clear the body politic of North Idaho has shifted right. What’s more, the split within the Idaho GOP — with moderates on one side and conservative ideologues on the other — showed that this shift was not reversing any time soon.

Keough first came into contact with the Redoubt movement in 2015 while running for reelection to District 1. Keough was facing candidate Glenn Rohrer, a conservative with a large following among Redoubt adherents.

“Someone sent me a link to a web page called the Charles Carroll Society that had published … a piece (that) claimed all sorts of things about me, how I thought, why I picked the colors of my website, what I said and why I said it that were very inaccurate and outright lies,” Keough wrote. “It was – and remains – a very inflammatory piece.”

Keough said she had never been approached or contacted by Alex Barron, the author of the piece and so-called “Bard of the American Redoubt.”

“The piece is accurate commentary from a non-progressive perspective,” wrote Barron when asked for comment. “Shawn Keough is affiliated with the Idaho Republican Party but is rated D by the NRA, F (31 percent) by the Idaho Freedom Foundation and Idaho Chooses Life reports she is not a defender of the rights of unborn children. She represents an Idaho State district that appears to be much more conservative than her voting record.”

“Frankly,” Keough wrote. “It was astonishing and disheartening to me as the map on the page and the writings made it clear that my home area was being promoted as a place to withdraw from the world and to dig in for some inevitable catastrophe. Further, it espoused plans for how to ‘take over’ and reform the governments from local to state by electing people like the authors so that our area could be changed to fit their ideals. … So much hate, anger, fear, and no wish to find out about us who lived here or to assimilate and become a part of the community as most who move here try to do.”

English sees the Redoubt influx as a sign of further imbalance. He believes when any institution – be it government, the church or a nonprofit organization – only caters to one point of view, many are left out of the process.

“It sounds like a very deliberate move from all over the place to come to one place with the intent that they can take over through the legitimate process and control the body politic,” said English. “For the folks that are getting taken over, they’re not too wild about that.”

While Dixon agrees that migration has nudged Idaho to the right in statewide politics, he believes the trend began long before 2011.

“However, I think that equal light should be shed upon migration from the left and how it has affected our local jurisdictions and our traditional issues in the state,” Dixon wrote. “California and Washington are by no means conservative states.”

2018 and Beyond

Whether Idaho will continue its shift to the right in 2018 or, like in the recent races in Virgina and Alabama, will see an increased influence from other parties is anyone’s guess.

Some, like Kiebert, think the wave has begun to break.

“It still is possible (for Idaho to elect a Democrat to the statehouse),” said Kiebert. “Down south where you’ve got better-informed voters like in the city of Boise, I think District 19 will be all Democrats. … I’m hoping we’re heading back that way. This is really not helpful for a state or a nation the way we’re polarized now.”

For English, the time is ripe for the rightward shift to normalize somewhere closer to the middle.

“I am sensing quite a stream of energy and interest,” he said.

Dan’s wife, Cory English, in fact, just filed with the Secretary of State to challenge Republican state senator Mary Souza in District 4.

“She’s plans to make health care, education and other social justices her main issues in the campaign,” said English. “People, especially those from outside our area, don’t want to think we’re just 100-percent Republican. There’s a whole range of folks who think otherwise. Even if we don’t win, it’s very important to get the message out there. If you say nothing, it’s pretty much the same as going along with it. I think you’ll see some action this next year.”

Next week’s piece from a guest contributor will try to answer the question of why those who identify with the American Redoubt are moving to North Idaho.

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