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Primary Wins in Idaho and Oregon Keep the States Moving Right and Left, Respectively

In Idaho, one of the most conservative states in the nation, GOP voters largely backed incumbent Brad Little for governor. Progressives in Oregon now represent the mainstream, but a moderate Republican can still win.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little marked his primary victory Tuesday at the Hilton Garden Inn Boise Downtown.
(Sarah A. Miller/TNS)
Tuesday’s election results in Pennsylvania showed the extent of extremist and anti-democratic tendencies in the Republican Party, as a far-right Christian nationalist easily won the GOP gubernatorial primary. But the qualified limits of extremism’s appeal could be seen in other GOP primaries in Oregon and Idaho.

Radical right wing candidate Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin lost the Idaho primary to her very conservative opponent, the incumbent Brad Little. In Oregon, former GOP state House leader Christine Drazan beat a crowded field with a relatively moderate message on abortion and the 2020 election.

“You have two very different states and two very different outcomes,” says Dean Nielsen, partner at CN4 Partners, a political consulting firm in the Pacific Northwest. “In Idaho, you have an insurgent campaign from the far right that fell flat on its face. In Oregon, it was a much more fractured race and it took the support of the Oregon business lobby to keep Drazan on top.”

On the Democratic side, in Oregon, former House Speaker Tina Kotek won her party’s primary. An avowed progressive, with a long list of policy accomplishments and a focus on housing, her victory is a clear sign of the left’s ascendancy – at least in Oregon.

“Progressives are firmly in control of the Oregon political apparatus and these days it's more unusual for a business-backed candidate to get through the primary,” says Nielsen. Kotek is in the rare position in American politics of being both left-wing and, arguably, a member of the establishment.

But the most closely watched gubernatorial primaries were the GOP races in Pennsylvania and Idaho, because of Mastriano and McGeachin’s radical affiliations.

In Idaho, one of the most conservative states in the nation, the GOP largely massed behind incumbent Brad Little. That allowed him to quash the challenge from McGeachin, who serves as his lieutenant governor and won Trump’s endorsement in the wake of her increasingly baroque antics around COVID-19 and the election. Her ties to racist extremist groups, which have a long history in Idaho, have alarmed observers especially as white nationalist and militia groups have seeded their members in hyperlocal Idaho elected offices.

As the Seattle Times reported, her ties to the radical right wing were on full display at a recent rally.

“You don’t ask permission from Dr. Fauci Mengele to go outside. You ignore him. And you indict him and you try him and you fry him,” said Stew Peters, a far right podcaster, as he hyped up the crowd before McGeachin spoke.

Little is no moderate. He supported the Texas lawsuit to throw out the 2020 results in four states, which would have flipped the election to Trump, and is also seeking to ban most abortions.

“The notion that Little wasn’t conservative is asinine,” says Nielsen. “You pluck him out of Idaho and put him in Oregon, Washington or even Ohio and he’d be the most conservative political figure in the whole state.”

McGeachin nonetheless sought to attack him from the right, saying she would seek an even stricter abortion ban and not allow exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother. She also sought to embrace elements of the extreme right as the campaign went on, posing with militia members and delivering a message to the America First Political Action Conference, a virulently reactionary group whose leader denies the Holocaust.

Republicans control every statewide office and congressional district in Idaho, and enjoy super majorities in the state Legislature. As a result, the winner of the primary is expected to cruise to victory in November.

The other major governor's race is in Oregon, where Democrat Kate Brown is term limited out after eight years in office. Her very poor poll numbers drew a crowded field of GOP candidates into the race, despite the state’s blue reputation. An independent candidate, and former Democratic lawmaker, is expected to weaken her old party’s chances in November as well.

While Kotek’s victory is a definite victory for progressives, it also comes in a state where the left wing of the party has become the establishment. She’s been one of the party’s leaders for over a decade and is closely aligned with the unpopular Brown. In what is expected to be a Republican wave year nationally, that gives Drazan a real opening.
Christine Drazan gathers with friends, family and supporters to watch as the Oregon Primary Election results come in on May 17, 2022.
(Mark Graves/TNS)
In comparison to the Pennsylvania and Idaho races, Oregon’s GOP field seemed relatively sedate, perhaps because a Republican hasn’t won the governor’s mansion since the mid-1980s. Drazan is hoping to campaign, and win, in the mold of moderate GOP governors of blue states like Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont. In all of these cases, the right-of-center politicians keep a distance from Trump and the party’s dominant extremist tendencies while still delivering on policy priorities that appeal to conservatives and moderates.

Drazan lead Republicans in a confrontational fashion in her years as party leader in the statehouse. She lead a walkout in protest of an anti-carbon emission cap-and-trade bill, which denied Democrats a quorum, and proved an effective political leader by helping GOP nominees to victory in statehouse races. But she also expelled one of her own members who tried to sneak far right extremists into the legislative chambers, a stark contrast to the coddling of such figures in Idaho and, at the national level, in Washington, D.C.

“In Oregon, if they have a chance of winning a statewide race, the nominee has to be more of a mainstream candidate,” says Alan Abramowitz, professor of political science at Emory University. “[In Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont], those are all Republican governors who are outspoken anti-Trump and moderate, which is rare these days. But as governor, you can be more detached from national politics.”
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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