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What do midterm races in Idaho tell us about the Republican Party?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

One of the most intense battlegrounds right now between moderates and extremists in the Republican Party is in Idaho. Primary elections next month in Idaho are seen as a national test for how far to the right the GOP can be pulled. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on moderate Republicans who are organizing to fight against extremism.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: There was this moment when cattle rancher Jennifer Ellis decided she couldn't stand on the political sidelines anymore. It's when Ammon Bundy, who led an armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge, moved to Idaho and began mounting his campaign for governor.

JENNIFER ELLIS: When you see him rising in the national consciousness as some kind of a cowboy rancher, that gets a little touchy.

SIEGLER: Ellis says Bundy gave the actual working public lands ranchers who follow the law a bad name. For her, the saga was a buildup to today's right-wing politics of conspiracies, trolling and just being mean and threatening.

ELLIS: It's dividing communities. They love the politics of fear.

SIEGLER: Ammon Bundy is now running as an independent, but Idaho's Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin, who's cozied up to white nationalists, is vying for the GOP nomination. There are also at least two openly militia candidates running for the legislature. Ellis, a lifelong Republican and former president of the Idaho Cattle Association, regrets not speaking out sooner.

ELLIS: People like me kind of got tired of listening to the conspiracy stuff, and we just went home and went back to work. And so then the extremists were able to take control.

SIEGLER: So last fall, Ellis helped form the political action committee Take Back Idaho. She and several former Republican elected leaders have raised close to a hundred thousand dollars to try to unseat at least 16 far-right legislators. That'll be a tough job here, where the far-right attacks conservatives at times as RINOs, Republicans in name only.

ELLIS: There's nothing that Republican officeholders hate worse than being called a RINO or not Christian enough. And now we've got both of those operations going in this state.

SIEGLER: Lately, around her ranch on the windy high prairie, new subdivisions have cropped up with homes bought by newcomers calling themselves blue state refugees. Trump 2024 flags started popping up around here right after President Biden's nomination. And in most states, Idaho Governor Brad Little would be a hard-line conservative. He just signed a Texas-style abortion bill. But here, some local GOP leaders call him a liberal.

DOYLE BECK: We are a very conservative state with nothing but blue policies.

SIEGLER: Doyle Beck runs a construction company in nearby Idaho Falls. A state GOP delegate, he says conservatives have worked hard to steer the party agenda toward eliminating most government and taxes on business.

BECK: The status quo is the special interest groups and the cronies governing the state of Idaho. The Take Back Idaho's feeling like they're losing.

SIEGLER: At the University of Montana, political scientist Rob Saldin is tracking moderate groups like Take Back Idaho, which, so far, are rare.

ROB SALDIN: Where are the current high-profile Republicans who are endorsing and supporting this effort? I don't see many. And the ones you do, I mean, it's, like, Liz Cheney, who's in big trouble.

SIEGLER: In Montana, former Governor Mark Racicot has been writing editorials in The Washington Post lately, similar in tone to Take Back Idaho. Racicot chaired the Republican National Committee under George W. Bush. At his home near Missoula, he told me that the party's far-right leaders are a threat to democracy.

MARC RACICOT: There's really a huge, great middle of America that is concerned about us as a republic falling apart.

SIEGLER: Racicot was a popular two-term governor in the '90s. Now the party base attacks him as a RINO. He calls that angry, cheap rhetoric.

RACICOT: Any time that you get fat and happy about what it is that you're doing that's not focused upon the best interest of your country first - not your party, your country first - you end up placing your form of government at risk.

SIEGLER: Racicot says many Republicans today are distracting with hate and division rather than dealing with tough issues head on.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR SLAMMING)

SIEGLER: This was rancher Jennifer Ellis's take in Idaho, where lawmakers are going after librarians for exposing kids to, quote, "harmful books" and even debated whether Canadians were illegally coming over the border to vote in elections here. There's no evidence of that.

ELLIS: I just have to wonder where the grown-ups in the room are on some of these things when we have got infrastructure that is really in peril. We have got schools that have not been funded like they should.

SIEGLER: Today, Ellis is trying to raise money and fight extremism in the middle of calving season.

ELLIS: Actually, I'm surprised that they haven't done a little bit of bellering (ph).

SIEGLER: She's out in this pasture sometimes all day and night.

ELLIS: He was born this morning. This wind - they'll get really muddy.

SIEGLER: She says true Idaho conservatives are out here on the land working.

ELLIS: We're not conspiracy theorists in Idaho. That's how - never how we've ran this state. It's a meat-and-potatoes state. We do important things. We don't deal with juvenile things.

SIEGLER: Ellis is trying to pull the pendulum back to the middle. The first test may be primary day, May 17.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Idaho Falls.

(SOUNDBITE OF AXEL KUHN TRIO'S "THE 3RD OF AUGUST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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