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MALLOY: Idaho conservatives join ‘freedom’ network

by CHUCK MALLOY
| March 21, 2023 1:00 AM

You know the names — Idaho Attorney General Raul Labrador, former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.

All three are past members of the Freedom Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives who have gone on to bigger things in the political world. And all three were major players in a caucus that has reshaped the political landscape in Congress. Members were instrumental in removing a House speaker (former Rep. John Boehner) and they have routinely called out fellow Republicans for their liberal voting records. Today, with Republicans holding a slim majority in the House, the conservative caucus is a powerful force as Congress deliberates over the debt ceiling and other issues.

Now some states, inspired by the success of the Freedom Caucus in Washington, is getting in the game. Idaho is one of 10 states that have joined the State Freedom Caucus Network. The two-year-old network provides strategy, leadership and staff to assist conservative lawmakers. Maria Nate, the wife of former Rexburg Rep. Ron Nate, is Idaho’s director of the State Freedom Caucus Network. Sen. Tammy Nichols of Middleton and Rep. Heather Scott of Blanchard are co-chairs of a group that includes a dozen legislators and members from outside the Legislature.

“We’re all fighting the same battles,” says Maria Nate. “The federal government is not where the problem is … the federal government is a mess. The only way we can reclaim the federal government is for the states to reclaim their sovereignty.”

Conservative movements are not new to Idaho, and especially on the House side. This year, the group has taken on a higher public profile, with Nate sending out regular news releases outlining the caucus's position on various issues. The group is not associated with the Idaho Freedom Foundation, although caucus members tend to score well on the IFF’s Freedom Index.

The message from caucus leaders is clear. Idaho’s government is not as conservative as people might think, or politicians will say.

“I believe that Idaho is conservative in a freedom caucus way, but I don’t believe the Legislature is,” says Nate. “The budget is busted … Medicaid is a budget buster. The governor’s Launch program is not a conservative program. It’s frustrating to see Republicans promoting socialist-type agendas. That’s what the caucus will fight against.”

Nichols agrees. “In Idaho, everybody says they are conservative, but voting records don’t show they are as conservative as they say they are. In government, we function under blue management. One of the reasons that happens is we are a part-time Legislature, but we have a full-time government. We have allowed a lot of our authority of the Legislature to be given to an unelected bureaucracy. We have to take that back.”

Philosophically, caucus members — who backed former Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s bid for governor last year — are no fans of Gov. Brad Little’s agenda. “The Launch Idaho program does not fall within the purview of government … and education is for K-12. There’s nothing that says we need to be taking care of college kids,” she said.

As a baseline, the caucus backs efforts to “restore and maintain freedom,” including school choice; “protect families and children,” including the unborn and institution of marriage; “lower taxes,” including property and grocery tax relief; and “less government,” which includes repeal of Medicaid expansion.

Nichols says the increased public profile is paying off, and not necessarily with traditional media outlets. Constituents and supporters are getting the message through social media and other outlets.

The caucus is to the right politically, but there’s nothing “fringe” about this group, considering the structure of the state Republican Party. Former Rep. Dorothy Moon, an ally of Nichols and Scott, is the state party chair and at least some — if not most — of the central committees are on the right-wing side. They are the ones putting together the party platform.

For the state caucus, Nichols said, “It’s all about promoting the party platform, adhering to the constitution, and promoting good legislation.”

The group needs to win more statewide elections before it can be called “mainstream,” but as with their counterparts in Washington, they are rapidly approaching that status within the GOP. In the meantime, arch-conservatives are not going away.

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Chuck Malloy, a longtime Idaho journalist and Silver Valley native, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com.

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