We still have an entire 2024 legislative session before the next Republican primary — but that hasn’t stopped a pair of organizations from announcing their support for certain legislative candidates all across the state. Kevin Richert from Idaho Education News joins Logan Finney this week to break down the competing slates of candidates, as well as the significance of their endorsements and fundraising this far in advance of the next spring primary.
Read: Early Endorsements for Idaho Legislature
Logan Finney, Idaho Reports: Joining me this week is Kevin Richert with Idaho Education News to discuss a slate of endorsements for the 2024 Idaho Legislature — even though it’s still 2023 and far before the filing deadline. Kevin, thanks for joining us.
Kevin Richert, Idaho Education News: Hi, Logan. How are you?
Finney: I’m doing well. I have you on the show this week to talk about the Republican primary, the spring Republican primary of 2024, because we were recently greeted by a slate of endorsements from the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry as well as the Idaho Freedom PAC, an affiliate of the Idaho Freedom Foundation.
Kevin, just to give everybody a frame of reference, can you remind us, who are IACI and the IFF?
Richert: Sure. IACI is the Idaho Association for Commerce and Industry, and they are the preeminent business lobby at the statehouse — maybe one of the most powerful lobbying groups of all.
Idaho Freedom PAC is a separate entity from the Idaho Freedom Foundation and Idaho Freedom Action, which it is more of their campaign apparatus. There’s definitely some overlap between the Freedom PAC and the Freedom Foundation in terms of the membership supporting the two organizations.
So that kind of gives you a framework of who we’re talking about here.
Finney: That is an important detail, though, that it’s a separate legal entity.
Richert: Mm hmm. Yeah. This is their campaign arm, and there’s definitely overlap between the foundation and the PAC.
Finney: All right. Well, let’s get to some of these endorsements. I first became aware of this story when IACI, the Association of Commerce and Industry, actually on Twitter put out a long string of candidates all over the state that they had announced their support for.
Richert: Yeah, they were all over Twitter about a week and a half ago with just a series of them, and by my count there were 34 endorsements that they made. None of them, in terms of the incumbents that they endorsed and some of the former legislators that they endorsed, really no surprises in the IACI slate of candidates. And really, I would say the same for the six endorsements that came out a week ago from the Idaho Freedom PAC. There’s nobody on either group’s lists that I would label as a surprise. What is surprising is just IACI came out with so many endorsements, and so early in the race.
I mean, Logan, we are five months away from the filing period for legislative races. We’re seven months away from the legislative primaries. You know, some of us are actually busy trying to keep an eye on school board elections and mayors races and city council races. This feels like, you know, the election that we were going to maybe get to sometime after November. But, you know, you can see the positioning happening already.
Finney: Sure. You’ve covered the legislature far longer than I have. Is this truly extremely early, or am I just green behind the ears and not used to it?
Richert: No, no. It feels really early to me too, Logan, and that’s why I wrote about it. It’s just, you know, it really sets up what we kind of expected that we were going to see. This 2024 Republican primary is going to be extremely heated. We’re going to have a lot of high-profile races, because I think — we say this in primary cycles before, but I feel like this is even more the case in 2024 — I think this is really a battle for supremacy between the two wings of the Republican Party. And so, I think these early endorsements really set the tone for what’s going to be a pretty bloody primary season.
Finney: Well, let’s get into a few of those individual candidates that have been endorsed — or become known that they were planning to be candidates even, for a few of them. Of course, we don’t have to run through all 30+ of IACI’s, but can you give me some of the names that stood out to you on either side?
Richert: In terms of the primaries that these endorsements set up. You have Jim Woodward from Sagle, a former state senator, endorsed by IACI. He’s running against incumbent Sen. Scott Herndon, who was endorsed by the Freedom PAC. This is a rematch of an extremely expensive Republican primary up in the panhandle. This one wasn’t really a surprise. Woodward had announced a couple of weeks ago that he was planning a rematch.But now, again, we knew this is going to be a big fight as soon as Woodward announced that he was running again. Now you have the dueling endorsements.
Another one that is a rematch in Nampa, a former senator Jeff Agenbroad is going to run against incumbent Sen. Brian Lenney, a first term senator just like Herndon. This one was a little bit more of a surprise.Lenney had a little bit of fun on social media saying that IACI actually announced Agenbroad’s campaign and before Agenbroad himself announced his campaign. Be that as it may, this was an upset in 2022. I expect this is going to be a really high-profile primary in Nampa.
Those are the two that jumped out at me, in terms of the IACI endorsements. Aside from, I think, some of the incumbents where you see that they’re really focusing on some folks who in our world, in the education world, are likely to face some pretty tough primaries.Julie Yamamoto, the House Education Committee chair; Lori McCann, the vice chair of House Education; Dave Lent, the chairman of Senate Education, all were endorsed by IACI.
Finney: And of course, education issues are always one of the biggest topics at the legislature — whichever session, whether it’s a campaign year or not. How much do you think the debates over the past year of education topics like ESAs, education savings accounts, or the Idaho Launch program — applications for which just opened up last week — how much do you think those big-ticket education items are influencing this?
Richert: Oh, I think it’s huge. I think on both sides it’s huge. I think if you’re IACI and you have been all in on the Idaho Launch grant program from the beginning, you would love to take out some of these incumbents who have been most outspoken against Launch, i.e., Scott Herndon and Brian Lenney, among others. So, I think it’s very clear where IACI’s coming from.
And by the same token, I think it’s very clear where the Freedom PAC is coming from. They’re endorsing Lenney and Herndon, who were to really outspoken voices on that Senate Education committee in terms of school choice, in terms of education savings accounts. They backed the very far-reaching education savings account bill that came out of Senate Education that died on the Senate floor.
You know, it’s pretty clear, and we’ve not seen the last of the Freedom PAC’s endorsements. I would think that on that side of the debate, from that wing of the Republican Party, you’ve got folks who would love to defeat Julie Yamamoto or Lori McCann, who are skeptical about school choice and have been very clear, very clear during the 2023 session that they were not very sold on the idea of moving public money into private education scholarships or private education support.
So, yeah, I think education issues are not just a surrogate in this whole power struggle. I think they’re central to the power struggle.
Logan Finney: Sure. Important to note that Lenney was one of the co-sponsors of that first ESEA bill that didn’t make it through the Senate. IACI has also endorsed someone who is looking to challenge Sen. Tammy Nichols of Middleton, who was the other co-sponsor of that bill. It definitely seems like the education issues, like you say, are pretty central.
Richert: And to give you a sense of what you were talking about before, about how early this seems to be happening, you mentioned the Tammy Nichols challenge that is starting already. Lori Bishop is the candidate who is running against Tammy Nichols, and it struck me — and I haven’t gone through all the sunshine reports for the legislative races, it really is too early to do that — I’m reading sunshine reports on the school board races. Lori Bishop, who is running against that against Tammy Nichols, she already has $30,000 for a legislative primary. And that’s a lot of money, really early. Now, the big caveat is $25,000 of those $30,000 are from the candidate herself. I think it’s a loan that she made to the campaign. Be that as it may, that still shows you that this is going to be an expensive and high-profile primary in that stretch of Canyon County.
Finney: Certainly, and that’s after the past Woodward versus Herndon race was one of the most, if not the most expensive.
Richert: I believe they were both at or above the $100,000 mark, which was almost unheard of for a legislative primary. I think we may see that number matched or maybe even exceeded in some of these legislative primaries. It’s going to be a wild seven months between now and the primary.
Finney: There was one more set of names that caught my eye. The Freedom PAC has endorsed Christy Zito from Hammett in Elmore County, who was previously in the House and served one term in the Senate. Apparently, she is going to be running against Sen. Geoff Schroeder of Mountain Home, who’s another one of those more moderate folks. He’s really involved in, like, city zoning ordinances and whatnot. Zito, when she was in the Senate for that one term, she was something of a lone voice who would speak out against the caucus leadership. You know, there are a couple of examples we could point back to. But after she decided not to run again, her wing that’s become the Freedom Caucus has more membership than when she was there as kind of that lone dissenting voice in the Republican caucus.
Richert: Yeah, definitely. I think that you hit the nail on the head. Not only has that Senate changed, but I think you have the Freedom PAC and folks aligned with or sympathetic to that view, feeling like Schroeder is the kind of senator that they want to the primary and defeat in a primary because they would love to get another hardliner within the Senate. So that’s one to watch. Again, a lot of history there between a former legislator and a sitting legislator.
Finney: As we’ve referenced a few times now, this is super early in the process. The candidates can’t even actually begin to file their paperwork until early March, isn’t that right?
Richert: Yeah, and that’s what makes these endorsements so interesting. I mean, in theory, who knows who winds up filing in that two-week period in early March? I mean, it’s pretty clear based on these endorsements that these candidates are going to file, but you don’t know who else is going to file. You know, is there going to be a third candidate or a fourth candidate in any of these primaries that could potentially tip the balance in terms of who wins? These may not be head-to-head is what I’m trying to say, we may have a three-person primary that changes the whole calculus of that race.
Finney: A lot can happen between now and spring, especially with a whole legislative session in between.
Richert: Yeah. I think it’s very clear how this legislative session is going to help provide framework for these primaries, because school choice/education savings account issues are certainly going to come back in 2024. I think you’d have a lot of discussion about what’s happening right now with Idaho Launch. How is it working? You know, we’re not going to know what’s really happening in terms of students going into these training programs. We won’t be able to see if it’s really helping young adults find jobs in these in-demand careers. But we will have a sense by January of how many students are applying for the program and what kind of interest is there in this money. I think that’s going to be an early metric that I’m sure legislators on both sides of the debate are going to watch very closely.
Finney: Absolutely. Well, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, there are like you said local city and school board races coming up in November. Are there any particular ballot issues you have your eye on for the fall?
Richert: You know, I think there are several school board races in several school districts that are looking to be interesting that I’m going to keep my eye on between now and November.
West Bonner, obviously. You’ve got three school board races up there. The three trustees who were not recalled are all on the ballot and they’re all facing opposition. So that’s one we’ll watch very closely.
Coeur d’Alene school board politics are very high profile in Kootenai County. The Kootenai County Republican Central Committee has already weighed in with an endorsement or endorsements in that race, as well as others in Kootenai County. So, we’ll keep an eye on the panhandle.
West Ada I think is going to be a really interesting school board election. I believe one of the candidates has already loaned himself $50,000 to run a school board election, and that is an unheard of amount of money. So that’s going to be one to watch.
Kuna, there’s quite a bit of money in Kuna in those school board races.
Caldwell is an interesting one. Nicole Trakel, who is the wife of state Sen. Chris Trakel, who has a history of criticizing the Caldwell School Board. Nicole Trakel is running against an incumbent, Travis Manning, in that school district.
So, a lot of races to watch for between now and November at the school board level. And again, these are nonpartisan races, but sometimes they’re nonpartisan races in name only.
Finney: Certainly. It is kind of by virtue of being nonpartisan races that you don’t get these primary matchups like we see for other sorts of elected offices.
Richert: Mm hmm. I think what’s interesting, too, is to what extent will these school board races, what kind of voter interest will it be? What sort of attention will these races get? I’m thinking about like with the West Ada school board races, you do have a mayor’s race in Meridian that’s attracting some interest. Will voters pay much attention, or as much attention, to the West Ada school board races that are a little bit down the ticket? So, you know, that remains to be seen. But I just have a feeling, just based on what we’ve seen from past election cycles, and certainly what we saw in August with the recall elections in West Bonner, I think voters are paying more attention to school board races in general. Some of these more expensive, some of these more high-profile school board races, I think we’ll see some pretty high turnout and pretty high voter interest.
Finney: Certainly. Yeah, I’ll be very curious to see what the turnout is especially in West Bonner, where that recall election reached something like 60% plus turnout.
Richert: 63% turnout, for a recall election in late August. I mean, that’s an insane- I mean, it’s great for the process. When you get that kind of interest in an election, that speaks well to the process. But that was a mind-blowing number. So, what happens in November in West Bonner? Probably pretty high turnout. I mean, these folks are aware of school board politics in that part of the state. I would expect a high turnout there.
Finney: 63%. Yeah, crazy. Even the county clerk up there told me, virtually unheard of.
Richert: No, it was a number that jumped off the page for me.
Finney: Are there any funding measures, bonds and levies, anything like that that you’re keeping an eye on? Of course, the legislature in their big property tax bill in the last session directed a bunch of money toward schools, but it might be too early to see if that’s had an effect yet.
Richert: The one I’m going to watch most closely is a bond issue in Pocatello, and this is all kind of driven by the fire at Highland High School this spring. A bond issue to try to replace or repair or renovate the schools in Pocatello. That’s the one I’ll be watching most closely.
Finney: All right. Well, I’m sure we will have you back on the show later in November to talk about how all these school board politics shake out. Kevin Richert with Idaho Education News, thanks for joining us this week.
Richert: Anytime Logan. Thanks.
Logan Finney | Associate Producer
Logan Finney is a North Idaho native with a passion for media production and boring government meetings. He grew up skiing, hunting and hiking in the mountains of Bonner County and has maintained a lifelong interest in the state’s geography, history and politics. Logan joined the Idaho Reports team in 2020 as a legislative session intern and stayed to cover the COVID-19 pandemic. He was hired as an associate producer in 2021 and they haven’t been able to get rid of him since.
Kevin Richert | Idaho Education News
Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; Idaho Reports on Idaho Public Television; and Idaho Matters on Boise State Public Radio. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.