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In a place with a history of hate, an unlikely fight against GOP extremism

Updated: Jun 20

North Idaho has beaten the far right before. Now renegade Republicans are seeking to root it out of their own party, with a crucial test in Tuesday’s primary.

The Washington Post

May 20, 2024 at 12:29 p.m. EDT

Precinct candidates and volunteers prepare to campaign in Post Falls, Idaho. They are part of a group of self-described "traditional" Republicans that is seeking to oust incumbent officials who they feel have become too extreme. (Rajah Bose for The Washignton Post)

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — Locals prefer not to talk about the hate that took root here a generation ago, when the Aryan Nations and other militants built a white supremacist paradise among the tall pines and crystal lakes of North Idaho.

Community activists, backed by national civil rights groups, bankrupted the neo-Nazis in court and eventually forced them to move, a hard-fought triumph memorialized in scenes from 2001 of a backhoe smashing through a giant swastika at the former Aryan compound just outside of Coeur d’Alene, the biggest city in this part of the state.

For much of the two decades since, civic leaders have focused on moving beyond the image of North Idaho as a white-power fiefdom. They steered attention instead to emerald golf courses and gleaming lakeside resorts where celebrities such as Kim Kardashian sip huckleberry cocktails.

Now, however, North Idaho residents are confronting that history head-on as a new movement builds against far-right extremism.

This time, activists say, the threat is no longer on the fringes of society, dressed in Nazi garb at a hideout in the woods. Instead, they see it in the leadership of the local Republican Party, which has mirrored the lurch to the right of the national conservative movement during the Trump era on matters of race, religion and sexuality. The bigotry of the past, they say, now has mainstream political cover.

In this ruby-red state, the pushback is being led from within the party. A group of disaffected, self-described “traditional” Republicans has spent the past two years planning to wrest back control from leaders who they accuse of steering the local GOP toward extremism, a charge the officials vehemently deny. A crucial measure of the challengers’ efforts comes Tuesday, Idaho’s primary day.

If the breakaway group can succeed, it would make North Idaho an unlikely setting for something rare: A meaningful internal rebellion against the forces that have driven the Republican Party toward open embraces of far-right rhetoric and policies since Donald Trump first claimed the GOP presidential nomination eight years ago.

A sign for Todd Banducci in Post Falls, Idaho, where he is running for precinct committeeman. (Rajah Bose for The Washington Post)

The rebels have focused their efforts on precinct committee seats, the building blocks of local party power. On Tuesday, they need to win 37 seats out of 73 to force a change in local party leadership, but they’re hoping for a rout.

“I want a full sweep,” said Christa Hazel, 50, a Republican organizer who has been doxed and harassed since resigning from the party’s central committee in 2017 over concerns about extremism and a lack of transparency. “I want a full referendum on the ugliness, chaos and division.”

Hazel and her allies blame local leaders for ideological fights that have left North Idaho College on the brink of losing its accreditation. Doctors, especially reproductive health specialists, are leaving the area, with one local hospital recently shuttering its maternity ward. Extremism researchers and local media outlets have documented the ties between GOP officials and far-right figures.

The challengers boast prominent GOP names within their ranks and deep pockets from local pro-business donations. Their candidates are pressing the case door to door, while radio ads accuse the incumbent committee leaders of promoting “white nationalists and extremists who want to take over our state.”

The hard-liners dismiss their critics as closet liberals or “RINOs,” Republicans in name only. They argue that the labeling of committee members as racists or extremists is the last resort of elites whose politics no longer match the sensibilities of North Idaho.

“Nothing but the old ‘everyone we don’t like is a racist’ propaganda,” Brent Regan, chairman of the local GOP committee, posted on X. In an emailed response to questions, Regan accused his GOP opponents of engaging in “propaganda,” suggested they had sided with Democrats over Republicans and alleged they were manufacturing concern about racism and extremism that does not exist among voters.

Leaders have repeatedly dismissed portrayals of their stances as hateful or extremist. A statement on the central committee’s homepage says it “rejects all forms of racial, religious, sexual, and political supremacy.”

Those words haven’t reassured some North Idaho residents who remember the devastating consequences of allowing far-right extremism a foothold: pipe bombs and neo-Nazi marches in downtown Coeur d’Alene.

Christa Hazel is among the Republicans campaigning against local party leadership that she argues has become too extreme. (Rajah Bose for The Washington Post)

The Aryan Nations showed up in the area in 1974 and stayed until the group crumbled in 2000 amid legal challenges and infighting. The leader, Richard Butler, built a heavily guarded 20-acre compound that served as a national hub for white supremacists. Butler acolytes formed splinter groups that waged a deadly terror campaign with the goal of triggering a race war.

“Coeur d’Alene has this kind of mythical status for extremists because of what Butler did,” said Art Jipson, a University of Dayton professor and expert on white-power movements.

Hazel, the daughter of an FBI agent who worked Aryan Nations cases, recalled learning as a child that her family was on a white supremacist hit list. They lived 3 miles from the compound and her dad sometimes ran kidnapping drills to make sure she stayed vigilant. Every July, Hazel said, her father disappeared to conduct surveillance on the group’s annual summertime gathering.

Still, like many with deep ties to the region, Hazel said she resents the lingering idea of North Idaho as a sanctuary for hate. The region is conservative, she said, and locals are proud of their Christian faith and “live and let live” ethos.

The problem, as she and her allies see it, is that traditional conservatism has become entangled with darker ideologies often held by right-wing “political refugees” who have fled California and other western states and moved here in search of racial and religious homogeneity.

“They want to take us back to some sort of archaic, medieval time,” she said.

The election was days away, and Hazel said she was excited thinking about all the voters she had met who confided that they were also uncomfortable with the stances of the Republican committee. But she was also braced for possible disappointment.

Maybe, she said, voters don’t understand the stakes or don’t care enough to show up. Maybe the mobilization to bring North Idaho back from the extremist brink assumes a decency that’s already obsolete.

“We may have it wrong, that our community has become something we don’t recognize, and there’s a true ugliness that has become acceptable,” Hazel said, squeezing in lunch between back-to-back political events one recent afternoon. “I don’t want to believe that.”

Jack Riggs, right, and his wife Sandy Patano chat with Idaho Lt. Gov. Scott Bedke at a chamber of commerce breakfast event in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. (Rajah Bose for The Washington Post)

A grass-roots campaign

In Coeur d’Alene, a city of just over 50,000, the chaotic state of the GOP has ended friendships and torched alliances.

Now there are two Republican parties, the official committee and the rebel offshoot. There are two Republican women’s lunch groups. And rival Republican publications, each claiming to represent the real views of North Idaho voters.

At the breakaway faction’s women’s luncheon this month, an emcee asked how many attendees were running for office. Hands shot up throughout the room, to loud applause. In the last election cycle, in 2022, just eight county precinct seats were contested. This year, the upstart bloc has candidates in 70 out of 73 races.

Sandy Patano shows the fliers that the North Idaho Republican group made to promote its candidates in Kootenai County. (Rajah Bose for The Washington Post)

Regan is target No. 1 for the mobilization.

He leads the GOP committee in Kootenai County and serves as board chairman of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a right-wing lobbying group whose ratings of politicians have conferred it kingmaker status among conservatives, according to state political observers.

The foundation and the committee use a “ranking and vetting” approach to enforce loyalty to an agenda that promotes highly restrictive abortion laws, book banning campaigns, funding cuts for public schools, sidelining transgender athletes and muting classroom discussions about race or sexuality.

More disturbing to his opponents is Regan’s rhetoric and associations with far-right extremists, chief among them Dave Reilly. Extremism monitors call Reilly a far-right propagandist whose now-deleted social media posts include hateful comments toward marginalized groups. He promoted Holocaust revisionist language and has called Judaism “the religion of anti-Christ.” Reilly has repeatedly expressed support for Nick Fuentes, leader of the white nationalist “groyper” movement.

After receiving blowback for attending the violent Unite the Right march in Charlottesville in 2017, Reilly moved to North Idaho. In 2021, he ran for a school board seat, and was endorsed by the GOP committee. Regan was among the local Republican leaders who donated to his campaign, according to Idaho records. (Reilly lost.) More recently, the Idaho Freedom Foundation hired Reilly for communications work.

The foundation does not, as a policy, respond to media inquiries.

Reilly did not respond to messages seeking comment. Over the years, he has rejected the labels of antisemite or white supremacist. When asked in 2021 about his views, Reilly told a local outlet he was under attack by “radical left-wing activists” and compared his troubles to the persecution of Jesus.

Regan said the committee “was not aware” of Reilly’s Twitter posts at the time that it endorsed him. “I have NEVER defended Mr. Reilly’s words,” Regan wrote. “Like Elon Musk I have defended people’s right to free speech and for due process.”

Brent Regan, chairman of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, speaks to a group at the Coeur d'Alene Public Library. (Rajah Bose for The Washington Post)

On Thursday, Regan boasted to supporters that his leadership in the county was setting the tone for Republicans across Idaho. “We had nobody to pay attention to us — ‘a bunch of racists up there,’” Regan said at an event in Coeur d’Alene. “Now we have a very active Republican contingent. And the politicians — if you run for state office, you’ve got to come up north and talk to us.”

To former Idaho Lt. Gov. Jack Riggs and his wife, longtime Republican organizer Sandy Patano, that’s what is so worrying. They are among the co-founders and two of the most visible faces of North Idaho Republicans, an association of veteran public officials and business leaders that has been the main engine of mobilization for Republicans who don’t fall in line with the hard right.

The local divisions transcend feelings about Trump. Some yard signs for committee-backed candidates say “MAGA Republican,” a claim to the Trump mantle in a county where he won 70 percent of the vote in 2020. But there are supporters of the former president in each camp, along with pockets of opposition in a place with a strong libertarian strain.

Despite what opponents claim, Riggs said, North Idaho Republicans “is definitely not a ‘Never Trump’ group,” adding that he personally supports Trump and is “totally opposed to the current national Biden agenda.”

In an interview in Coeur d’Alene, Patano pointed to a recent front page of The People’s Pen, a newspaper aligned with the Regan-led Republican committee. It featured an illustration of a gun-toting man: Randy Weaver, patriarch of a family at the center of a 1992 standoff with federal agents at nearby Ruby Ridge, a deadly episode that galvanized the anti-government movement.

Patano, 67, and Riggs, 69, said the imagery telegraphs a radical view that leaves no place for more traditional conservatives.

“This isn’t just about politics — this is about our community and our state,” Patano said. “And when you start hearing from people who say, ‘I’m not sure I want to live here any longer, I don’t think this is the place that I thought it was,’ my comment to some of this is: ‘Stay and fight for it.’”

Families gather in a park in Coeur d'Alene on May 2 to participate in a national day of prayer. (Hannah Allam/The Washington Post)

Their opponents express the same fervor, with many speaking of their political work in biblical terms. On the same day as the luncheon, the official GOP committee invited the public to a prayer service at a central park in Coeur d’Alene.

The weather was sunny and the mood festive. A praise band played live music as families showed up. A little boy carried a “Trust Jesus” sign.

Brenda, who was there as part of a moms’ prayer group and who asked that her last name be withheld for privacy reasons, said she moved to North Idaho four years ago from 40 miles away in Spokane, Wash., which she described as a “conservative hamlet” that’s been transformed over the years by influence from liberal Seattle. She said she supports North Idaho’s ultraconservative tide as a bulwark against “globalism.”

“I look at the United States of America as 50 little countries. You get to pick what country you align your beliefs with,” she said. “Idaho just aligns with our conservative beliefs.”

Hari Heath, who writes for a newspaper aligned with local GOP officials, attends a party event. (Rajah Bose for The Washington Post)

Rival visions

On a Tuesday evening this month, dozens of voters filed into the high school in Sandpoint, a lakeside town 60 miles from the Canadian border with breathtaking mountain vistas.

They had shown up to hear from several politicians on the primary ballot, but the main attraction was the state senate showdown between Scott Herndon and Jim Woodward, two Republicans who embody the tug-of-war over what it means to be a conservative in North Idaho.

Woodward, a U.S. Navy veteran and self-described lifelong Republican, has been dubbed “Liberal Jim” by critics who claim he has broken ranks with the hard-liners. Woodward counters that the only RINO label that fits him is “redneck Idahoan from the north.”

His opponent, Herndon, a home builder with a background in computer programming, is a self-declared “abortion abolitionist” whose remarks on the topic have generated national outrage. Last year, during an exchange with a Democratic legislator over a hypothetical scenario in which a 13-year-old girl is raped by a relative, Herndon said that such a pregnancy could present “the opportunity to have a child in those terrible circumstances.” He mentioned reading about a mother in Montana who had found it “incredibly cathartic” to carry her rapist’s baby to term.

Idaho state Sen. Scott Herndon (R), a self-described “abortion abolitionist,” speaks at a candidate forum in Sandpoint, Idaho. (Hannah Allam/The Washington Post)

The rivals’ struggle over a state senate seat goes back years and follows the transformation of North Idaho politics. In 2018, Woodward won. In 2022, Herndon was the victor. Now, the men are in a third matchup, their fiercest yet. One illustration of the stakes is that each side has raised about $100,000, far higher than is typical in Idaho.

“We’ve got this minority, this vocal minority, that is really starting to control us, represent us,” Woodward said in an interview before the forum.

Herndon, among the highest-rated politicians in the Freedom Foundation rankings, said warnings about a resurgence of hate in North Idaho sound alarmist. He rejects the “extremist” label.

“All the people we know that are moving here, they’re normal people,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of the forum. “They want to homestead, they’re retiring here, they’re home schooling their kids or sending their kids to public school.”

He said his words on abortion have been taken out of context, but he stood by his stances, including his failed proposal last year to remove rape and incest exemptions from Idaho abortion bans. “If you were raped, no, you should not kill your baby,” he said.

The issue came up repeatedly in questions at the forum. Listening from a back corner of the room was Lynn Franck, a 76-year-old retiree who said she came because “one of the guys running tonight, a state senator, is responsible for my not having a gynecologist.” She gestured toward Herndon.

Franck said she has a precancerous condition and was being treated by a specialist who was among the best she had seen in her life. That doctor left this year.

Bonner General Health, the only hospital in Sandpoint, closed its labor and delivery department last spring because of financial issues and a political climate in which legislators “introduce and pass bills that criminalize physicians for medical care nationally recognized as the standard of care.”

To get the exam she needs, Franck said, she will need to travel.

“I’ll either have to go to Coeur d’Alene,” she said, “or I’ll have to go all the way to Spokane.”

Russell Mann, left, chats with Mark Fahl at his home in Post Falls, Idaho, about the upcoming election. (Rajah Bose for The Washington Post)

Seeking votes and prayers

On a warm Saturday morning this month, Russell Mann grabbed a stack of campaign pamphlets and walked the streets of his quiet neighborhood next to a golf course in Post Falls, outside Coeur d’Alene.

He was going to door to door asking for votes, guided by an app that shows the names of registered Republican voters at each address. Mann’s neighborhood, like most of North Idaho, was a sea of red dots.

Figuring out which kind of Republican lives in each home is trickier, however, so Mann’s playbook is to start off with a generic introduction before easing into a conversation that signals he’s part of the group running against the hard-liners. If the chat goes well, Mann marks the stop as “favorable” in his app.

“In that great, grand American experiment, this is the nuts and bolts of a democracy,” Mann said. “This is the real grass roots.”

Mann, 45, a brewery owner, is among the 70 candidates recruited for the precinct committee races. He’s also one of the most vocal, posting on X nearly every day — sometimes multiple times a day — to rail against the far-right forces he lumps together as the “neo-Nazis trying to hijack my home.”

Mann said he has vivid memories of the hate group that lurked in the background of his childhood. As a boy in the early 1990s, Mann said, he crept through the woods with friends to sneak glimpses of the Aryan Nations compound, which was guarded by a tall lookout post.

Mann said any inkling of that ideology returning to North Idaho sets him off.

“It’s filth, it’s awful,” Mann said. “It doesn’t deserve to be on my ballot. It should not be on the school board in my town.”

Mann distributes campaign material in his neighborhood in Post Falls, Idaho, where he is running for precinct committeeman. (Rajah Bose for The Washington Post)

On the last stop before a break from campaigning, Mann found a warm welcome at the home of Thomas and Dixie Hall, a priest and his wife who invited him into their living room.

The couple listened intently as Mann said the current GOP leadership was causing “a tremendous amount of chaos.” His candidacy, Mann said, would help the party “continue to be conservative but not extreme.”

Thomas and Dixie nodded but kept their poker faces.

“I don’t play my cards because I’m a priest,” Thomas said, “but that’s what we certainly want — a solid, responsible citizenry.”

The couple asked if they could pray with the candidate. They explained that their church tradition is to pray for elected leaders, including President Biden, by name.

“Even if we don’t agree with their politics,” Dixie said.

“I love it. It’s the opposite of extremism,” Mann said. “It’s the opposite of demonizing the other side.”

Rajah Bose contributed to this report.

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