‘Dangerous trend’: Idaho Republicans push back at party censures over ‘extreme policies’

Lori McCann decided she couldn’t sit back and take it anymore, she told the Idaho Statesman.

The Republican lawmaker announced Aug. 15 that she had been censured by her own party for the third time this year — this time by the Latah County Republican Central Committee, over votes she cast during the 2023 legislative session.

“It’s a bigger issue than just me and Latah County,” McCann told the Statesman in an interview. “It’s about Idaho GOP politics and what’s going on in our entire state. There’s a lot of mistreatment against some real good legislators who are more in the middle or are trying to work with all the Republicans.“

McCann’s is the latest in a series of admonishments that Idaho Republicans have handed down to their own party members this year. The longtime Republican said it’s an unusual and concerning trend that she views as a push to move legislators further right toward “fringe ideals that have been cultivated from the Libertarian Party.”

Little, other Republicans reprimanded by party

McCann was appointed to her seat in May 2021 when the elected representative, Aaron von Ehlinger, resigned over an accusation of rape from a legislative intern. He was convicted and is in prison. She was elected the following year by constituents in District 6, which includes voters from Latah, Lewis and Nez Perce counties.

The Aug. 15 decision by the Latah County Republican Central Committee to chastise McCann on her voting record marked a censure by each of those three counties.

The Latah County Republicans’ censure rebuked McCann for “no” votes on five bills: one that would have allowed parents to sue over “harmful” library materials; one that would have banned drag shows on public property; one that addressed who can send out absentee ballots; one prohibiting requirement of the COVID-19 vaccine; and one to allow property tax budgets to be reduced by referendum.

Several other Republicans have faced similar reprimands, including Rep. Matt Bundy, of Mountain Home; Rep. Mark Sauter, of Sandpoint; and Rep. Julie Yamamoto, of Caldwell.

Those representatives, along with McCann and 10 others, were also hit with a vote of “no confidence” from the state party during the State Central Committee meeting in Challis this summer for their votes against House Bill 314, the library bill for which McCann was censured. The no-confidence vote also applied to Republican Gov. Brad Little, who vetoed the bill.

McCann told the Statesman she never heard directly from Idaho Republican Party Chair Dorothy Moon about the no-confidence vote or the county-level censures. Earlier this year, Boise State Public Radio reported that censures “shouldn’t come as much of a surprise” after Moon told lawmakers at the start of session that party representatives would be at the Capitol to “have a watchful eye on every Republican member.”

But this year marks the first time many longtime Idaho Republicans recall such intraparty reprimands. Bundy, an Air Force veteran and high school government teacher, told the Statesman that it’s the first time he’s seen this trend play out in the party.

“I’ve been in Idaho for 25 years,” Bundy said. “All these different (viewpoints) have been around, but it just seems we’re moving to more of a ‘my way or the highway’ element in some parts of the party.”

Censures could play role in Republican primary

Boise State University political science professor Charlie Hunt told the Statesman in an interview that censures like the Idaho Republican Party’s are becoming more common across the country as the major political parties become more homogenous.

“Censuring is a tool that state and local parties can use to try and enforce some of this ideological conformity,” Hunt said.

From a practical standpoint, censures don’t have much sway. Hunt said they’re often the best avenue that hyperlocal parties have to set an agenda for their voters.

But they could have an impact in election season.

“For someone like McCann or these other Republicans that have been censured, these are the kinds of things that will come up in a primary,” Hunt said.

He noted that most of the censures revolved around hot-button political talking points from the far right: transgender student-athletes, library books, drag performances, vaccines. Hunt said those could be leveraged for visibility in a primary.

“We’re in fairly new and unfamiliar territory, especially if we’re seeing censuring of a governor of your own party who won his elections pretty handily,” Hunt added. “I think it does speak to where these local parties are relative to the average voter — even the average Republican voter.”

McCann told the Statesman she thinks the average Republican voter includes “folks in the middle.” She said the votes she was censured on represented the will of her constituents, and she heard feedback from them praising her choices.

Latah County Republican Central Committee Chairman Dan Schoenberg told the Statesman in an interview that he heard different takes.

“Maybe the far right are disappointed and that’s who (the committee is) hearing from,” McCann said. “The central committees check a box full of folks who represent that far-right faction of the party, but that is not the majority of the Republican Party in my district and across Idaho.”

‘Concerns over your vote’ in Legislature

In spite of their disagreement over constituents, Schoenberg and McCann both said they think the censure process encouraged better communication. Schoenberg said his group was in communication with McCann ahead of votes throughout the session, and he hopes to do the same next year.

“It’s incumbent on both of us right now to be more deliberate about those conversations,” Schoenberg said.

He said the goal of the censure wasn’t to force McCann or other lawmakers to behave a certain way.

“(We’re saying) here’s information that we wanted to provide to you where we have concerns over your vote, and not ‘we absolutely expect you to do X, Y or Z,’ ” Schoenberg said. “She’s absolutely still our representative and we want to work with her.”

But the legislators don’t see it that way.

Bundy said central committees seem to be treating the Republican Party platform as an absolute with one interpretation, reprimanding anyone who diverges from that view.

“It’s a dangerous trend where legislators are not allowed free thought or independent thinking, where we can vote based on our own constituencies and on our own conscience,” he said.

Bundy and McCann said they won’t let the censures influence their future votes, but they worry the actions could have a chilling effect on other lawmakers. Both legislators said they worry about the future of Idaho’s GOP if this trend continues.

Bundy told the Statesman the party is “splitting itself.”

“I don’t want to,” he said. “I want to remain a unified party.”

McCann noted that she was asked to publicly recommit to the Republican Party in the Latah County censure. But she said she doesn’t believe that’s appropriate.

“I didn’t leave the party,” McCann said. “The party may have left me when they started putting in these extreme policies. I’m still a conservative Republican who believes in smaller government and the things Republicans have believed in for many, many years.”