The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Idaho’s governor left the state. His lieutenant governor took power and banned state vaccine mandates.

Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, pictured in May, signed a surprise executive order banning covid-related mandates while Gov. Brad Little (R) was traveling out of state. (John Roark/Idaho Post-Register/AP)
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Idaho Republican Gov. Brad Little left the state Tuesday. His second-in-command — empowered with executive authority in his absence — used that power to pick an old fight.

As acting governor, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin (R) issued an executive order Tuesday afternoon banning state officials from requiring covid-19 “vaccine passports” from new or current employees. Little quickly promised to undo McGeachin’s order as soon as he returned from touring the U.S.-Mexico border with a group of fellow Republican governors.

This is the second time the state’s top two officials have battled after Little left the state and McGeachin seized the opportunity to issue an executive order in his absence. While Little attended a Republican governors’ conference in Nashville in May, McGeachin banned local governments from issuing mask mandates. Little, saying he wanted those local governments to have control over their communities, rescinded her order when he returned the next day.

Arguments that mask mandates violate an individual’s constitutional right to liberty might not cut it with the Supreme Court. Here's why. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Idaho’s constitution requires the lieutenant governor to take over when the governor is out of state. The top two elected leaders run for office separately, not on a joint ticket.

Tuesday’s executive order comes amid a pandemic-long, intraparty feud between the two political heavyweights over the coronavirus.

When the pandemic hit, they almost immediately clashed over how to handle it. After Little ordered bars to shut down until mid-June 2020, McGeachin defied him by opening her family’s tavern in Idaho Falls weeks before she was supposed to. In October 2020, McGeachin was in a conservative think tank’s video — a gun in one hand, a Bible in the other — and seemed to question the existence of the pandemic. In March, she went to a protest at the state Capitol in Boise where people burned masks.

Idaho lieutenant gov. appears in video slamming virus rules, whether ‘a pandemic may or may not be occurring’

The conflict escalated in May when McGeachin said she was running for governor, setting up a potential clash between a governor and lieutenant governor of the same party in next year’s Republican primary. A week after announcing her candidacy, McGeachin issued the first executive order, which one political commentator described as “brilliant politics with slapdash policymaking.”

Little, who hasn’t announced he’s seeking a second term but “strongly hinted” he would run again, denounced the executive order as “petty politics” and “an abuse of power.” He said that McGeachin didn’t warn him about the order and that he learned of it only after it had been issued when he was more than 1,500 miles away.

Idaho lieutenant governor banned mask mandates while the governor was out of town. It didn’t last.

This week, Little is in Texas with almost a dozen other Republican governors to discuss concerns about how the Biden administration is handling border issues. The trip again temporarily elevated McGeachin to power. McGeachin’s most recent executive order expands on one Little signed in April that banned state officials from requiring proof of vaccination from constituents trying to access government services or buildings. McGeachin’s order also prohibits them from requesting people show they’ve tested negative for the coronavirus, and it prevents state officials from requiring employees’ immunization proof.

“I will continue to fight for your individual Liberty!” McGeachin wrote on Facebook Tuesday evening.

Four minutes after McGeachin announced the order on social media, Little fired back, saying he had not authorized her to act on his behalf and promising he would be “rescinding and reversing any actions taken by the Lt. Governor when I return.”

Little is expected to be back in the state Wednesday evening.

As acting governor, McGeachin also asked about mobilizing the Idaho National Guard and sending troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Associated Press reported.

“As of Wednesday, my constitutional authority as Governor affords me the power of activating the Idaho National Guard,” McGeachin wrote in the letter obtained by the AP.

Maj. Gen. Michael Garshak, the adjutant general of the Idaho National Guard, replied with a one-paragraph rebuff.

“I am unaware of any request for Idaho National Guard assistance under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) from Texas or Arizona,” Garshak wrote, in part, to the lieutenant governor. “As you are aware, the Idaho National Guard is not a law enforcement agency.”

Little also criticized McGeachin for trying to send the state’s National Guard members hundreds of miles away.

“Attempting to deploy our National Guard for political grandstanding is an affront to the Idaho constitution and insults the men and women who have dedicated their life to serving our state and the country,” Little wrote on Facebook.