The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The political craziness in Idaho

Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin addresses a rally from the Capitol steps in Boise on Sept. 15. (Keith Ridler/AP)

There is no shortage of Republican lawmakers seeking to out-provoke each other in the service of appealing to the party’s Trumpian base — with the troll-off in Ohio’s GOP Senate primary high on that list.

But perhaps nothing compares to the craziness in Idaho these days.

Twice now, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin (R) has seized upon the absence of Gov. Brad Little (R) from the state to try to push through a pet policy of the far right — despite the fact that Little can just as quickly reverse the orders when he returns.

In May, with Little at a Republican Governors Association conference in Nashville, McGeachin used her temporary authority as acting governor to do something Little had refused to do: banning mask mandates in schools and public buildings.

On Tuesday, with Little visiting the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, McGeachin again wielded her temporary powers. She issued an executive order banning state officials from requiring “vaccine passports” — or proof of vaccination — from employees and sought to ban employers from requiring vaccinations. She also, according to the Associated Press, inquired with the Idaho National Guard about ordering troops to the border that Little was visiting. (This is something the governors of Arizona, South Dakota, Iowa and Arkansas have also done.)

As in May, Little quickly served notice that he would simply reverse such orders upon his return, which is expected Wednesday night. In other words, it’s the very definition of political grandstanding: doing something with no chance of implementation to make a point. And McGeachin’s reasons are clear. Just before the May showdown, she announced she would run for governor, which sets up a possible primary with Little if he runs again.

The National Guard gambit is particularly remarkable. Imagine a situation in which the Guard is forced to mobilize due to an acting governor’s orders, and then is pulled back just as quickly.

And indeed, McGeachin’s inquiry drew not just a rebuke from Little, but also a terse response from the state’s adjutant general.

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

What’s also notable here is that, even to the extent this is a thinly veiled effort by McGeachin to use official government resources to get to Little’s right in the service of her political ambitions, it’s not like Little has been a shrinking violet on this stuff.

Little, like some other governors, has sent law enforcement to the border — in his case, state troopers focused on preventing the flow of drugs. He has also taken action on vaccine passports, issuing an order in April banning any requirement for constituents to have them when using government services or buildings. And he has also consistently opposed a statewide mask mandate.

In each case, McGeachin aligns with a view ascendant in some parts of the GOP that there should be a top-down approach to preventing things conservatives don’t like and coronavirus regulations by, well, regulating them. Many GOP governors such as Little have been uneasy about dictating what local governments and businesses can do on issues such as mask mandates and requiring vaccinations. They have argued that it is, in fact, a conservative position to let businesses function as they desire and to allow local officials to take the steps they view as necessary to stamp out the coronavirus.

There is relatively little precedent for a lieutenant governor using such situations to push through measures that a governor opposes. That’s in large part because in most states, the two run on the same ticket and, even if they are elected separately, they most often hail from the same party. Not all states transfer power to the lieutenant governor in the governor’s absence, either.

There was a showdown over this in Missouri in the early 1990s. Democratic Lt. Gov. Mel Carnahan and Republican Gov. John Ashcroft went to the state Supreme Court to resolve whether Carnahan would lead the state when Ashcroft was gone. Ashcroft argued that he was still able to discharge his duties remotely, and he won.

The dispute was the same in California in 1979, when Lt. Gov. Mike Curb (R) nominated a judge while Gov. Jerry Brown (D) was in Washington. Brown sued him, contending that Curb didn’t have the authority. He lost the lawsuit but was allowed to withdraw the nominee.

Perhaps the most direct parallel to today came in Massachusetts in 1990. Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy (D), who was running to succeed her own party’s governor, Michael Dukakis, planned to cut state government jobs and salaries when he departed for a trip to Europe. (That state was facing a recession, and Murphy wanted to separate her brand from Dukakis’s.) So Dukakis delayed the trip twice, ultimately extending his own previous cuts to take the sting out of Murphy’s plot.

The gambit didn’t ultimately pan out politically, either, with Democrats decrying Murphy for launching a “coup” and accusing her of a naked political ploy. Her poll numbers fell, and she dropped out of the primary a week before ballots were cast.

McGeachin’s gambit, though, comes at a very different time in our political history — in which such ploys are eaten up by the GOP base even if, like Murphy’s, they seem born of pretty obvious desperation and stand no chance of success.

To the extent the GOP truly wants politicians to grandstand and make symbolic political points with official government resources, McGeachin has given them their standard-bearer.