Former Boise State president Dr. Robert Kustra suggested that registered Idaho Democrats should consider changing their political party membership to Republican in an opinion article published in the Idaho Statesman — a call which has garnered diverse reactions across the political spectrum.
The reason: to bolster votes for moderate Republicans, tipping the scales away from far-right candidates like Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who is running for governor.
“It’s time for Idaho citizens to step up and be counted among those who reject candidates and public officials who use threats and intimidation to achieve their political objectives,” Kustra said.
The call comes amid a series of conflicts that continue to propel Idaho politics into national news.
From the recent showdown between Governor Brad Little and Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin to an inflammatory meme shared by State Representative Tammy Nichols encouraging violence against progressive organizations and journalists, the Gem State is doing little to contain its political quarrels.
“The fact that calls like that are being made, to have a party rescued from radicalism by members of another party is obviously troubling,” freshman political science major Sam Pinson said.
Pinson, who serves as president of Boise State’s Political Science Association, noted a perception of candidates pulling further to the left or the right in their respective party primary before aligning close to the center for general elections.
“The base of a political party tends to be more polarized than the majority,” Pinson said. “Moderate Republicans in Idaho haven’t been voting as much, proportionally speaking, as their more hard-line counterparts.”
Former Idaho attorney general Jim Jones shares Kustra’s concerns over the Republican party’s shift toward extremism. Jones, who has also served as chief justice of the Idaho supreme court, emphasized increased participation in the upcoming primary.
Voters would need to submit a party affiliation form and register as Republican to vote in the May 2022 primary. State primary elections are only open to registered members of their respective party due to a law passed in 2011.
“I know there are Idahoans who would not feel comfortable leaving the Democratic primary,” Kustra said. “And I respect that, but they might also think about where they can have the greatest impact on Idaho’s future.”
Kustra cited a disparity between the state’s moderate Republicans and what he termed as the “wing-nuts of the right.”
That disparity is not universally acknowledged.
“Idaho’s current Republicans are not your grandfather’s party,” said Jared DeLoof, executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party. “The extremism is alarming, particularly for marginalized groups.”
According to Deloof, asking Idaho voters to align with moderate Republicans against more extreme candidates is deceptive.
“There’s not much daylight between attention grabbers and moderates,” DeLoof said. “Moderates and extremists vote together on issues like defunding education or driving a witch hunt for critical race theory.”
There is some debate about what defines a candidate as moderate.
“We’re a party of conservative values,” student John Koenig said. “We can’t be the Democratic party from 10 years ago, which is what the Republican party has really started turning into.”
John Koenig is a senior computer science major and an officer in the College Republicans at Boise State. Koenig disagrees with Kustra on labeling Republicans like McGeachin as far-right or extreme.
“The primary narrative in the U.S. has shifted so far left that people who hold any semblance of a conservative value will be labeled as extremist,” Koenig said. “I think that the language that the Idaho Republican Party has been hijacked by extremists is very misleading.”
It is unclear what impact that further calls from Kustra or from other prominent Idahoans will have on Idaho politics.
“The fact that this kind of call is gaining traction is showing how the Republican party is going,” DeLoof said.
Some present-day Republicans are not surprised by the idea of Democrats registering to vote in the GOP primary.
“I do think that there’s a good chance that a lot of people will register,” said Koenig of the Republican primary. “But given the very large Republican base in Idaho, I don’t think they’ll have any successful influence on the outcome.”
There are other factors supporting Koenig’s prediction. Voting patterns don’t usually shift during a primary, and a voter who registers for the Republican party primary would then lose their vote in a Democratic primary.
“We’ve seen so much change in our elections over the past few years,” Pinson said. “While actions like this are important, you’re more likely to see problematic changes in rules in vote counting and access to polling.”
Considering Idaho’s growing population and its rising prominence in national news, the Republican primary is likely to draw more interest in the future.