There was a moment when cattle rancher Jennifer Ellis decided she couldn’t stand on the sidelines anymore. It was when Ammon Bundy, who led an armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon and was later acquitted, moved to Idaho and began mounting his campaign for governor.
“When you see him rising in the national consciousness as some kind of a cowboy rancher, that gets a little touchy,” Ellis said one windy afternoon on her ranch near Blackfoot, Idaho.
To Ellis, Bundy gave ranchers — actual, working, public lands ranchers who follow the law and pay their fees — a bad name. Self-described moderate Republicans like her viewed the scofflaw rebellion as a precursor to today’s right-wing politics of conspiracies and trolling becoming mainstreamed. Ellis is also alarmed by the meanness and threats directed at anyone with opposing viewpoints.
“It’s dividing communities,” she says. “They love the politics of fear.”
Ruby red Idaho is one of the most intense battlegrounds between moderates and extremists in the Republican Party. Its primary is next month. Political analysts see it as a national test for how far to the right the GOP can be pulled.
Ammon Bundy recently switched his affiliation from Republican to independent. But the state’s lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin, who has cozied up to white nationalists and anti-government militias, is vying for the GOP nomination. There are also militia-backed candidates running for the state legislature, including two men also involved with the recent armed standoffs with federal agents in the West.
In eastern Idaho, Jennifer Ellis regrets not speaking out sooner. She’s a past president of the Idaho Cattle Association and proudly says she’s a fourth generation Idahoan.
“People like me kind of got tired of listening to the conspiracy stuff,” she says. “We just went home and went back to work, and so then the extremists were able to take control.”
So last fall, Ellis joined with a group of former Republican elected leaders here — including a retired state House speaker and state Supreme Court justice — to form the political action committee Take Back Idaho. The group has raised close to $100,000, and it’s initially trying to unseat 16 far-right legislators.
That will be a tough job in Idaho, where the far right often even attacks fellow conservatives as being RINOs, Republicans in name only.
“There’s nothing that Republican officeholders hate worse than being called a RINO, or not Christian enough, and now we’ve got both of those operations going in this state,” Ellis says.
The state has long been associated with political extremism, but only lately has it been aligned to elements within a political party.
Around her family’s ranch on the windy high prairie, new subdivisions have sprung up lately with homes bought by newcomers, some calling themselves “refugees” from nearby blue states. Trump 2024 flags started popping up here right around President Biden’s nomination. Letters to the editor champion the former president as a “blue collar billionaire.”
In most states, Idaho’s Republican Gov. Brad Little, who’s running for reelection, would be considered a hard-line conservative. He just signed a Texas-style abortion bill. But around here, some dyed in the wool party activists consider Little too liberal.
“We are a very conservative state with nothing but blue policies,” says Doyle Beck, a former Bonneville County GOP chairman.
Beck runs a construction company in Idaho Falls and is also a state GOP delegate. He says conservatives have worked hard in recent years to steer the party toward an agenda based on liberty: eliminating most government, he says, as well as taxes on business. Beck sees the upcoming primary, and the national midterms, as a tipping point.
“The status quo is special interest groups and cronies governing the state of Idaho,” Beck says. “Take Back Idaho’s feeling like they’re losing.”
At the University of Montana, political scientist Rob Saldin is tracking moderate groups like Take Back Idaho, which so far are rare.
“Where are the current high-profile Republicans who are endorsing and supporting this effort?” Saldin asks. “I don’t see many. And the ones you do, it’s like, Liz Cheney, who’s in big trouble.”
Saldin says the populist rhetoric stoked by the former president and his followers continues to appeal to the party base, and particularly people who have never voted or been politically active before. He figures that may be why some current GOP lawmakers are reluctant to speak out.
The former governor of Saldin’s state, Marc Racicot, has been writing editorials in mainstream outlets like The Washington Post lately similar in tone to Take Back Idaho. Racicot, who also chaired the Republican National Committee during the George W. Bush administration, says the party’s far-right leaders are a threat to democracy.
“There is a huge, great middle of America that is concerned about us as a republic falling apart,” Racicot told NPR.
Racicot was a popular two-term governor in the 1990s. Now some of the party’s base attacks him, too, as a RINO. He calls that angry, cheap rhetoric.
“Anytime you get fat and happy about what it is you’re doing that’s not focused upon the best interest of your country first — not your party, your country first — you end up placing your form of government at risk,” Racicot says.
He added that Republicans today in his view are using hate and division as a tool to distract rather than dealing head on with tough issues facing the country.
This was rancher Jennifer Ellis’ take as the Idaho legislature recently wrapped up its session. Lawmakers made national headlines for going after librarians for exposing kids to “harmful” books. One sponsor of a self-described election integrity bill even pushed a false notion that Canadians were crossing over the border to vote in elections here.
“I just have to wonder where the grown-ups in the room are on some of these things,” Ellis says. “We have got infrastructure that is really in peril. We have got schools that have not been funded like they should.”
On a recent afternoon, Ellis was trying to raise money for the PAC and fight extremism in the middle of calving season, one of the busiest times of the year on a ranch.
“Actually I’m surprised that they haven’t done a little bit of bellarin’,” she said, laughing, as she steered her pickup into a pasture where some newborn calves, still wet, lay with their mothers.
This time of year, when the wind kicks up dirt and mud on them, she’s often in the fields checking on things around the clock. She says true Idaho conservatives are out here on the land working.
“We’re not conspiracy theorists in Idaho; that’s never been how we’ve ran this state,” Ellis says. “It’s a meat and potatoes state. We do important things; we don’t do juvenile things.”
For Ellis and other moderates trying to pull the pendulum back toward the middle, the May 17 primary could be a big first test of that.