When I began covering Idaho politics with the Post Register some 35 years ago, it was easy to identify who the conservatives were. They were Republicans, who were guided by the principles of God, country and the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry.
Sure, there were folks who were well to the right of center. They often were viewed by the media as being “ultra-conservatives.” But for the most part, if you were a Republican back in the day, then you were accepted as a conservative.
Today, there are a number of groups in Idaho that can stake claim as the “true conservatives.” One of the more prominent is the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which provides an annual scorecard to sort out the contenders from the pretenders in the conservative ranks. For some lawmakers, getting an A-rating with the Idaho Freedom Foundation is the equivalent of a Grammy award, or an Oscar.
The IFF has plenty of company in the conservative sphere. To mention a few, there’s the Second Amendment Alliance, the Gem State Patriot, Health Freedom Idaho, Madison Liberty Institute and Right to Life Idaho. We see a band of “liberty” legislators turning up the volume on conservative principles and the Redoubt News routinely praises those efforts.
If you are pro-choice, think there should be restrictions on some guns and believe children should have vaccinations, then you need not apply to these conservative groups. If you’re OK with spending more money on schools, roads and other government services – and don’t mind paying for them -- then you must be a liberal at heart. Or, you may just be a RINO if you claim to be a Republican.
There’s a new group, called Idaho Conservatives, that is trying to change the narrative. Actually, the group’s name has been around for a while. But the new version, which began operations in January, is led by Holly Cook – who has been involved with several political campaigns and, more recently, was a spokesperson for the Idaho Falls Police Department. One of her immediate targets is the Idaho Freedom Foundation and the organization’s “freedom index,” which Cook says has undue influence in state government.
“Some legislators are mentioning the freedom index in some fashion in floor debates,” she said. “It goes to the larger question, are they looking at the freedom index to determine how to vote. That’s not what their constituents elected them to do.”
She sides with the IFF on some principles of limited government, “but I don’t believe that conservatives in Idaho, or in general, think conservatism means lack of government, or believe the freedom index should dictate conservative policy.”
Cook, who gets her share of conservative backlash with her efforts, says followers of the IFF and other groups should tone down their rhetoric. It’s OK to attack the issue, but not the person. Cook, who was hired by Conservative Communication Solutions LLC, says some people in the organization do not want their names in the public spotlight to avoid the social-media harassment
“I thought I was one they couldn’t touch,” said Jennifer Ellis, a Blackfoot rancher who chairs Conservative Communication Solutions. “But when I recently defended (House Speaker) Scott Bedke on a water issue, I was labeled as an insidious swamp rat. And I’ve voted straight Republican my whole life.
“The far right says we’re funded by swamp money, or that (former Gov.) Butch Otter is behind all this,” Ellis says. “Nothing can be farther from the truth. There’s not one bit of tax money, or anything but hard-earned money that has come to this organization to see if we can change the narrative a little bit.”
If you are among the Republicans who don’t like President Trump, then you’ll have company within Idaho Conservatives. “I don’t like anything about the guy,” Ellis says, “but I will say that his appointees have done very well.”
One of the main purposes of the organization is to provide some appeal to the center of the political spectrum. She views Idaho Conservatives as an alternative to the various groups and county GOP central committees that are catering to the right-wing faction.
“I keep hearing people say they haven’t left the Republican Party, but the party has left them,” Ellis says.
As she sees it, that’s a sure formula for adding shades of Democratic blue to this traditionally Republican-red state.