You probably didn’t pay attention to the 2022 Idaho Governor Election this cycle, but it was chaotic—even as incumbent governor Brad Little ultimately dominated the field to claim re-election on November 8th. Before Little advanced to the general election, he faced stiff resistance from his own right-wing Lieutenant Governor, Janice McGeachin, in the Republican Primary. Little and McGeachin began their extremely public feud in early 2021, primarily breaking with each other over COVID restrictions, including masking and vaccine requirements. When Little left the state to visit the Texas border with nine other Republican Governors in October 2021, McGeachin used a loophole in the Idaho State Constitution to seize control as acting governor and issued an executive order banning mandatory vaccinations and testing in K-12 schooling and universities within the state. Little undid her executive order as soon as he returned. Their feud reached comical levels after Little attempted to sneak out of the state without telling McGeachin in November, so she could not pass temporary executive orders. Little has effectively been stuck within the borders of Idaho for the past year, with the looming threat of McGeachin passing various right-wing executive orders out of step with the priorities of his administration if he ever leaves. McGeachin confidently primaried Little with the backing of former President Donald Trump but was dominated by a surprising 53%-32% margin in May (McGeachin only defeated Little in 4 of Idaho’s 44 counties, all located in the state’s northern panhandle). This primary defeat was the first for a Trump-endorsed statewide candidate in over five years.
The 2022 General Election
More moderate members often criticized McGeachin in her party for her militia ties, most notably after she allegedly told anti-government militia member Eric Parker he would “have a friend” in the office if she became Governor. After Little dispatched McGeachin in the primary, his competition in the general election was another right-winger with militia ties, Ammon Bundy. Bundy most notably led the 2016 Occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (resulting in the death of militia member LaVoy Finicum), after which he was arrested and charged with various felonies (Bundy was later acquitted after a mistrial). In 2018, Bundy’s anti-government streak caused him to break from the militia movement after he compared Trump to Adolf Hitler and later expressed his support for the BLM and Defund the Police movements. Two years later, Bundy again became affiliated with right-wing politics, as he was a key figure in Idaho protests against COVID-19 restrictions after Little’s stay-at-home order. Bundy ran as an independent in the general election against Little and Democratic nominee Stephen Heidt, rekindling McGeachin’s coalition of voters frustrated with Little’s restrictive COVID measures. As Bundy gained momentum throughout the fall, the race dynamic shifted. Although most moderate and center-left voters were probably never truly fearful that Bundy would win, they still backed Little, almost in solidarity with him against his farther-right competition. On November 8th, Little crushed both his challengers, defeating Heidt and Bundy by a wide 61%-20%-17% margin.
1. A Staggering Number of Democrats Chose to Back Brad Little
Our modeling estimates that although 82% of Biden voters turned out to vote in 2022, just 53% of them voted for their own nominee, Stephen Heidt, over Brad Little. So many Democrats chose to back Little over Bundy that Heidt only won more votes than Bundy in 10 of Idaho’s 44 counties. Heidt only won ~20% of the total vote in Idaho, underperforming Joe Biden’s 2020 result by a significant amount (Biden won ~33% of the vote). Heidt was reduced to a mere “third-party” candidate in many portions of the state, winning only 4% of the vote in Oneida County, 5% of the vote in Franklin County, and even just 15% of the vote in large Bonneville County (Biden won 10% in Oneida and Franklin Counties and 26% in Bonneville County in 2020). This extreme crossover support is surprising since Little is not remotely a moderate Republican. Idaho Democrats have primarily criticized him for his socially conservative views. Little opposed gay marriage during his campaign for governor and signed sweeping anti-transgender legislation and a restrictive “heartbeat” abortion ban. Still, nearly half of Biden voters chose to vote for Little, ostensibly to support him over the considerably farther right Bundy.
2. A Staggering Number of Republicans Chose to Back Ammon Bundy
In the 2022 Republican Primary, ~32% of voters broke for McGeachin over Brad Little. A few months later, in the general election, our modeling estimates that ~29% of Trump voters broke for Bundy over Little. Bundy performed best in McGeachin’s stronghold, the panhandle, and in most exurban and rural areas. Little dominated Bundy in Ada County (Boise) and in the heavily Mormon area of Idaho (Idaho Falls and Pocatello). Although Little still crushed Bundy with Trump voters, crossover support from Democrats significantly inflated his margins. Still, Bundy’s respectable finish (listed as an Independent on the ballot) shows the persisting popularity of the extremely anti-establishment portion of the Republican Party, even as Little celebrates a resounding victory for now.
3. Democrats Dominated Idaho Turnout in 2022
Our modeling estimates that 82% of Idaho Biden voters turned out to vote in the 2022 midterms, compared to just 61% of Trump voters. Since so many of these Biden voters ultimately chose to back Little, Democrats have more to show for their dominant turnout in other states in the Great Plains and Mountain West regions (such as Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Montana) than in Idaho. The few Democratic vote centers in Idaho (Ada, Blaine, Latah, and Teton counties) composed a much higher proportion of the vote than in 2020 (these counties increased their share of the state’s overall vote by 5%, 7%, 6%, and 7% respectively) as well-educated voters flocked to the ballot box in 2022. Western Republicans should be unnerved by this trend—as educational polarization intensifies, their party is less and less well-suited for strong midterm performances.
Fast Fact: 2020 Biden voters were much more likely than 2020 Trump voters to turn out to vote in the 2022 ID Governor election, consistent with Republican struggles in other demographically similar states such as Colorado, Montana, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
The author used county-level data to build a simple model to estimate how people chose to vote in the 2022 ID Governor election based on their 2020 Presidential General Election vote. The author estimated this probability by creating a set of linear regression models with pegged intercepts predicting 2022 ID Governor election county candidate vote totals from 2020 Presidential General Election county candidate vote totals. One can think of the regression’s beta-values as the probability that if there were one more Biden/Trump 2020 voter added to a county, they would end up voting for each of Little, Bundy, or Heidt in the 2022 ID Governor election (depending on which regression the beta value is apart of).
The model makes a few common-sense assumptions for simplicity, as detailed below. Since assumptions are made, figures from the model are meant to be interpreted as estimates, not exact values.
1. No voters participated in the 2022 ID Governor election without previously voting in the 2020 Presidential Election.
2. No voters voted for Donald Trump in 2020 and Democrat Stephen Heidt in 2022.
3. No voters voted for Joe Biden in 2020 and Ammon Bundy in 2022.