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The Idaho Problem

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There’s a good rule of thumb in America: If Idaho is in the news, it’s for a very bad reason. And this, well, hoo boy:

Ammon Bundy has carried a small copy of the U.S. Constitution in his front pocket for the past seven years. He does so to remind himself of what the government is supposed to do to serve the people without abusing its authority, he said.

The far-right activist known for his armed occupation of federal land in Oregon rejects the “anti-government label” but is happy to swap it for a catchier one: “I am definitely anti-corrupt-government, anticronyism,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post, adding that he has never rallied for a revolution to overthrow the government.

Over the weekend, Bundy, 45, announced his bid to be governor of Idaho in what analysts say is a sign of state politics moving further to the right — and a wider national trend of anti-establishment candidates going mainstream.

Jeffrey Lyons, an assistant professor of political science at Boise State University, said Bundy is an example of politically extreme candidates garnering attention and support not only in Idaho but across the country — and across party lines.

“In American politics it’s a good time to be in the ideological extreme, and we have seen success in local, state and federal elections and across both parties people running on an anti-establishment platform,” said Lyons, citing other examples of far-right representatives including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.).

In a nation where frustration toward thepolitical establishment runs deep — and is heightened by pandemic-related anxiety — Lyons said nontraditional leaders such as Bundy offer an engaging and appealing alternative.

Now, look, Idaho has always been a pretty conservative state. But as late as the 1970s, voters elected people such as Frank Church and Cecil Andrus to statewide offices. As late as the early 1990s, entirely decent congressmen such as Larry LaRocco could get elected, and not from Boise either. The 1994 election wiped out LaRocco when the insane Helen Chenoweth defeated him. Chenoweth is the ur-Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann, one of the first true right-wing extremists to enter Congress. If I ever get my current book project done, there will be a large section of a chapter on this race. What happened to Idaho is what happened to so many white rural areas–a combination of racism and job loss opened the door to anti-government extremism based around culture wars, with the moderating force of unions on white workers’ racism now gone. Northern Idaho was a long-time New Deal coalition stronghold, unlike the Boise area, which was always Republican. Now…..that will probably be Bundy’s base. After all, that’s also Ruby Ridge country, not to mention various Neo-Nazi groups. Mark Fuhrman moved up there for a reason after the OJ trial.

I don’t know if Bundy will win the Republican nomination. What I do know is that the race will be a battle over who can be the most extreme. And I don’t think there’s anyway Bundy would lose the general election if he does win. I’m sure he would disgust some moderate Republicans in the Boise suburbs. But Idaho is far, far away from being Arizona or Georgia or even Texas, states where significant population growth due to high-tech and other upper-middle class jobs have hacked away at Republican domination.

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