Idaho Governor Faces Full-Scale Revolt From His Own Party Over COVID Orders

Gov. Brad Little issues a statewide stay-at-home order to further prevent spread of coronavirus COVID-19 at a press conference on March 25, 2020 in Boise, Idaho. (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman/TNS)
Gov. Brad Little issues a statewide stay-at-home order to further prevent spread of coronavirus COVID-19 at a press conference on March 25, 2020 in Boise, Idaho. (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
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February 1, 2021 4:30 p.m.

After months of fighting to liberate Idahoans from what they see as despotic COVID-19 restrictions, GOP lawmakers have a plan: declare every Idahoan an essential worker.

“You are essential, no matter what anyone, any leader or any official says,” Idaho House Majority Caucus Chair Rep. Megan Blanksma (R) and Senate Majority Caucus Chair Sen. Mark Harris (R) wrote in a column in the Idaho State Journal. “Your elected Republican leaders in the House and Senate are working to make sure you are never deemed anything less than essential.”

The proposal to sooth state resident’s egos over how essential they are is the latest salvo in what’s morphed into an intra-GOP spat, as they fight to strip Idaho’s GOP governor of his powers to declare public health emergencies.

State GOP lawmakers have been pushing to end the emergency declaration issued by Gov. Brad Little (R), claiming that it’s an example of government overreach while calling the governor a “mighty dictator” and “little Hitler” over the measures.

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It’s been enough to drive the Republican governor into open conflict with his own party.

“I believe in my heart that what the Idaho legislature is doing is harmful to our people and wrong for Idaho,” Little said in a Jan. 22 emergency press conference, in which he slammed lawmakers from his party for “irresponsible attempts to undo Idaho’s emergency declaration, an action that only puts the lives and livelihood of our friends and neighbors in jeopardy.”

‘Physical defense’

The GOP-controlled legislature ended up here after months of attempts to pull back Little’s authority over the pandemic. It began almost immediately after the virus started to spread across the United States.

Like governors in all the other states, Little issued an emergency declaration, allowing the state to receive federal aid funds, deploy its National Guard to support hospitals and other health care workers, and impose a stay-at-home order to curb the spread of the virus.

Ammon Bundy, the far-right anti-government extremist who once occupied Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, began to demand that the order be rescinded, and pledged “physical defense” for anyone who defied Little.

That escalated over the months as Bundy allied with a group of right-wing state House lawmakers in June, attempting to hold a special session in the legislature that flopped after it failed to muster a quorum.

Idaho State Police form a row in a committee meeting room in the Idaho Statehouse in Boise, Idaho, on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. One person was taken into custody and lawmakers abandoned the room after spectators at a House committee meeting at the Idaho Statehouse became disruptive. The committee left the room as at least a dozen Idaho State Police formed a shield between them and the crowd of more than 100. (AP Photo/Keith Ridler)

Meanwhile, Little’s COVID measures had been broadly supported by the state’s business community, Jaclyn Kettler, a political science professor at Boise State, told TPM.

“We had a state legislator talk about the pandemic being over,” Kettler said. “So you have some real variation within the Republican Party.”

Power grab

But with the start of this year’s legislative session on Jan. 11, things have taken a turn for the more extreme, with Republican leaders in both chambers of the state legislature seeking to limit Little’s emergency powers.

Initially, the plan was to use the legislature to repeal the emergency declaration. Republican lawmakers also advocated for a law that would limit all future disaster declarations in Idaho to 30 days absent extension by the state legislature.

“This is where we’ve seen the Republican caucus leadership talk about things like rebalancing of power, rebalancing the legislative branches,” Kettler said.

Since then, the governor has pushed hard against his state GOP, enlisting help from the Idaho attorney general, who issued an opinion last week finding that the state GOP lawmakers’ attempts to nullify the emergency declaration were unconstitutional, while the state’s all-Republican congressional delegation came out in support of the governor.

“We urge the Idaho Legislature to end the political jockeying and untruths about emergency declarations and do what is right for the people of Idaho and our state’s economy,” wrote Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID), a former speaker of the state House. “Take a step back and think this through.”

Both the governor and Democratic state lawmakers have pointed out that ending the declaration would deprive Idaho of much-needed federal COVID relief money and would fail to address the supposed despotic measures that enrage the legislators.

“Ending the governor’s emergency declaration wouldn’t actually end any mask orders anywhere, it wouldn’t re-open schools,” state Rep. Ilana Rubel, a Democratic legislator, said on Monday. “It wouldn’t do any of the things that some of these folks want done, all it would do is lose us money and national guard and all that.”

GOP lawmakers have refused to back down. One member introduced articles of impeachment against Little, while the House Republican caucus accused Little of making “inflammatory” remarks.

To that end, the House GOP caucus has raised the prospect of making every Idahoan “essential” – freeing the state’s inhabitants from the emergency order.

“We also define that anybody who works out there, you are essential,” Rep. Jason Monks, assistant GOP House majority leader, said this month. “That was one of the most offensive things I thought during this process was that some people were determined to be essential and others were not and I think if you have a job and you are providing for your family I think that job was essential.”

Kettler, the political scientist, pointed out that Little did not enter office seeking to pick a fight with his party, but was rather forced to act by the severity of the pandemic.

“This isn’t like Gov. Little was setting out to try to expand his power through this,” she said. “We kind of ended up in this situation with the pandemic that forced it on him and other governors.

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