Second of two parts. Part One here.
Generally speaking, Idaho voters statewide have served as something of a bulwark against the spread of far-right extremism within the ranks of the Republican Party. When the state’s militia-loving lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin—who spoke in February to the annual convention of the white-nationalist America First PAC—ran against incumbent Brad Little for the governor’s seat along with a slate of similarly extreme candidates for state schools superintendent, secretary of state and lieutenant governor, they were all defeated at the polls. McGeachin lost badly, 61%-25%.
The far right, however, never concedes defeat. Only two months later, a faction of far-right activists led by Dorothy Moon, the far-right legislator who had lost the race for secretary of state, successfully took over the Idaho GOP’s party apparatus. A similarly extremist slate of activists for state Senate seats was also successful in the primary—meaning that far-right legislation criminalizing abortion and transgender therapy, among other similarly extreme laws, that were derailed in the Senate in the 2022 session are likely to succeed in a future session.
The nexus of that takeover—and of the extremist political faction fueled by the influx of right-wing newcomers to the state—is a singular man: Brent Regan, chairman of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee (KCRCC) and, more importantly, board chairman of the Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF). Since taking over the KCRCC in 2009 and then chairing the IFF in 2016, Regan has fashioned himself a career as a kingmaker of Idaho's far-right politics, and thus become one of the most powerful men in the state.
Christopher Mathias conducted a deep-dive investigation on the political radicalization of Idaho for HuffPost this spring, focusing primarily on McGeachin’s campaign and the upwell of menacing right-wing behavior that has naturally accompanied this mainstreaming of extremism. Like many who have grappled with the machinations of the network of far-right legislators, political operatives and officials, and extremist activists that comprise the machinery of the transformation, he found Regan and the IFF were their primary movers and shakers.
“Regan has been at the center of the Idaho GOP’s radicalization,” Mathias writes. “At his perch atop KCRCC and as chair of the board of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, an influential statewide group, both organizations have staked out far-right positions they then demand that conservatives embrace or else be labeled a RINO (Republican In Name Only).”
Regan moved to northern Idaho in 1999 from Davis, California, at least partly to get away from the state’s newly elected liberal Democratic governor, Gray Davis. He describes himself as a traditionalist Catholic—part of the faith’s reactionary bloc that rejects the Vatican and considers Pope Francis a heretic, while taking mass in Latin.
He filed for a vacancy on the Coeur d’Alene school board in 2011 and, despite having only grown children and no background in education, was named to the seat. By 2013, however, when he ran for election to the seat for the first time, it emerged that he had provided seed funding for a Christian “leadership” outfit called Reach America, which urges Christian parents to pull their children out of public schools.
Regan had also displayed his far-right brand of humor by regaling his audience at a legislative forum with a tale about his wife’s racist sense of humor: “I said, ‘They can’t figure out what an assault weapon is—it’s just black and scary.’ And she just looks at me and says, ‘Well, so is Obama.’”
He promptly lost that election. But by 2014 he had become involved in the IFF as a board member, and in 2016 became the chairman of its board. That was the same year he was chosen for the KCRCC board of directors and simultaneously named its new chairman.
Regan was profiled by BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen in 2017, who described how he represents a disturbingly authoritarian strain of self-described “libertarians” who have ridden a wave of support from an incoming tide of right-wing extremists:
And like so many others currently involved in North Idaho politics, Regan’s a California transplant: one of thousands of ex–LAPD officers, doomsday preppers, “traditionalist” Catholics, and far-right evangelicals who’ve flocked to the white, conservative utopia of North Idaho over the last 20 years, working to remake the Republican Party in their own image. Before, they were called libertarians and constitutionalists, or called nothing at all, because there was no political group conservative enough to represent their beliefs. But after the 2008 election of President Obama, they emerged, consolidated power, and began operating under a simple principle: It’s easier to take over a political party than to start one of your own.
Regan told Petersen that he doesn’t consider the politics he has engendered to be “ugly,” but rather “dynamic.” “What would beautiful politics look like?” Regan asked her. “Would it even be politics? To paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz, politics is war by other means.”
Regan has a history of embracing extremist groups and their causes. He spearheaded a 2019 KCRCC resolution urging federal authorities to permit notorious Austrian white nationalist Martin Sellner—who led efforts to sabotage relief for Syrian refugees, and had lengthy ties to the white-nationalist terrorist who murdered 50 Muslims in New Zealand—to enter the country in order to marry his American fiancee, Brittney Pettibone, who had moved to Post Falls in 2018. He also led the KCRCC in unanimously passing a resolution asserting its complete and undying fealty to the far-right John Birch Society.
“They have completely rebranded what it is to be a conservative here in north Idaho,” Coeur d’Alene activist Shawn Keenan told Mathias. “And they have literally excommunicated and cleaned house of any rational, regular conservative from their ranks, telling them, ‘You don’t belong here. You have not passed the purity test.’ It’s a bit of a purge. A big purge.”
Freedom’s just another word
Regan’s most powerful vehicle is the Idaho Freedom Foundation, an ostensibly libertarian think tank that has an unusual grip on the state Legislature, thanks to its highly influential ratings of legislation and legislators for their conservative credentials. It also warmly embraces the flood of incoming right-wing voters.
“Are you a refugee from California or some other liberal playground? Did you move to Idaho to escape the craziness?” its website asks. “Welcome to Idaho. We’re glad to have you here. You are one of the new Idahoans. The people who came to the Gem State seeking a home that reflects their values: small government and a freer life.” It calls these newcomers part of “True Idaho.” Multi-generational natives with more liberal backgrounds are not considered “real Idahoans.”
The IFF is funded by a number of right-wing sources, including the Adolph Coors Foundation, the Charles Koch Institute, and the far-right State Policy Network. It also has been accused of abusing federal tax laws placing limits on the kind of advocacy and lobbying that nonprofits are permitted to engage in.
It was founded in 2009 by Wayne Hoffman, a Florida native and onetime Statesman reporter who at the time was Canyon County GOP chair, with a grant from right-wing benefactor Ralph Smeed. For much of its early years, it tended to focus on attacking public-school funding and tax-related measures, but over time has expanded its advocacy to include a panoply of far-right causes.
Most notably, IFF was on the forefront of the conspiracist campaign to shut down the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-21. It heavily supported the efforts of “Patriot” provocateur Ammon Bundy, who leveraged his far-right celebrity from leading the 2016 armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge into the role of COVID-denialism figurehead.
Hoffman spoke at one of Bundy’s first anti-health-measure gatherings, an “Easter celebration” at Bundy’s warehouse property in Emmett on April 12, 2020, held in open defiance of Governor Little’s order limiting the size of gatherings.
Hoffman bemoaned polls showing that even conservative Idahoans support the restrictions by a massive majority, which he blamed on “fear—the work of the devil”: “So I’m in my bedroom, trying to get some sleep, and it occurs to me that, yes, this is the ultimate work of the devil. Fear is the embodiment of Satan. Fear is also the tool of tyrants.”
Hoffman, like all the speakers, urged attendees to defy the restrictions. “We don’t have to live like this,” he said. “We don’t have to live in fear. … We certainly don't have to continue to live in a world where a church service is considered a big news story in America. That's not who we are. Americans don't live in fear. They don't give up their rights just because somebody tells them to."
Later that week, Hoffman posted a video on Facebook urging defiance of the governor’s orders. “This is the moment patriots have warned us about,” Hoffman said. “You have to disobey.”
He added: “Remember, there are more of us than there are of them.”
On April 17, the IFF and Bundy’s network organized a “Disobey Idaho” protest held at the Idaho Statehouse, attended by a few hundred people attended. “We do not consent to our state being shut down. We do not consent to forced imprisonment,” stated an announcement for the event. “All businesses are essential. Idahoans have a fundamental right to provide for their families. Government cannot interfere with natural rights.”
When a well-known Boise anti-vaccination fanatic organized a “playdate” protest to which activist moms could bring their children to a then-closed playground in the Boise suburb of Meridian, the IFF helped amplify both the protest and the woman’s subsequent arrest by Meridian police. Afterward, Bundy organized a noisy protest outside the home of the arresting officer, but the IFF denied any involvement—though it did organize a protest outside Meridian City Hall that afternoon.
McGeachin is one of the IFF’s most prominent allies in the Statehouse, along with her cohorts in the “Freedom Caucus” of the Legislature, including Moon and Giddings, as well as the Panhandle’s notorious conspiracy-theorist House member, Heather Scott of Ponderay. In October 2020, McGeachin and a number of her legislative cohorts were featured in an IFF video in which they questioned the existence of the pandemic and proclaimed they would ignore any state or local emergency orders that they claimed violated their rights.
The declaration went on to “demand an end to the emergency orders issued by state and local government officials and the restoration of our constitutionally protected rights.” McGeachin was shown driving a large SUV while holding up a Bible and a handgun.
The IFF’s profound influence on the Idaho Legislature became an issue in the 2021 session. Democratic House member James Ruchti of Pocatello penned an op-ed for the Statesman decrying the spread of extremism in the state being facilitated by the IFF:
Idaho’s majority party is almost unrecognizable. It’s influenced by extreme-right organizations bullying their way into Idaho politics: anti-government, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, Bundyites, and sympathizers to all of these groups. One organization is particularly dangerous. It has more sheer influence over the majority party, vote after vote, than any grassroots organization, special interest group, lobbying effort, or think tank: the Idaho Freedom Foundation.
The Idaho Freedom Foundation and its Freedom Caucus — made up of nearly a quarter to a third of the House — work in tandem to pressure Republicans who would otherwise vote according to their values, life experiences, and constituents’ needs. The Idaho Freedom Foundation rates bills throughout the session and ranks legislators accordingly. Those with top rankings receive the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s high praise. Those who fail to show loyalty are attacked viciously through social media, newsletters, and in the press by The Idaho Freedom Foundation and its disciples—some of the state’s angriest and most aggressive residents—during the session and primary elections. The Idaho Freedom Foundation is often the only voice filling the space on important bills, and there are increasingly fewer Republican legislators willing to buck this unofficial system.
Retired Idaho Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones told KTVB-TV that lawmakers with the highest ratings "do the Freedom Foundation's bidding." "When they don't go along with the suggestions that the Freedom Foundation makes, they end up in election trouble," Jones said.
A number of lawmakers told reporters how the IFF uses low “freedom scores” in their rankings to intimidate them, telling voters they're "against freedom" if they fail to vote the IFF’s way. Legislators ono both sides of the aisle often find themselves being targeted via texts, robocalls, and mailers with smear campaigns if they vote against the IFF’s agenda.
Republican House member Greg Chaney of Caldwell said the IFF’s low score for him didn’t mean much to him personally—“That's an evaluation by somebody IFF has hired, and my votes are an evaluation of what we do after hours of sitting in committee, after talking to dozens of constituents after getting the best info we can”—but acknowledged that the IFF’s our-way-or-the-highway approach was a problem.
"Some lawmakers know nothing about a bill other than how the IFF has rated it," Chaney said. "It scares the snot out of me. That is not how we should be setting policy."
Kootenai County commissioner Chris Fillios, a moderate Republican, told the Guardian that the IFF/KCRCC model could well become a national blueprint for a gradual far-right takeover: “They have been told, infiltrate at every level: school board, county, city offices, anywhere and everywhere they can, state level, federal level, infiltrate, infiltrate.”
Fillios believes the strategy is connected to such “alt-right” figures as Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s onetime chief strategist. “If we start from the national level and we look at Steve Bannon having identified his so-called 40,000 ‘shock troops’, the most fertile ground that they could find would be northern Idaho. If they can get a foothold here, they could use it as sort of a launch pad for the rest of the country.”
Cozying up to extremists
Both the IFF and KCRCC under Regan encourage right-wing extremism in Idaho not simply through far-right legislation, but by embracing the white nationalists and other bigoted activists who move to Idaho, drawn by the “white homeland” siren song. The most obstreperous and troublesome of these activists is the cabal of extremists who moved to the Post Falls area after the KCRCC attempted to support white nationalist Martin Sellner’s wedding. (The ceremony was eventually held in Austria.)
All of these activists were notorious before moving to Idaho, particularly “Red Ice”—the husband-and-wife team of Henrik Palmgren and Lana Lokteff. Originally based in Gothenberg, Sweden, their YouTube channel—which originally specialized in UFO-style conspiracy theories—swelled to 335,000 subscribers by promoting white-nationalist ideology, including Holocaust denial and the myth of white genocide before it was removed from the platform in October 2019 for hate speech. One month later, Red Ice also was given the boot from Facebook. Since then, it has continued to publish videos online through the independent provider Epik.
Red Ice has been a prominent platform for the white nationalists they host on their program, including Richard Spencer and Michael “Enoch” Peinovich, as well as neo-Nazis Andrew “weev” Auernheimer and Andrew Anglin of the Daily Stormer. Red Ice was “often noted for its role in helping to introduce viewers to new alt-right figures and ideas,” according to a 2018 SPLC report.
Then there’s Vincent James Foxx, the white nationalist who operates the website Red Elephants, and whose YouTube channel also was removed for hate speech in 2020. Red Elephants like to portray Black people as violent criminals. Typical headlines read: “Why Black Criminality is a Much Bigger Problem Than Racism or Police Brutality”; “Black Americans Most Likely to Commit Hate Crimes, Join Hate Groups, and Commit Interracial Attacks. Here are the Numbers”; “Black on White Nursing Home Attacks are Extremely Common, Just Like Black on White Crime.”
It also regularly indulges in antisemitic propaganda, such as posting a list of “Jews at the top in media.” The Anti-Defamation League describes Red Elephants as a site that “promotes conspiracy theories, antisemitic beliefs, and white supremacist mantras. Beyond the virtual world, those associated with the Red Elephants have participated in rightwing and explicitly white supremacist rallies and demonstrations.”
Foxx moved his operations from California to Post Falls in 2021, and promptly became engaged in Idaho politics.
“We are going to take over this state,” Foxx declared in one video. “We have a great large group of people, and that group is growing. A true, actual right-wing takeover is happening right now in the state of Idaho. And there’s nothing that these people can do about it. So if you’re a legislator here, either get in line or get out of the way.”
Foxx also was a featured speaker at Fuentes’ white-nationalist America First PAC gathering in Florida, talking about how he and other white nationalists are working to overthrow the old GOP establishment and replace it with their far more radical and white version.
“People like us are going to primary every last spineless and traitorous member of the Republican Party in 2022,” Foxx told the crowd. “We are going to completely transform the party by 2024, and out of its ashes will finally rise true, right-wing, reactionary force.”
Foxx, who was present at the Jan. 6, 2020 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, also outlined the strategy at work—one that encompassed both Richard Butler’s “white homeland” tactics and those deployed by Brent Regan.
“The solution is local politics: Amassing power in these pockets of the country until it’s time to unify,” he said. “I’ve only been here for a couple of months, and I’m tapped in the way that I am. You can do it, too.”
He also told his 44,000 Telegram followers: “If school board races go well in north Idaho, I will be running for something local there soon. And I will win easily.”
That’s where the third major player in the newly hatched Post Falls white-nationalist scene came in. Dave Reilly, a Pennsylvanian who had been present supporting the alt-right at the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, had moved to Post Falls in 2020 and promptly began running for the local school board.
Reilly had followed up on events in Charlottesville by rubbing shoulders with racists, notably the white nationalist “Groyper” movement led by Nicholas Fuentes and embraced by pundit Michelle Malkin (who later endorsed Reilly’s candidacy in Post Falls). Reilly attended one of their conferences. He also made multiple appearances on “Red Ice.”
On Twitter, Reilly’s antisemitism was rampant. “Jews pretend to be white when it’s expedient for them,” he tweeted last January, which is why “white privilege is a thing.” He tweeted that “Judaism is the religion of anti-Christ,” that “all Jews are dangerous,” and opined more Americans should believe antisemitic stereotypes.
Despite this background, when Reilly announced his school-board candidacy barely a year into his Idaho residency, he was warmly embraced by Brent Regan and the KCRCC. Then, when the details of his history became public, the GOP chair doubled down, insisting that the press reports about his bigoted views—based on Reilly’s own published tweets and articles—were “false,” and that Reilly’s story was “a remarkable one of salvation and is an inspiration to those struggling with life's challenges.”
“I believe Dave is a good man who will make an excellent Trustee and will resist the Progressive/Marxist indoctrination of our children,” retorted Regan on Facebook. “I encourage you to ignore the false accusations and continue your support of ALL of our recommended candidates.”
Despite being an utter newcomer, the KCRCC’s endorsement of Reilly was powerful enough that he only lost his Post Falls school board race by 134 votes, 1,058-924 (53%-47%). In short order, Reilly shifted gears to heading up a secret plan to take over the local Democratic Party in Kootenai County.
The scheme, revealed in a recorded call with a Reilly associate named Dan Bell, involved having Republican activists pose as Democrats so they could run for open precinct-captain positions, upon which they would control the Kootenai Democrats. Then the plan called for the faux Democrats to install Reilly as the county chairman. After that, the operatives would take over the county Democrats’ website and social media channels, and Reilly would take money donated to Democrats and give it to Republicans.
Bell told Grimm that KCRCC chair Brent Regan was “totally on board” with the plan. “If we pull this off, this will be national news,” Bell said. Regan, however, denied any knowledge of the scheme—while justifying it.
“Democrats, socialists, and hacks in the media are openly calling for democrats and their sympathizers to infiltrate the Republican Party so they can vote in the Republican Primary,” Regan complained. “They are even running prominent democrats as Republican candidates for office. … Now, just like all bullies, they are upset when Republicans fight back.”
Regan also claimed to have never met Foxx. “I do not recall him attending any of the KCRCC meetings,” he told HuffPost. In fact, Foxx and Reilly had posted photos of themselves smiling at KCRCC’s annual Lincoln Day Dinner in February with Dinesh D’Souza, the featured speaker. Regan also spoke at the event.
All of these players had key roles in the events that played out in Coeur d’Alene on June 11 at the Pride in the Park gathering. The event had been targeted by right-wing extremists for several weeks, thanks to a campaign of intimidation first organized by a number of Christian nationalists in the Idaho Panhandle—notably IFF darling Heather Scott—but then spearheaded by a regional far-right bikers club, the Panhandle Patriots. The club announced it was holding an event called Gun d’Alene at a park less than a mile from the lakeside City Park. Spouting “groomer” rhetoric accusing the LGBTQ community of fostering pedophilia, two members of the club promised there would be a confrontation.
The far-right organizing developed into an intense right-wing media scrum when Reilly of Post Falls began writing about the event in his propaganda outlet, the Idaho Tribune, and Foxx began doing the same on his video channel. Notably, Reilly happened to notice that one of the sponsors listed for the event was the Satanic Temple of Idaho, which became fodder for the national far-right ecosystem, including the Libs of TikTok account on Twitter, which began retweeting Reilly’s posts; they were apparently in such close contact with Reilly that one of the account’s tweets promoted a Tribune story about 20 minutes after it was published.
The Satanic Temple dropped out of the event after Reilly’s posts began circulating widely. But the damage was done, and the Coeur d’Alene Pride gathering became a national far-right lightning rod. The Panhandle Patriots rebranded their event a “day of prayer” march, which meant that it attracted a variety of Christian-nationalist groups; but its rhetoric connecting the LGBTQ community to pedophilia ramped up. This, in turn, helped attract the attention of neofascist groups like Patriot Front, who arrived in Coeur d’Alene believing they could score some easy media hype but instead found themselves under arrest.
Afterward, Reilly was defiant, eager to tell the LGBTQ community in Coeur d’Alene—a number of whom are multigenerational natives—they should leave the state.
"We do not need outsiders coming to North Idaho, to defend what isn't theirs,” said Reilly. “They can go to Seattle or Portland or San Francisco. But not here. We will not accept it. So, spread the word: You're not welcome. Satanists. LGBT groomers. Drag queens. Satanists. Pagans. Find somewhere else to call your home.”
The rise of bellicose extremism has had real social consequences for Idahoans, particularly those who don’t share the newcomers’ far-right beliefs. In a state long known for tolerating a broad range of worldviews and ideologies, the new intolerance is difficult, startling, and oftentimes enough to convince them to leave and find new homes elsewhere.
As with much of rural America today, daily life is now filled with confrontations and dread, especially as the inflamed extremists become more convinced that they are fully in charge. Even dedicated activists who have been taking them on for years, such as Coeur d’Alene’s Shawn Keenan, have contemplated leaving, as some of his friends already have.
The cultural changes of the past decade have already produced a “brain drain” on the state as educated citizens increasingly fled in droves. That intensified during the past couple of years as a result of the pandemic paranoia—which resulted in hundreds of health care workers being threatened, intimidated, and assaulted by bellicose denialists—and the recent right-wing hysterias over “critical race theory” and pedophilic “groomers” reading gay-friendly material to children in public schools.
Unsurprisingly—especially in a state ranked at the bottom for its investment in public education—that has produced a major shortage in teachers for Idaho schools that officials have termed “a crisis.” Similarly, health care facilities and agencies are grappling with a huge shortage of health care workers (particularly in Kootenai County), with over 9,000 positions in the field currently going unfilled.
But then again, if you were a health care worker or a teacher, would you want to move to Idaho now?
Lewiston Morning Tribune editor Martin Trillhaase recently penned an editorial asking Idahoans to take a hard, honest look at what their state has become, musing on Proud Boy Kyle Chapman’s eagerness to promote Idaho as an ethnic and political refuge for white nationalists:
What makes Chapman think he’s wanted here?
Have you looked at the people running the Gem State?
Discrimination isn’t just unfortunate in Idaho; it’s the law.
With the exception of a dozen cities — including Moscow and Lewiston — and Latah County, where local ordinances apply, it is legal in Idaho to deny people employment, housing, education and public accommodations if they are members of the LGBTQ community.
For 16 years, lawmakers have refused to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to Idaho’s Human Rights Act. The closest they came was seven years ago. But after listening to one heart-felt story after another during 21 hours of testimony, all 13 Republican members of the House State Affairs Committee voted no.
Even the brutal and fatal beating of Steven Nelson of Boise near Lake Lowell in 2016 for the simple reason that Nelson was gay did not move Idaho lawmakers to fill a gap in the state’s 1983 hate crime statute.
… Should there be any doubt why Chapman and people who share his views find Idaho so attractive?
Trillhaase quotes a Boise state senator, Melissa Wintrow, who championed the changes in the law to protect minorities that were regularly shot down, and now fears what will happen as the extremist tide peaks.
“The welcome mat is down,” Wintrow says. “We need to take the initiative to demonstrate we are not this kind of state. We have to put in place policies that communicate our values.”
But as Trillhaase observes: “This just may be who we really are.”