Josh Wheeler entered the world of local politics for two reasons: family and community.

A Republican and self-described conservative, Wheeler decided to run for city council in his hometown of Ammon, Idaho, after witnessing the overwhelming community support given to him and his family in the wake of his son’s death.

“I needed to find a way to give back to my community,” he said. 

This year, Wheeler decided to run for the Idaho House. But this time he ran because he felt family and community were threatened by a brand of conservatism embodied by his opponent, fellow Republican Chad Christensen, a proud member of the far-right Oath Keepers. 

In Idaho’s May primary elections, Wheeler beat Christensen 52% to 48%, his win adding one drop to what would amount to a wave of incumbent losses that washed over Idaho and other red states this year. 

At 24%, the rate of incumbent loss in Idaho’s primary election was nearly four times the average rate of the last decade. Though this level of turnover is partly due to incumbent vs. incumbent contests created by redistricting, that explanation only accounts for 4 of the 18 incumbent defeats. In other words, three-fourths of Idaho incumbents seeking reelection faced a primary challenger, and nearly half of them didn’t make it out the other side. 

A similar phenomenon is taking place across red America, with state legislative primaries sweeping incumbents out of office in numbers unseen in recent elections. So far this cycle, 134 Republican incumbents nationwide have lost their primary races, double the rate of past years.

Experts point to both intramural feuding between different factions of the Republican Party, as well as issues like school choice and COVID-19 restrictions that have brought a more heterodox set of voters to the polls. 

The incumbent losses in solid-red states like Idaho, North Dakota and West Virginia, according to Stephanie Witt, professor of political science at Boise State, are yet more evidence of the active war between two factions of the Republican Party: the emergent, more pro-Trump wing of the party, and the GOP of the early aughts.

“As the two factions battle for control of the party, we will see people being challenged in primaries,” Witt said.

Events of the last two years have also exacerbated cleavages within the Republican Party and have produced an electorate who are more willing to reject the status quo, according to Adam Dynes, associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University. 

“There’s the traditional Republican wing that is now seen as being more moderate and the Trump wing of the party,” Dynes said. These two factions, though agreeing on most things, are divided over pandemic-related mandates and questions of election integrity, Dynes said. 

Another point of division is that of school choice and parent participation in education, with Republicans coming together in opposition to teachers unions. 

“The teachers union endorsement is becoming the kiss of death in Republican primary elections,” said Corey DeAngelis, senior fellow at the American Federation for Children. DeAngelis cites races across the country, including some in Idaho, where teachers union endorsements have played a decisive role in determining electoral outcomes, with union-endorsed incumbents coming out behind. 

These ideological divisions boil down to a simple binary, according to Brent Regan, chairman of the GOP Executive Committee of Kootenai County, one of Idaho’s most conservative regions. 

“It’s the establishment vs. the conservatives, it’s the bureaucratic state vs. the people,” said Regan. 

The long string of incumbent defeats in May’s primary election and the unexpected replacement of party leadership at last month’s Republican Party convention are evidence of a “fundamental renewal” reshaping the Idaho GOP, according to Regan. “It really was the grassroots rising up and saying, ‘No, we’ve had enough.’”

The convention’s rejection of the party establishment, in favor of conservatives who are more willing to take a hard line on the former president’s claims of election fraud and COVID-19 policy, mirrors the outcome of several Idaho senate races in which experienced senate incumbents were ousted by more conservative challengers. 

However, Idaho voters’ rejection of the status quo goes the other way, too, Kevin Richert, a reporter for Idaho Education News, said. 

“It was a wild primary, we had a lot of incumbents lose, but it wasn’t all moderate Republicans losing to conservative challengers,” Richert said. In fact, the opposite was true for many races, especially in eastern Idaho where more moderate Republicans, like Britt Raybould and Wheeler, beat more ideologically extreme incumbents. 

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Moderate Republicans also did well in statewide races. Governor Brad Little, a traditional Republican who has received pushback from the right over pandemic lockdowns, was challenged by the Trump-endorsed Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, and he beat her handily. 

Though at first glance Idaho’s primaries seem to reveal a battle between two distinct versions of conservatism, with the more extreme, Trump-influenced variant taking the lead, the story is more complicated, according to Wheeler. 

“Voters understand that if you get too extreme, your party gets in trouble,” Wheeler said. “I’m optimistic that the primary voters — though maybe wanting something different — are still looking for reasonable people of good character to go out and represent them.”

Wheeler, and the other Republican candidates who beat incumbents in Idaho’s primary, now see themselves as being engaged in a fight to make Idaho more conservative. But what that means, and what that will look like, depends on who you ask.

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