Idaho flag and capitol

The flag of Idaho is on display at the Idaho State Capitol in this February 2020 file photograph. 

Republicans throughout eastern Idaho are voting for House members and senators, and most of those legislative primaries are between a more moderate candidate and another who casts themselves as the real conservative in the race.

The divide between the two camps matters not only as a matter of internal party politics but influences public policy in a deep-red state where the winner of the GOP primary is a shoo-in in most districts in November. And you can't spend much time examining this divide without hearing about the Idaho Freedom Foundation. Further-right incumbents who have a voting record point to their high marks on the group's Freedom Index, a ranking of lawmakers based on their votes on bills the group scores, as proof of their conservative credentials, while more moderate ones portray the group's agenda as about power rather than conservative principles.

“The original reason for the Freedom Index was to measure growth of government, because in Idaho it’s not like, typically speaking, you’re voting on the Green New Deal every bill,” said IFF President Wayne Hoffman. “You’re voting on incremental policy changes that either shrink or expand government, and that might be a new program, a new regulation, a new agency, a higher tax, a higher fee. And the idea was to allow for legislators and their constituents to see in … almost real time … the cumulative impact of their votes on the size and scope of government.”

To lawmakers such as Rep. Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls, who with a 95 out of 100 had the fourth-highest Freedom Index score in 2020, high scores showcase their conservative principles. Zollinger pointed to his similarly high marks from the American Conservative Union as evidence that the IFF's index aligns with another vote-scoring system used by a conservative group. His votes, he said, line up with his own beliefs and with the Republican Party platform.

"I think I'm definitely not beholden to anybody," Zollinger said. "My score is just reflective of me voting on the conservative principles that I hold dear."

Others see it differently. Steven Taggart, an Idaho Falls lawyer and Republican political operative, pointed to the IFF's opposition to the Idaho Patient Act, a bill passed this year putting limits on medical debt collection, as evidence the group is about advancing a particular agenda rather than conservative ideology.

“The problem is that the Freedom Foundation itself is the one that differentiates between the candidates based upon the criteria of its board, and then they have Idaho Freedom Action that runs the campaigns against those they don’t like and supports the ones they do like,” Taggart said.

Marco Erickson, who is running against Zollinger, said he has “heard nothing but negative things about (the IFF) from the day I came back to Idaho and I paid more attention to what was going on.”

“There’s some principles they promote that I believe in very strongly, especially some of the ways of reducing big government,” Erickson said. “But the problem is the message they hold out doing that. I think it’s important to phase things in, to do it with respect and kindness.”

With 13 contested Republican legislative primaries in seven districts covering most of the state east and north of Pocatello, eastern Idaho is the epicenter of the divide over what it means to be a Republican, both due to the number of races and the personalities involved. The more conservative faction controls the Bonneville County Republican Central Committee and local party officials Bryan Smith and Doyle Beck, both of whom are on the IFF's Board of Directors, are also among the most prolific donors to more right-wing candidates and political committees statewide. Meanwhile, the supporters of the more moderate group include both eastern Idaho's congressman and the richest man in Idaho, who has spent much of the past year tangling with Smith and Zollinger over medical debt legislation.

U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, who beat Smith in the 2014 primary and this year is facing a challenger who says he is insufficiently pro-Trump, has contributed to a couple of more moderate candidates' campaigns and has endorsed Erickson and Dave Radford, who is running against Rep. Christensen, R-Ammon, an outspoken conservative who with a 98 had the highest score on the 2020 Freedom Index. Go through campaign finance reports and you will see more moderate candidates getting money from business and agricultural groups such as the Idaho Potato Industry PAC, the Amalgamated Sugar Company LLC PAC and the Idaho Bankers Association, as well as from like-minded legislators, including House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley.

On the other side Make Liberty Win, a PAC that gets much of its funding from the libertarian student activist group Young Americans for Liberty, has been spending tens of thousands of dollars in Idaho on mailers and phone calls on behalf of more conservative candidates in contested primaries. Idaho Freedom Action, which is affiliated with the IFF, and the Idaho Second Amendment Alliance are also active in backing further-right candidates and opposing more moderate ones.

Melaleuca CEO Frank VanderSloot, who has long been an influential figure in Idaho politics, was a strong proponent this year of legislation to limit medical debt collection. VanderSloot's public interest in the issue goes back to a lawsuit against Melaleuca by Smith's law firm Smith, Driscoll and Associates, seeking to garnish an employee's pay for a medical debt being collected by Medical Recovery Services, a company also affiliated with Smith. Zollinger works for Smith as a lawyer.

After East Idaho News, which VanderSloot founded but no longer owns, came out with a series last spring highlighting the stories of people who ended up owing many times more than their original debt, VanderSloot founded a legal fund to help debtors and launched a public effort to change the law. This culminated in the Idaho Patient Act, which passed this year over the IFF's opposition.

"They (the IFF) sometimes take those (conservative) concepts to an illogical extreme, to a point where no one that I would consider has common sense, just wanting to do the right thing, would agree to their tactics or even the conclusions of what they end up being against," said VanderSloot, who has contributed to the campaigns of several more moderate legislative candidates in primaries with further-right ones.

Zollinger, who has been in the Legislature since 2016, said he doesn't think the IFF has much direct sway over lawmakers' votes. His colleagues, he said, "vote based on their own constituents and principles," although he did say a low Freedom Index score can lead to a Republican lawmaker facing criticism for not being conservative enough.

"There's just a number of different ways in which legislation should be viewed, and we just offer another viewpoint of all that," Hoffman said. "So if you're a conservative, if you claim to be a conservative, then you may want to know if a bill grows government or if it shrinks government, that's all."

VanderSloot said when he was lobbying for the Idaho Patient Act some House Republicans told him they were upset with him because they viewed the bill as taking on one of the members of their "club."

“I thought it was unfortunate,” VanderSloot said. “We have people who are elected to serve the folks, the people in Idaho and their constituency from various districts, and yet really, who they are serving is specifically members of the club. That’s what they really feel their main job is, to protect and support and defend members of the club, and I was disappointed to see it. I was surprised honestly.”

The IFF gave the bill a minus 9 on its Freedom Index, one of the lowest-scored bills of the 2020 session, saying it infringed on numerous constitutional rights.

"I don't make up the fact that that bill has a constitutional implication," Hoffman said. "That's a fact of the bill. You may say it's needed or it's necessary, that it's the right public policy, but the fact remains that it impacts constitutionally protected rights."

It passed the House 49-20, with a couple of its supporters referencing the IFF as they debated.

“I don’t stay focused on any other outside group or things that might give me pressure,” said Rep. Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg. Ricks unseated Ron Nate, who was on the IFF's Board of Scholars, in 2018 and is now running for Senate against Jacob Householder, who is running to Ricks' right.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.