MERIDIAN, Idaho — On a week when the total U.S. death toll from COVID-19 approached 1 million, Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin staged a get-out-the-vote rally headlined by a radio host who claimed the coronavirus does not exist and called for the execution of Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“You don’t ask permission from Dr. Fauci Mengele to go outside. You ignore him. And you indict him and you try him and you fry him!” said Stew Peters, a Minnesota-based former bounty hunter turned radio host and podcaster, drawing lusty cheers from the crowd of roughly 1,000 at the rally.

McGeachin is running for governor this year as the Donald Trump-endorsed challenger to Idaho Gov. Brad Little, a Republican seeking a second term. With Democrats vastly outnumbered, the question of who will govern Idaho for the next four years will almost certainly be settled by Tuesday’s GOP primary.

The Idaho matchup reflects a national schism in the Republican Party that is pitting traditional conservative politicians against Trump-backed MAGA brawlers such as McGeachin, who, like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, was widely rebuked for addressing the white nationalist America First Political Action Conference in Florida in February. The election may serve as a bellwether for the strength of extremist politics in the Pacific Northwest.

‘A huge embarrassment’

Some Idaho Republicans have had more than enough of McGeachin and other far-right candidates, saying their associations with militias and extremist groups threaten to remind the public of state’s past notoriety as the home of the Aryan Nations.

“It’s a huge embarrassment to real, normal Idahoans,” said Jennifer Ellis, a cattle rancher and lifelong Republican who chairs Take Back Idaho, a political action committee dedicated to defeating McGeachin and other “extreme and disruptive” candidates. “We have now crossed over from far right to alt-right.”

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McGeachin (pronounced “Ma-GEE-hin”), a former state legislator and business owner from Idaho Falls, was the first woman elected as Idaho lieutenant governor, in 2018. Once a relatively unknown lawmaker, her profile has risen in far-right circles as she has feuded across the Capitol rotunda with Little over COVID restrictions.

Little is a conservative cattle rancher who boasts of slashing regulations and taxes, and who signed one of the nation’s strictest abortion trigger laws, which would effectively ban nearly all abortions if the U.S. Supreme Court follows through on the leaked majority draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade. Abortion-rights advocates say such a ban would send hundreds of women seeking abortions into nearby states, including Washington and Oregon.

That’s not enough for McGeachin. If elected, she said at the rally, one of her top priorities would be to “unconditionally prohibit abortion.” Last week, she called for a special session of the Idaho Legislature to remove the few exceptions allowed in the trigger law, cases of rape and incest or to protect the life of a mother. On Facebook, she accused Little of siding with “radical leftists and satanists” in support of “murdering innocent children.”

Conservative state

Idaho is among the most conservative states in the nation. Nearly 64% of voters here backed Donald Trump in 2020 (compared with 39% in Washington.) Republicans occupy every statewide elected office and congressional seat and hold supermajorities in the state Legislature.

Yet at the May 4 McGeachin rally at Julius M. Kleiner Memorial Park just west of Boise, a stream of far-right candidates and other speakers on stage railed against an Idaho they see as led by RINO squishes and besieged by communism, child trafficking and election fraud.

“Everything you are dealing with, everything that you are looking at is Marxism,” warned speaker James Lindsay, a conservative author who claimed communist ideology has infiltrated Idaho schools in the form of critical race theory and “weird gender sex trans stuff.”

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There was an air of vigilance amid exuberance at the event, as pistol-carrying private security details ringed the stage wearing olive green tactical pants, T-shirts and sunglasses. They scanned the crowd and communicated through earpieces like an unofficial Secret Service looking to head off an antifa attack. Members of far-right militia-style groups including the Proud Boys and the Idaho Liberty Dogs also were on hand.

Michelle Malkin, a former Seattle Times opinion columnist and author of a book praising racial profiling and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, described “Brad Chicken Little” and other establishment Republicans as traitors “in bed almost literally with the woke enemies who are predators of your children.”

Wendy Rogers, an Arizona state senator known for echoing Trump’s false claims of a stolen election — and who was censured by her colleagues after calling for construction of gallows to hang political enemies — told the crowd, “We will not move on to 2022 until we find out the truth of 2020!”

Rogers has led a movement of pro-Trump state legislators nationally in demanding a 50-state “forensic” election audit and potential decertification of the 2020 election. Three Washington state Republicans were among the 186 state legislators nationally who have signed a letter backing those demands.

Dorothy Moon, a legislator running for Idaho secretary of state who also signed Rogers’ letter, told the rally crowd she was motivated to run by the 2020 election result, which she viewed as illegitimate. “I think you are all here today because you know this… We all know there were shenanigans at play,” she said.

Pandemic denial

Little has exercised a mostly hands-off approach during the pandemic — especially when compared with Democrat-led states like Washington. He imposed a stay-home order closing businesses and gatherings in early 2020. But Idaho never imposed statewide vaccine or mask mandates.

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More than 4,900 Idahoans have died of COVID, according to the state’s official statistics. The state, with a population of about 1.9 million, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the U.S. Last fall its hospitals were so overwhelmed with badly sickened unvaccinated COVID patients they sent more than 2,000 to Washington hospitals, the Idaho Capital Sun reported.

Still, at the rally, McGeachin, who declined interview requests, blasted the governor for enforcing any public health mandates — and for refusing to bar cities and businesses from enforcing their own requirements.

“In my Idaho, we don’t follow the CDC over a cliff. We don’t let Mark Zuckerberg run our elections or give big pharma control over our health care decisions,” she said.

Peters, the Minnesota-based podcaster who headlined the McGeachin rally, repeated his earlier calls for Fauci’s execution and falsely asserted that scientists have not isolated the virus responsible for COVID. “I’m starting to doubt that any virus actually exists. Give me my tin foil hat I guess,” he said. (In fact, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been isolated many times and its genome has been fully sequenced, as the news service Reuters has documented.)

McGeachin has grabbed headlines for wielding her temporary powers as acting governor while Little was out of state to issue executive orders banning mask and vaccine mandates by cities and school districts. Little quickly rescinded those orders, calling them publicity stunts. More recently, he has declined to tell her when he’s traveling out of state.

In some ways, Tuesday’s primary is as much about decorum as any vast ideological gap, with Little-aligned Republicans longing for the state to retain its conservatism without what they view as distracting antics.

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Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, who is running to succeed McGeachin as lieutenant governor, said he wants to restore the office to its traditional role of presiding over the state Senate and working with the governor instead of picking fights with him.

“I would never embarrass Idahoans as their lieutenant governor. I think there’s an expectation that the No. 1 and the No. 2 get along and that they pull in the same direction,” Bedke said in an interview at his Capitol office. “We’ve never seen this type of division before.”

Bedke’s rival in the primary, state Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, falls more in the McGeachin wing. She was censured by the state House in November and removed from a committee assignment after an ethics investigation into her publicizing the name and personal details of a 19-year-old Statehouse intern who accused a lawmaker of rape. That lawmaker, Aaron von Ehlinger, resigned last year and was convicted by a jury in April.

‘True supporter of MAGA’

McGeachin supporters say they appreciate her willingness to fight, applauding her use of her acting governor powers to stick it to Little and stand up for individual liberties.

“I loved it,” said Mark Spence, a Meridian resident who attended the McGeachin rally. He compared her to other aggressive politicians such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who he said are standing up against government overreach. “You know, people like that, who actually have a backbone and say we’re not going to allow you to run over us.”

Spence also said he doesn’t believe the official statistics about COVID deaths — or that the virus has been proven to exist. “I’ve personally done a lot of research on this,” he said. “I think Janice McGeachin feels the same way.”

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In his endorsement of McGeachin last November, Trump called her “a true supporter of MAGA since the beginning” and praised her as “brave and not afraid to stand up for the people of Idaho, a beautiful state that I won by 30.8%”

A McGeachin win in the primary would be viewed as a further step in mainstreaming the alt-right, and would buoy similar candidates and movements in areas including Eastern Washington, according to Devin Burghart, the Seattle-based executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, which monitors right-wing extremism.

“From her perch inside the Lieutenant Governor’s office, she has provided the imprimatur of respect to far-right activists who clamor for that kind of attention. It also gives them more legitimacy and opens doors to them that would never be opened otherwise,” he said.

McGeachin was the only statewide elected official in the U.S. to address AFPAC, where attendees praised Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and joined the group’s founder, Nick Fuentes, in chants of “Putin, Putin!”

White nationalist address

McGeachin has said she was unaware of Fuentes’ easily Googleable history of white nationalist support, antisemitic slurs and Holocaust denial. But she has not apologized for her prerecorded speech to the group and walked out of a TV interview in February when pressed about it.

Before cutting off her interview with KTBV, McGeachin called the AFPAC attendees “young conservatives” who “are really concerned about the direction that our country is headed” and ripped news media for “guilt by association.”

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Three of the prominent speakers at McGeachin’s May 4 get-out-the-vote rally — Malkin, Peters and Rogers — also spoke at AFPAC.

McGeachin has previously been photographed posing with members of militia groups, and administered an oath swearing in members of the Real Three Percent of Idaho, according to The Idaho Statesman.

That group’s leader, Erik Parker, who is running for state Senate and has endorsed McGeachin, was famously photographed pointing a rifle at law-enforcement officers during the 2014 confrontation between federal authorities and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.

Ammon Bundy, Cliven’s son who led the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, is also running for Idaho governor this year, but he filed as an independent and is not on Tuesday’s ballot.

With the controversies weighing her down, there are signs that Trump’s endorsement may not be nearly enough to push McGeachin over the top. Polling has shown Little with a substantial lead over McGeachin and several other challengers.

The National Rifle Association recently endorsed Little, shoring up his conservative credibility, and he has also been backed by anti-abortion groups and the Idaho Fraternal Order of Police. Little’s campaign has raised more than $2.1 million, compared with about $700,000 for McGeachin.

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On Tuesday, Ellis and other Little supporters hope voters roundly reject McGeachin and her brand of politics. “I don’t think she can win. I think what is probably really depressing is how many people will still vote for her,” Ellis said.

McGeachin is portraying the primary as a chance to rescue her state from evil.

“We’re going to save Idaho,” McGeachin said in an interview on Peters’ show, released two days after her rally. “God calls us to pick up the sword and fight. And Christ will reign in the state of Idaho.”