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Idaho Republicans censure their own over votes against far-right bills

A billboard in Caldwell blasting Representative Julie Yamamoto.
James Dawson
Boise State Public Radio
A PAC funded almost entirely by out of state donors is recruiting primary challengers to take out Rep. Julie Yamamoto. She's among at least five lawmakers who've been recently censured for their votes against far-right legislation.

Toward the end of this past legislative session, Rep. Julie Yamamoto (R-Caldwell) got a text from a friend asking if she had heard the news.

The Canyon County Republican Central Committee voted to censure her over recent votes against a handful of bills – including one that would’ve allowed parents to sue libraries for lending “obscene” materials to kids.

“If anybody had told me before that I was not conservative enough in the Republican Party…I would’ve laughed, I think,” said Yamamoto. “Obviously, we’re at a different place now.”

She’s one of at least five sitting Republicans who have been censured by their local county officials in recent weeks.

Yamamoto has been involved in GOP politics for years and unseated current Caldwell Mayor Jarom Wagoner in 2020 by running to his right.

She said her censure is the result of a purity test where there can be no exceptions.

“To me, that’s such a lazy and disingenuous way of looking at any issue … but it’s far more nuanced than that,” she said.

The party platform passed last summer, Yamamoto said, can be interpreted in a number of ways.

For example, it says the most effective government is the one closest to the people. That’s partially why she voted against the library bill – it’s something she thinks should be handled by local library boards.

“If you allowed people to talk about why they did what they did, I think most reasonable people would say, ‘OK, well, I can see that.’”

“We have identified the enemy.”

These censures shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

Dorothy Moon, the state GOP chairwoman and ally to the far-right wing, held a press conference in the Idaho Capitol’s largest hearing room – mostly to supporters and sitting lawmakers.

“We will be here for the entire session offering a helping hand, but also to have a watchful eye on every Republican member,” Moon said.

Lawmakers who toed the party line would get whatever help they needed.

“For those who don’t, well hell hath no fury like the chairwoman scorned,” she said.

It’s a similar message that’s been pushed by members of the far-right for years but has failed to be officially adopted: vote the platform, or the party can rescind endorsements and campaign money.

“We have identified the enemy,” said freshman Rep. Joe Alfieri (R-Coeur d’Alene) at a town hall event in April. “We know who the enemy is in the House.”

“…it’s like a cancer that’s slowly growing…”

That message didn’t sit well with Rep. Lori McCann (R-Lewiston), who’s twice been censured this year by two different county parties in her district.

“I am trying very hard to not take that personally, but I certainly don’t feel like as a state legislature that we should be calling each other out and saying they are the enemy,” McCann said.

Like Yamamoto, McCann said she wasn’t able to explain her votes to officials in Nez Perce County.

Nick Woods, chairman of the Nez Perce County GOP, declined to talk about McCann’s censure, saying it was internal party business.

Boise State Public Radio repeatedly reached out to party officials in Canyon and Lewis counties but never heard back.

McCann said the far-right wing of the GOP have successfully taken over these less-than-glamorous positions at the local level, which can wield significant power.

“I hate to even call it this, but it’s like a cancer that slowly is growing that maybe you don’t even know it’s happening until it’s there.”

It’s something, she said, she saw in Nez Perce County where she herself is a precinct committeewoman.

“… people just decided that they were going to quit because they were like, ‘I’m not going to put up with this,’” McCann said.

Precinct, county and district positions are the backbones of any political party that does a little of everything, giving up nights, weekends and a lot of free time to volunteer for something they believe in.

Their duties include “potentially registering new voters, door-to-door campaigning. Along with that, helping campaign for candidates who are running, helping recruit volunteers or fundraise to support candidates,” according to Jaclyn Kettler, a political science professor at Boise State.

Censures like this have traditionally been rare, Kettler said, but they’ve seemingly been increasing, especially among Republicans.

A national analysis by a political science professor for the website Five Thirty Eight found in 2016, just one county party censured a Republican.

“By 2021, they found 23 instances of Republican county committees censuring officials,” she said.

The first instance the analysis found of local Democrats censuring their own was in 2021 with five reprimands.

State Representative Julie Yamamoto
James Dawson
Boise State Public Radio
Rep. Julie Yamamoto (R-Caldwell) was censured by her county's Republican central committee over a handful of votes she cast during the most recent legislative session.

Back in Caldwell, Yamamoto said county officials rescinded her censure until they adopt a formal reprimand process.

She’s also had to deal with a billboard accusing her of “failing to support our children,” urging someone to run against her next year. It’s paid for by Citizens Alliance of Idaho, a PAC funded almost exclusively by out-of-state donors that’s focused heavily on legislative races.

“[The criticism] has improved my prayer life, let’s put it that way,” Yamamoto said.

Still, it hasn’t all been bad, she said.

“I have never received so many cards as I did this session from people just saying, ‘Thank you for being a voice of reason.’”

The blowback won’t change how she votes, she said, even with the threat of a primary challenger.

Similar billboards across the state have cropped up to recruit candidates, though it won’t be until next May’s election that we find out just how effective these censures will be.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

Copyright 2023 Boise State Public Radio

I cover politics and a bit of everything else for Boise State Public Radio. Outside of public meetings, you can find me fly fishing, making cool things out of leather or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season. If you have a tip, please get in touch!

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