The Panhandle Patriots, a far-right biker group from northern Idaho, have been very busy over the last few years. They’ve teamed up with anti-immigration vigilantes at the border, and confiscated drinking water left for migrants. Their leader was at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and was photographed alongside well-known Proud Boys who’ve since been accused of conspiring to lead the insurrection. They’ve led anti-vax rallies, and swarmed libraries demanding the removal of books accused of promoting an “LGBTQ agenda.”
And they’ve made some powerful friends along the way: in particular, Idaho state Sen. Priscilla Giddings, who co-chairs a task force on “indoctrination in Idaho education” and has thrown her hat into the ring for lieutenant governor. Giddings attended a fundraiser in February in Coeur D’Alene that the Panhandle Patriots organized on her behalf, VICE News has learned. Giddings did not return VICE News’ request for comment.
A Facebook post to State Sen. Priscilla Gidding's account.
Idaho has long been a hotbed for anti-government and far-right activity, but in recent years, many of those same fringe groups—like Panhandle Patriots—have found themselves with well-positioned friends in office who are eager for their support.
“There have always been more fringe members of political parties in Idaho,” said Amy Herzfeld-Copple, director of programs and strategic initiatives at the Western States Center, which monitors extremism and anti-democracy movements in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain States. “But there’s certainly been an increase in elected officials and candidates who are engaging with anti-democracy movements more publicly than they would have five years ago.”
Idaho is a solidly red state; just 19 out of 105 voting members in the Legislature are Democrats. The political battle lines have not been drawn along partisan lines but rather within the GOP itself. Some establishment Republican lawmakers have even become the target of far-right protesters. In response to the extremist creep into state politics, some former Republican officials have banded together under “Take Back Idaho,” a PAC that aims to get “far-right extremists” out of the Legislature.
The tension between the conspiratorial far-right wing of the party and establishment Republicans in Idaho is reflective of the dynamics playing out in the GOP on a national level. Egged on by former President Donald Trump and his allies, the far-right GOP have continued to pander to fringe groups and conspiracy theorists—which in turn emboldens and legitimizes groups like the Panhandle Patriots.
Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who is running for governor of Idaho and received Trump’s endorsement, recently came under fire after she spoke at a white nationalist conference in Florida in February. State Sen. Heather Scott has spoken favorably about the Oath Keepers, a militia group whose leader is facing conspiracy sedition charges for Jan. 6, and even took the oath herself, according to local news reports. At least six other state lawmakers spoke at an event in 2020 featuring an Idaho-based militia group, “The real 3%-ers.”
And many more with ties to extremists and conspiracy theorists are trying to climb the ranks or get a foothold in Idaho politics this year.
Ammon Bundy, who galvanized his anti-government network “People’s Rights” around opposition to COVID-19 restrictions, is running for governor as an Independent. Eric Parker, founder of “The Real 3%ers”, who is known as the “Bundy Ranch Sniper” for pointing his rifle at federal authorities during the 2014 standoff in Nevada, is running for state Senate (Parker ran for the same seat in 2020 but narrowly lost, and the incumbent is not running for re-election this time around). And Dorothy Moon, who has spread baseless claims of election fraud in her role as a state representative, is vying for secretary of state.
Giddings herself is no stranger to controversy. She was censured by the Idaho House last November after she doxed a 19-year-old legislative intern who had accused a Republican lawmaker of rape. Giddings posted a link to a blogpost on Redoubt News, a militia-linked far-right outlet active in the Northwest, that showed a photo and named the young woman (previously identified as “Jane Doe” to protect her identity), on her Facebook and newsletter, calling the allegations a “liberal smear job.”
After she was censured, Giddings painted herself as a victim of censorship by her moderate colleagues, calling it a “political ploy” designed to disadvantage her in her bid for lieutenant governor.
That wasn’t the first time Giddings landed in hot water for social media posts. In 2018, she posed for a photograph with four college students holding signs advocating for gun control. Giddings posted the photo on Facebook with the caption, “Idaho State University students protesting our Republican convention. Do you think I should show these girls the empty 30 mm shell I have in the truck?” Her comment was interpreted by some as an implied threat, and she faced widespread scrutiny, even calls to resign.
In her current bid for the state’s second in command, Giddings is running against Scott Bedke, a powerful Republican establishment candidate who has served as Idaho’s House Speaker since 2012. But as it stands, Giddings and Bedke are essentially neck-and-neck when it comes to fundraising, according to state campaign finance records. Bedke has raised over $500,000 from 608 donors. Giddings has raised just under $500,000, from 1,279 donors.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a pivotal time for the simmering anti-government and conspiracy movement nationwide. The politicization of the virus and rampant misinformation meant that a much broader swath of the public were suddenly receptive to rhetoric about government overreach, and it’s become a constant rallying cry by far-right lawmakers. But this was especially true in Idaho.
“I would say Idaho has been the epicenter of anti-COVID activism from the beginning,” said Stephen Piggott, program analyst at Western State Center, pointing to Bundy’s early activism and formation of “People’s Rights,” a network of right-wing activists, in response to restrictions and lockdowns. Increasingly, state elected officials also got on board, participating in and even helping to promote mask-burning events.
Even though Idaho, like most states, has rolled back almost all COVID-19 restrictions, far-right lawmakers like Giddings are still relying on anger around lockdowns and mask requirements to maintain support on the political fringes. Two of Giddings’ six top campaign issues are, still, “lockdowns” and “vaccines and masks.”