One of the most well-funded political action committees in Idaho seems poised to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on state legislative races with less than two weeks to go before the primary. But the group’s claims of nonpartisanship run counter to who’s funding it.
Citizens Alliance of Idaho formed last August, according to incorporation documents filed with the Secretary of State’s Office.
Its website features beautiful landscape photos, slick graphics and videos promoting its goals – namely to get state lawmakers to sign a pledge.
“When an Idaho legislator signs our pledge inviting voters to publicly hold them accountable that’s what we call political integrity,” said a disembodied narrator in one ad, reminiscent of a gravelly-voiced cowboy.
Signers of the pledge vow to oppose tax increases and government lockdowns. Lawmakers also must support what the group views as election integrity and medical freedom to uphold the pledge.
Medical freedom is a buzzword anti-vaccine advocates have used to oppose mandates related to COVID-19, as well as other routine vaccinations before the pandemic.
Citizens Alliance of Idaho promises to support its pledge takers this election cycle.
Those who have earned the highest score on the group’s ratings list include far-right mainstays, including Rep. Heather Scott (R-Blanchard) and Rep. Chad Christensen (R-Iona), who has listed his membership in the Oath Keepers militia in his legislative biography.
“But when they go back on their word, we make sure there are consequences,” a narrator in another of the group’s ads said.
Those consequences will include “intense in-district criticism” using digital and print ads, as well as letter, email, text and phone campaigns.
It’s already spent nearly $50,000 on Facebook ads as of May 5 and has raised more than $300,000 in just a few months, according to campaign finance reports.
One of its targets is Senate Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise.
In mid-April, Citizens Alliance of Idaho spent more than $500 promoting an ad on Facebook with a cartoon depicting Winder as a troll lying in wait under a bridge to kill bills the group supported.
“I saw that, yeah,” he said during a phone interview with a slight laugh.
Winder didn’t sign the pledge circulated to all 105 legislators at the beginning of the session, but he said it’s not because he doesn’t agree with the core tenets.
“In general, the principles are good, but until you see it in writing you don’t know what it is,” he said. “So, I don’t typically sign those kinds of pledges.”
Donors involved with Citizens Alliance of Idaho PAC
So, who are the donors behind this group that describes itself as “non-partisan” and not controlled by special interests? A group of five men – most of whom have a record of backing far-right candidates.
The donations were split between the Idaho-based Citizens Alliance for Idaho PAC and a federal political action committee with a nearly identical name.
Chris Rufer, the CEO of the California-based Morning Star Company, which processes tomato products, kicked in $100,000 to the federal PAC. Pennsylvania chiropractor Paul Hetrick donated $25,000 as well.
Eagle-based SMC Properties, owned by precious metals dealer Stefan Gleason from North Carolina, added $88,500 to the state PAC.
Gleason and the companies he controls, including SMC Properties and Money Metals Exchange, have donated more than $170,000 to far-right candidates and PACs in Idaho since Jan. 1, 2021. That includes incumbent Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, who introduced a bill this past session that would’ve allowed the state treasurer’s office to invest taxpayer money in gold and silver.
Citizens Alliance of Idaho received another $40,000 donation from the federal PAC on May 4, but the source of that funding isn’t immediately known due to separate federal reporting deadlines.
Just two of the group’s donors live in Idaho: business owner Doyle Beck and Bryan Smith, a medical debt collector who’s challenging incumbent Congressman Mike Simpson for the Republican Party nomination. Each donated $30,000.
Both are also board members of the far-right lobbying organization, the Idaho Freedom Foundation.
Winder and the foundation aren’t exactly friends. He said he’s actually sick of the group’s tactics.
“If people don’t agree with you, lie about them and try and get them out of office so they can’t stand up to you and all you’ll have are your trolls that can go along and do exactly what you tell them to do and that’s the form of government they want,” he said.
The Idaho Freedom Foundation doesn’t respond to media requests for comment.
“I made the decision when I called them out a year ago that if it cost me an election to do what I thought was right, then that’s OK,” said Winder, who’s facing a primary challenge from Meridian resident Rosa Martinez.
Aside from sharing prominent members, the two groups have both used cartoons by conservative artist Eric Allie to illustrate their points.
Citizens Alliance for Idaho’s executives also have direct ties to the foundation.
John and Denise Guido, who list their addresses as a P.O. Box at a Boise UPS store, are two of the group’s three directors. Neither are registered to vote in Idaho as of May 5, 2022.
But both Guidos are listed as directors for an organization called Respect Idaho with addresses in Sacramento, California, according to its incorporation documents.
Respect Idaho originally labeled Dustin Hurst, the vice president for the Idaho Freedom Foundation, as its registered agent in January 2021, but he was replaced less than a month later by Rufer, the California CEO.
A section of Citizens Alliance for Idaho’s website lists Respect Idaho as an author, with the exact same description as Respect Idaho’s “About Us” page, further linking the two organizations and those behind it.
“They try to hide behind these other groups, but it’s all the same people and it’s all the same funding,” Winder said.
To be clear, it’s unknown where Idaho Freedom Foundation’s money comes from, since it doesn’t have to reveal its donors as a 501(c)3 nonprofit.
Citizens Alliance for Idaho’s executive director, Matt Edwards, moved his family from California to Hayden in September 2020. Edwards didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In a recent video for Citizens Alliance, Edwards is seen urging voters to show up for this month’s primary race. In Idaho, only about a third of the electorate votes in primaries that largely decide the winning candidate.
“By the time you show up to vote in November, your politician has already been selected for you,” Edwards said.
But posts made to his personal account on Gettr, a social media platform founded last summer by a former Trump campaign spokesman, show his embrace of far-right ideas.
He’s promoted the use of the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin to treat COVID-19, which was found earlier this year to be ineffective.
That support extends to Dr. Ryan Cole, a Boise pathologist and member of the Central District Health board who has called FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccines “investigational,” the “clot shot” and “needle rape.”
Edwards has also floated conspiracy theories about the global elite using the pandemic to their advantage.
One post from Edwards shows a video of lieutenant governor candidate Priscilla Giddings tossing the head of a masked Gov. Brad Little to Janice McGeachin, who hits it with a golf club.
McGeachin is trying to unseat Little in the Republican primary. She has ties to militia members and recently spoke at a conference headed by white nationalists.
So, just how much sway can this money buy in Idaho where legislative races are historically cheap to run?
“It can be significant,” said Boise State political science Professor Jaclyn Kettler.
Glossy mailers funded by these outside groups, Kettler said, can influence voters.
“There is some evidence that they can be persuasive in their decision making on who to vote for.”
She said these ads are often negative, which can help a candidate keep a cleaner image.
“That allows the candidate themselves to kind of focus on their own thing and leaving the attacks to the outside entity,” Kettler said.
But she’s not sure how such a large amount of out-of-state money will play with voters.
For Sen. Winder, it makes a statement.
“You know, it tells you something about that particular group that they don’t have the support in-house, in the state, to make a real difference,” he said.
Even newer residents in his district tell him they’re not fans of these tactics. But their true effectiveness won’t be known until Election Day, May 17.
Additional reporting for this story provided by Audrey Dutton of the Idaho Capital Sun.