Ammon Bundy posts surprise showing in Idaho

A far-right activist who has participated in armed standoffs with federal agents in two Western states received more than 100,000 votes to be Idaho’s next governor on Tuesday.
Ammon Bundy, right, appears with his father Cliven at an event in Peoria, Ariz. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons.

A far-right activist who has participated in armed standoffs with federal agents in two Western states received more than 100,000 votes to be Idaho’s next governor on Tuesday.

Ammon Bundy, the son of anti-government rancher Cliven Bundy, received 17% of the vote in his bid to challenge Gov. Brad Little (R) and ran well ahead of Democratic nominee Stephen Heidt in more than half of Idaho’s counties.

Little took 60% of the vote to skate to a second term, but Bundy’s double-digit performance signaled a deep discontent among arch conservatives in a corner of the Mountain West.

“This to me suggests that there is a non-trivial share of the conservative electorate in the state of Idaho that has a fairly deep frustration with establishment conservative politics,” said Jeffrey Lyons, a political science professor at Boise State University.

Bundy’s showing in the election also appeared to reflect lingering resentment from Little’s handling of the pandemic. 

“If it wasn’t for all the COVID fallout, Ammon wouldn’t be at 17 percent, I’ll tell you that,” said Jason Lehosit, a longtime Republican strategist in Idaho. 

State Rep. Judy Boyle (R) agreed that Bundy, who was convicted earlier this year and sentenced to jail for contempt of court, was able to tap into a vein of discontent over pandemic-era restrictions along with fears of government encroachment. 

“Has he done kooky things? Yes. Can they overlook that? Apparently, they are,” Boyle said. “They think kooky things are less scary than someone who takes away their freedom.”

After rallying supporters to his father’s ranch near Bunkerville, Nev., in 2014, where they engaged in a month-long stand-off with federal agents over the Bundy family’s refusal to pay over $1 million in grazing fees, the younger Bundy led a 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon in 2016. 

Bundy and his band of armed occupiers were protesting federal control of vast swaths of Western public lands.

During the pandemic, Bundy re-emerged as founder of People’s Rights Network, a group that was behind nationwide protests over COVID restrictions. 

Bundy led raucous protests in Idaho, where he was arrested multiple times for trespassing, including as recently as this March. He was twice convicted of trespassing at the Idaho Statehouse.

In 2021, Bundy, 47, announced that he would run for governor as a Republican. He later switched his candidacy to independent; as he left, he called the state Republican Party “corrupt and wicked.” 

In videos on his campaign website, Bundy criticized Little’s COVID policies, railed against the “deep state” and “federal tyranny” and warned about the loss of gun rights, parental rights and religious freedom.

“I’m running for governor because I’m sick and tired of all of this political garbage — just like you are. I’m tired of our freedoms being taken from us, and I’m tired of the corruption that is rampant in our state government,” Bundy said in one video.

Animosity toward the federal government has a long history in the rural West. Bundy expanded those grievances to target state government as well.

“It’s no longer public lands and the Sagebrush Rebellion, it’s about freedom now,” said Boyle, the Republican lawmaker, referring to the Western lands movement that began in the 1970s.

In Boundary County, where federal agents engaged in an 11-day armed standoff at Ruby Ridge in 1992, Bundy took 31% of the vote.

Boyle, who describes herself as an “unapologetic conservative,” said the pandemic – and Little’s willingness to impose public health-based restrictions – was a turning point for her and other Idaho conservatives. 

At the start of the pandemic, Little – a 68-year-old rancher and former lieutenant governor and state senator – issued a stay-home order which effectively shut down non-essential businesses in Idaho. He also used his executive authority to take other emergency actions. 

Boyle felt Little exceeded his authority and said that is when he lost her vote. While Little did not impose mask and vaccine mandates as other governors did, Boyle said some images from the early pandemic days are seared in the minds of conservative Idaho voters. 

She pointed to the arrests in 2020 of three people at an outdoor religious service in Moscow, Idaho that flouted that city’s mask order, and the arrest that same year of a woman in Meridian, Idaho who took her kids to a city park in violation of a stay-at-home order.

Boyle said Bundy’s message – which included warnings of a “woke cult” coming to Idaho and promises to pay for liberals to move out of state – resonated with many of her rural southwest Idaho constituents who put up his signs and slapped his bumper stickers on their vehicles. 

“It doesn’t matter if they just moved here or if they’ve been a fifth generation resident, I’m hearing gripes about Brad [Little] and I’m seeing Ammon signs,” Boyle said in an interview prior to the election. 

While Boyle called Bundy a friend, she would not say if she planned to vote for him. 

The day after the election, Boyle called Bundy’s double-digit performance “pretty amazing for an outsider … someone who the establishment would not even allow to be recognized.” 

The Bundy effect on Idaho politics was also apparent to state Sen. Lori Den Hartog (R), a supporter of Little’s, as she knocked on the doors of voters leading up to the election. 

“Idaho’s constituency is changing,” Den Hartog said, noting that newcomers are flooding to the state, including many who are attracted by its conservative reputation. From 2018 to 2022, the number of registered voters in Idaho increased by more than 171,000.

In 2017, Gallup ranked Idaho the seventh most conservative state in the country. The state has not elected a Democratic governor since the early 1990s. And Republicans enjoy a supermajority in the legislature. When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this year, Idaho abortion foes were ready with a “trigger law” already on the books to effectively ban abortion.

Yet, the frustration Den Hartog said she heard on the doorsteps of some voters is that Idaho was not proving conservative enough. Others invoked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to make the case that Little was not brash enough. 

Lyons, the political science professor, said Bundy’s candidacy may have appealed to voters who want more of a “fighter” in the governor’s office. But he said Bundy’s performance in Tuesday’s election was not necessarily a sign that his particular brand of politics has growing resonance in the rural West. 

“I’m not sure if we can say it’s a trend or not,” Lyons said. “He is tapping into a simmering thing that is very real, whether it is rising or has always been there is harder to answer.” 

Den Hartog thinks Bundy’s double-digit showing in the election is likely to encourage future tests of the Republican establishment. 

“I think it opens the door for a more serious and legitimate challenge from within the party for the next go around,” Den Hartog said. 

Others, though, viewed Bundy’s third-place finish as a victory for democracy.

“That kind of decisive defeat of extremism doesn’t just happen,” said Amy Herzfeld-Copple of the group Western States Strategies in a statement. “In Idaho, business leaders, law enforcement, ranchers, religious figures and ordinary individuals from across the political spectrum made an explicit and intentional effort to stop candidates who traffic in bigotry and political violence.”