So, if you became governor for a few hours, what would you do? Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, a firebrand conservative opponent of unscientific COVID-19 regulations, knew exactly what she would do: Ban all mask mandates, particularly on children.
Today, she got her wish.
In perhaps one of the most extraordinary moments in state politics, McGeachin announced last week that she would be challenging Republican Gov. Brad Little in the Idaho gubernatorial primary next year. It is highly unusual for a lieutenant governor of the same party to challenge the sitting governor, but McGeachin was fed up with Little's support for heavy-handed COVID restrictions and felt that Idaho needed a conservative voice. In March, she participated in a rally burning masks and copies of the governor's executive orders.
But what was even more unusual was that Gov. Little traveled out of the state to meet with other governors this week in Nashville, Tennessee, creating an absence that, pursuant to state law, makes the sitting lieutenant governor the acting governor until he returns.
In a move that shocked everyone, including the governor's staff, McGeachin issued an executive order effective 11 a.m. Thursday barring all local governments, including school boards and county commissions, from continuing mask mandates. The order applies to local governments, health districts, public schools, public colleges and universities, and libraries and more, but exempts hospitals.
"It's just especially hard for me to see the little kids being forced to wear a mask in school," McGeachin told Idaho Reports.
Marissa Morrison, Little's press secretary, said that "the Lt. Governor did not make Governor Little aware of her executive order ahead of time" and that Little "is expected to return to Idaho tonight" and review the order.
From a political standpoint, McGeachin boxed in Gov. Little. On the one hand, everyone knows Little is a big fan of masks, which is why he encouraged them all along and made sure all local officials were able to institute them, even on the youngest of children.
However, he shied away from instituting a statewide mandate because he knew it wouldn't resonate with the voters. With people in Idaho beyond "over with" the COVID-19 way of life, and with McGeachin on the ballot for the GOP nomination against him next year, Little has a very interesting choice to make.
Gov. Little has already vetoed legislation even limiting his emergency powers to as much as 60 days! He has also declined to support numerous house bills blocking vaccine passports, closure of businesses, and mask mandates. All too often, incumbents who are challenged in primaries move far to the right rhetorically after the issue is already obsolete and doesn't require them to take any action. But in this case, McGeachin has boxed him in and is forcing him to now take an affirmative stance. Will he reverse the order when he returns?
Aside from giving her a leg up with primary voters against Little, this action will likely help in cementing McGeachin's status as the main conservative opponent. At present, a number of other candidates have filed to run for governor. However, absent a clearing of the field, multiple candidates risk dividing the conservative vote and re-electing Little, as Idaho does not have a runoff law.
GOP primaries are full of candidates who talk big and deliver nothing for conservatives. In this case, Janice McGeachin might have given voters an audition of what is to come.