Candidates battle for Democratic gubernatorial nomination

Next week, Democratic voters will choose between one candidate on the ballot and two write-in candidates for governor — all of whom have had a history with the Republican Party.

The only name on the Democratic primary ballot for governor ran for election as a Republican. Stephen Heidt of Marsing told the Idaho Statesman that he had been an unaffiliated voter since the 1990s. He ran for Congress as a Republican twice in Utah, once in 1986 and from new in 1994.

In March 2020, he registered as a Democrat because he believed the party was “most in line” with his values, he said.

Heidt isn’t the only one with ties to the Republican Party. Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad, a registered candidate hoping to secure the nomination, was unable to meet the nomination deadline last month because he was a registered Republican. He said his past affiliation with the GOP was strategic.

Rognstad, who was first elected mayor in 2015, told the statesman he had registered with the Republican Party since his primaries closed in 2011. Rognstad was elected to the city council of Sandpoint and twice mayor after running as a nonpartisan candidate.

“A lot of (people) will understand, when you’re in a very red-light district, elections are won in the Republican primary,” Rognstad said. “If you want to have a voice, you vote in the Republican primary.”

David Reilly, a second write-in candidate seeking the Democratic nomination, ran as a conservative for the Post Falls school board last year and said he would “make Democrats conservative again.”

He lists ‘pro-life, pro-God and pro-gun’ legislation as part of his platform, has been criticized for his anti-Semitic tweets and is said to have been part of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee’s plans to take the Democratic Party control of the state, according to the Coeur d’Alene Press.

Heidt cites priorities for criminal justice, education

In an email, Heidt said his campaign priorities are criminal justice reform and education, which he says are intrinsically linked. The 61-year-old noted that Idaho consistently has one of the least funded K-12 public schools in the nation as well as one of the highest incarceration rates.

“Higher education is the undisputed best predictor of lower prison populations,” he said. “The link between poor education and incarceration is confirmed by five decades of data collection…Not paying for education is paying for crime.”

Idaho Democrat Stephen Heidt.jpeg
Stephen Heidt, the Democratic candidate for governor of Idaho, previously ran as a Republican in Congress from Utah but switched to the Democratic Party because he said it better aligned with his values.

Until recently, the fourth-generation Idahoan was an English teacher in Idaho prisons, according to the Idaho Press.

Heidt ran for Congress as a Republican in 1986, while in his final semester at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, studying political science and international relations. He dropped out before the primary election because of his workload, he said.

At that time, he said he “voted pretty conservative.” Heidt ran for Congress again as a Republican in 1994, this time against Senator Orrin Hatch, because he “hated his politics so much.”

After that election, he became an unaffiliated voter, he said.

Rognstad says he’s the only true democrat

Rognstad maintained that he switched party affiliations through the secretary of state’s website last fall when he first announced his gubernatorial campaign. Assistant Secretary of State Chad Houck told the Idaho Capital Sun the office had no record of the change.

“Obviously I regret not going to file a week earlier, so if there was a problem, I would have had time to fix it,” Rognstad told the Statesman this week. “We are where we are, and we just have to pick up the pieces and make the best case (scenario).”

Rognstad said he was the only true Democratic candidate in the race, one who had a proven track record of working with Republicans in Bonner County.

“We are in a very red neighborhood here and a very red county. The fact that I have been elected three times means that I am well controlled by the local community and effective as a local leader,” Rognstad said.

Fourth-generation Idahoan said he is focused on issues that all of his constituents seem to be able to find common ground on: the need for better public education, access to health care and affordable housing and the right to vote.

“Last year, 43 bills were introduced in the Legislative Assembly with the intent of restricting or impeding voting,” Rognstad said. “It’s a big concern for the future of our democracy.”

Rognstad said he was the only candidate in the gubernatorial race, regardless of party, who said he fully supports a woman’s right to choose an abortion.

Rognstad said the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent indication that it would overturn Roe v. Wade — a landmark legal decision that outlined people’s right to abortion — as well as Idaho’s tightening restrictions on abortion are “devastating, not just for women’s rights, but for civil rights at home.” ‘coming .”

“This is the first step in an assault on civil rights and human rights here in Idaho,” he said.

In an email, Heidt said he supports abortion rights “in certain cases,” which he says is a complex decision that must be made in privacy between a woman and her doctor.

But he added that “all life is precious”, including that of “an unborn child”, those living in poverty or those on death row.

“The government should do whatever is necessary to make life the most attractive choice,” he said. “As governor, I would carefully consider any proposed legislation that transfers the rights and freedoms of the individual to the state…especially those that affect anything inherently personal such as medical issues.”

Debates and democratic path to victory

In the months leading up to the Idaho primary election, attention focused on competitive Republican races. It has been more than 30 years since Idaho last elected a Democratic governor, but Rognstad said he thinks this election will turn out to be different.

If his written campaign earns him the Democratic nomination in the May 17 primary, his name will appear on the November general election ballot.

“This year, I believe, is a special election year, as we are witnessing an all-out civil war between the two factions of the Republican Party: moderate conservatives and a new faction that seems to be throwing traditional Republican values ​​out the window in favor of a theocracy.” Rognstad said. “I think we have a very winnable race if the Democrats can come up with a qualified and eligible candidate.”

Rognstad and Heidt did not debate, in part because Heidt refused to participate in a debate organized by a political group called Idaho Women for Biden/Harris, Heidt told the Statesman. Heidt also said the invitation was last minute and he couldn’t attend on such short notice.

Rognstad said his opponent’s refusal made it even more difficult to deliver his message in a political environment largely focused on the Republican primary.

Still, he thinks his message can resonate with Idaho voters at a time when politics has become increasingly tense.

“I aspire to be the governor who represents all the people of Idaho,” Rognstad said. “I believe the leadership of this new movement is so outside the realm of what serves the interests of most Idahoans, that I believe there is a strong will and desire among voters to restore balance in the state of Idaho and just common decency. ”

Referencing his Republican history, Heidt said his perspective has changed over the past 35 years since he’s been a “lifelong student.”

He then quoted a 16th century Portuguese poet: “As times change, so do our desires.

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Ian Max Stevenson is a breaking news reporter at the Idaho Statesman. If you enjoy seeing stories like this, consider supporting our work by subscribing to our journal.
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Nicole Blanchard is the outdoor journalist for the Idaho Statesman. She grew up in Idaho, graduated from Idaho State University and Northwestern University, and hits the trails around Boise as much as she can.
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