Virginia group targets Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden

By BETSY Z. RUSSELL brussell@idahopress.com

Mar 30, 2022. Click here to read the article on IdahoPress.com


BOISE — A Fairfax, Virginia, organization run by wealthy New York real estate investor Howard Rich has launched an all-out campaign in Idaho targeting Idaho GOP Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, mailing thousands of fliers to Idahoans mocking the Idaho official and urging Idahoans to call him.


Wasden said Wednesday that his office, whose official number is printed in the fliers and other materials in the campaign, has been receiving calls, but the majority have been supportive. “What a number of them have said to me is, ‘Why is somebody in Virginia trying to get involved in our race here in Idaho?’” he said. “That’s a very good question.”


Americans for Limited Government, the group running the campaign, is a libertarian-leaning political advocacy organization that pushed an unsuccessful 2006 property rights ballot measure in Idaho and several other states. According to the group’s website, it focuses on federal issues in Congress, and the “WheresWasden” campaign is the only state race it’s been involved in since 2021, though it’s occasionally posted statements about politics in Arizona and California.


The campaign so far has included at least two oversized fliers, a website and a text message campaign.


Rich has been the chairman of the group since 2002; he is also the founder of U.S. Term Limits and is a former board member of the Cato Institute.


Wasden, Idaho’s longest-serving attorney general, faces two primary challengers in May: Former four-term Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador; and Coeur d’Alene attorney Art Macomber. Neither is mentioned in the campaign materials.


Americans for Limited Government hasn’t filed any disclosure reports about the campaign either with the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office or the Federal Election Commission.


Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney told the Idaho Press on Wednesday that the campaign may not have yet violated any Idaho campaign finance reporting laws, but it would if it continues the campaign into the period 30 days before the May 17 primary election. That’s when Idaho’s reporting requirements for electioneering communications kick in, including disclosing all donors of more than $50 to the campaign.


Rick Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government, said in a press release, “State attorneys general from across the nation have led the effort to push back against federal government overreach time and time again, yet Attorney General Wasden has been missing in action and it is important that the people of Idaho ask him why.”


The campaign lists four points on which it contends Wasden has been missing, all federal issues involving the president and Congress. One was a lawsuit from 14 oil-producing states over a Biden administration executive order involving the Dakota access pipeline; Wasden said as a non-oil-producing state, Idaho wouldn’t have had a factual basis to join that lawsuit.


The others involve pressuring Congress over the first Trump impeachment; a dispute between Congress and the Obama administration over school bathrooms; and immigration issues, which also are up to Congress.


“They are fostering an intentional misunderstanding about the duties of the attorney general,” Wasden said Wednesday. “The primary persons to represent our state in federal issues is our congressional delegation.”


“I pick up my phone and I call them,” he said. “That’s how I talk to them.”


He said he heard from some other state attorneys general who were signing on to a letter to Congress about the impeachment, with requests like, “Are you going to appear with me on Fox News?” Wasden said that shouldn’t be the aim. “It’s not about self-aggrandizement,” he said.


Furthermore, Wasden has joined numerous multi-state lawsuits with other state attorneys general, as many as 100 per year, including joining with other Republican attorneys general in cases involving abortion, gun rights, vaccine mandates and other issues.


Just this week, Idaho joined 20 other states with Republican attorneys general, led by Florida, in a lawsuit aimed at halting the federal government’s requirement that people wear masks on planes, trains and other transportation amid the coronavirus pandemic.


“I don’t join every one that comes down the pike,” Wasden said. “We look at what are the facts, how does it affect our state, what’s our claim.” And he said he consults with his clients: The state agencies or officers affected by the issue.


Wasden said the Idaho Constitution and state law lay out the duties of the attorney general, and it’s to represent the state in legal matters, providing legal advice and representing the state in court.


Americans for Limited Government didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment Wednesday from the Idaho Press.


Denney said if the campaigning in Idaho continues into the 30-day pre-primary period, he’ll refer the case to the attorney general’s office for investigation. Most violations are punishable with a $2,500 fine; knowing and willful violators can also receive up to six months in prison.


“I have never, ever liked that money that’s coming over state lines, because you can’t track it,” Denney said. “If he’s spending $500,000, what’s a $2,500 fine? What’s he care?”


“I think there’s a lot needs to change,” Denney said. “Unfortunately, campaigns are not run by candidates any more. The money is coming from outside groups, and sometimes outside the state of Idaho that we really have no control over at all.”


He added, “I’ve said many times that if you put money in to influence the outcome of an election, you should report it.”


Legislation that passed the Senate this year would have expanded the 30-day pre-primary reporting period to 60 days to match the reporting period for electioneering communications, defined as those that refer to a specific candidate, but the bill died without a hearing in the House State Affairs Committee. It also wouldn’t have taken effect until next Jan. 1.


Chief Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck said the office proposed legislation a few years ago to make electioneering communications reportable year-round, but it also failed.


Scott Graf, spokesman for the Idaho Attorney General’s Office, reported that as of Tuesday afternoon, the office had received 60 calls in response to the campaign, with 36 in support of the attorney general and how he’s doing his job; 18 who were critical based on the mailer; and a half-dozen with questions who wanted more information.


Jaclyn Kettler, Boise State University political scientist, said there’s been a trend among some state attorneys general to push partisan or ideological agendas, often aimed at national issues, rather than focus on legal issues in their state.


Former Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who served with Wasden and has endorsed his reelection bid, said Wasden has “been calling ‘em straight for years. That’s the kind of person you want as your top legal officer. He had garnered some enemies by playing it straight.”


“The playbook’s written for you,” Ysursa said. “It’s called the Idaho Code and the Constitution, and you take an oath to follow it. Lawrence believes in that and he practices it.”


Kettler said she’s seeing national agendas play an increasing role in state politics across the country. Voters who receive such materials, she said, should look at “who sent it, who funded it, what seems to be the intent,” and do some additional research. “It may be misleading, or it may only be part of the story,” she said.


Denney said, “I think that what most of them will do is just throw it in the garbage.”


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Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.