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As the far right in America seeks to increase its political influence, including by seeking elected office, one figure is emerging as potentially its most powerful figure: Idaho’s lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin.

McGeachin is running for governor of the state and building a coalition including white nationalist and far-right militia backing, in what she tells her supporters is “the fight of our lives”.

Last month at the America First Political Action Conference, a white nationalist conference, McGeachin praised attendees: “Keep up the good work fighting for our country,” she said in a pre-taped address.

“I need fighters all over this country that are willing stand up and fight,” McGeachin continued, urging attendees to push out moderates in the Republican party. “Even when that means fighting amongst our own ranks because there are too many Republicans who do not exhibit the courage that is needed today for us to fight and protect our freedoms and our liberties. We are literally in the fight for our lives.”

Three years after attending the the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, the far-right provocateur Nick Fuentes created the white nationalist conference AFPAC in the hopes of branding it a far-right alternative to the more mainstream conservative gathering CPAC. Fuentes is a well-known white nationalist and notorious antisemite who mocks how Jews were murdered in the Holocaust while also denying the Holocaust occurred.

It couldn’t be clearer that McGeachin is a danger to the rule of law, Idaho communities and democratic institutionsAmy Herzfeld-Copple

McGeachin has a history of giving speeches and mingling at far-right rallies, often riding the wave of the latest rightwing outrage. Last year at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, McGeachin gave a rousing speech at a mask-burning event on the Idaho capitol steps, where children burned masks in front of their parents.

The Guardian reported last year on the growing civil war inside the Republican party in Idaho, when McGeachin imposed a ban on masks while the governor was out of state. McGeachin also created a taskforce to look into claims of “indoctrination” in schools in order to project children from “the scourge of Critical Race Theory, socialism, communism and Marxism” according to documents obtained by the Idaho Statesman newspaper.

This month McGeachin also jumped on the cause of the trucker convoy protest, speaking at a locally planned convoy rally in Idaho. According to local TV station KTVB about 500 people showed up to protest against Covid-19 mandates, though Idaho has none. McGeachin told the crowd “Sometimes they refer to us as being ‘extreme’ for our views,” before reading out loud a quote from Barry Goldwater defending extremism in pursuit of liberty. “We are a free nation and it is so important that we stand now and continue to fight for that freedom and that liberty that makes this country so great,” she said.

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Idaho’s lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin, speaks during a mask burning event at the Idaho statehouse on 6 March 2021 in Boise, Idaho. Photograph: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

McGeachin has also attended a gathering where she was endorsed by a rightwing militia figure whom she had apparently made political promises too. In a video previously obtained by the Guardian Eric Parker – who was charged over his role in the standoff in 2014 at Bundy Ranch in Nevada where he was pictured pointing an assault rifle at federal agents – reminded McGeachin that she once told “if I get in, you’re going to have a friend in the governor’s office”.

Experts who follow the far right in the US believe McGeachin represents a serious threat, especially as more militia-affiliated groups have started to enter local government in the US, such as in California’s Shasta county.

“From her recent speech at AFPAC, continued embrace of white nationalism and endorsements from prominent antisemitic leaders to her longstanding ties with paramilitaries, it couldn’t be clearer that McGeachin is a danger to the rule of law, Idaho communities and democratic institutions,” said Amy Herzfeld-Copple, deputy director of programs at Western States Strategies, a non-profit that works for inclusive democracy through nonpartisan education and advocacy.

A total of 31 faith leaders in Idaho recently signed an open letter calling for McGeachin to resign. Rabbis, reverends, pastors and others of different faiths across the state warned in the letter of the “staggering consequences of ignoring extremism” and describe a “rising tide of antisemitism here in Idaho”.

The letter cited recent acts of vandalism including at the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial in Boise. It said: “By associating with alt-right actors and groups like AFPAC in addition to your ties to militia groups that advocate for political violence and harassment in Idaho, you have proven you are not fit to hold elected office, let alone serve a heartbeat away from becoming Idaho’s next governor.”

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McGeachin is a troubling anti-democracy figure in our region seeking to build a national profile with violent and bigoted social movementsHerzfeld-Copple

Rabbi Dan Fink of Ahavath Beth Israel in Boise, who co-signed the letter, said in an interview with KTVB that he was courted by McGeachin earlier this year, to help with a campaign against antisemitism.

“The dissonance was so extraordinary. I both hurt and at some level, had to laugh because it was surreal,” Fink said in the interview, appalled that McGeachin would share a stage with a Holocaust denier while trying to enlist a rabbi’s help. “That you have the chutzpah to reach out to me and say ‘help me on antisemitism’ while going out and glorying in the presence of antisemites is extraordinary,” Fink said.

Herzfeld-Copple said it was not clear how deep McGeachin’s popular support was in Idaho.

“McGeachin is a troubling anti-democracy figure in our region seeking to build a national profile with violent and bigoted social movements that increasingly see her as their access to power. But we know these extremists are a minority and Idahoans have routinely rejected those who court white nationalists,” said Herzfeld-Copple.

But far-right controversy is never far away from McGeachin and this week she took the highly unusual step of intervening on behalf of a far-right group in a child welfare case involving a 10-month old baby who is the grandson of a campaign consultant for the militia leader Ammon Bundy, founder of the far-right group People’s Rights.

The child had been taken away from the parents after officials determined the child was “suffering from severe malnourishment” and in imminent danger. But the Idaho Statesman obtained text messages between McGeachin and Governor Brad Little showing McGeachin seeking to intervene in the case. “Is this true? Call off this medical tyranny tell the hospital to release the baby to his parents,” she wrote.

Bundy himself was subsequently arrested this week for trespassing at St Luke’s hospital, where he went to protest with scores of supporters over what he called a “medical kidnapping”.

“Nearly every day, McGeachin’s actions become more dangerous. She contradicted pleas from law enforcement and hospital officials and used her government Facebook page to discuss a confidential child welfare case, contributing to a mob of Ammon Bundy supporters that caused a lockdown at Idaho’s largest hospital, compromising delivery of patient and emergency care,” said Herzfeld-Copple.

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Experts who monitor the far right note that while there is a growing number of far-right legislators at the state and federal level, such as the Arizona state sentator Wendy Rogers, who has admitted to being a member of the Oath Keepers militia, or the Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who spoke at the same white nationalist conference as McGeachin amid chants of support for the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

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If McGeachin were to win the race and become governor in Idaho it would be a major victory for far-right politics in America.

“There are a lot of implications for having someone in the executive branch giving the stamp of approval to far-right paramilitary groups and white nationalists,” said Devin Burghart, executive director of Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights.

“In recent years it is unprecedented to see a lieutenant governor doing things like participating in a white nationalist conference or weighing in on a far-right-driven child endangerment issue, we haven’t seen that high a level of support for the far right since the days of the Council of Conservative Citizens, the lineal descendants of the White Citizens Council in the south.” said Burghart.

Burghart warned that state politics and far-right extremism in the sparsely populated west of the US is often forgotten in the national political conversation, but it can have major consequences.

“What happens out here in the west becomes a model, a testing ground for far-right activism. And what happens out here in the west doesn’t stay in the west, it migrates around the country, said Burghart.

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