Power

When an Abortion ‘Abolitionist’ Becomes Your State Senator

Locals showed extremists the door in North Idaho once before. But now, they’re back with a vengeance.

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Reproductive Rights Reporting Fund.

It is part two in a three-part series.

There was never an abortion clinic in Sandpoint, Idaho. But about a decade ago, locals in Sandpoint and surrounding towns started to notice the presence of one of the country’s most hardline anti-abortion groups. They showed up at the farmers’ market, Walmart, and local schools, carrying large signs with gruesome photos and approaching passersby—including children—to “preach the gospel.” One of the group’s leaders often brought his own kids.

That man assumed office as an Idaho state senator in December 2022. His name is Scott Herndon.

“All of us were surprised that he actually got elected,” one local resident told me. “It should never have happened.”

Herndon is far from the only extremist who has infiltrated Idaho politics. North Idaho, in particular, is a hotbed for the rise of Christian nationalism and overtly fascist ideology.

“I always laugh about Project 2025,” said Reclaim Idaho volunteer Alicia Abbott, referring to the much-publicized ultra-conservative plan to reshape the federal government in the event of another Trump-esque presidency. “Babes, it’s been happening for a decade at our lower levels in ‘red’ states … Project 2025 was, like, Project 2016 here.”

This is the political climate that produced Idaho’s abortion bans. Locals say it has also created dysfunction at all levels of government, and it is difficult to counter because extremist leaders are so hostile toward dissenters.

Infiltrating government from the bottom up

Alicia Abbott
Alicia Abbott, along with Reclaim Idaho, are working to make the state’s primary elections open to all voters. (Margaret Albaugh/For Rewire News Group)

In Sandpoint, said Abbott, a far-right takeover of local offices—and ensuing political drama—has led to infrastructure collapse. This includes, but goes beyond, the shuttering of the local labor and delivery ward. For example, “our county commissioners have severed ties with our health department,” she said. “You can go out in rural Idaho right now and go step in a foot full of shit because … there’s no communication between planning and zoning and our septic people. It’s awful.”

Abbott traces the start of this local takeover back to the Tea Party movement, which rose to prominence in 2009 after the election of President Barack Obama. (It seemed to be a grassroots conservative effort, but was actually funded by conservative mega-donors, including the Koch brothers.) Around the same time, a far-right small government group called the John Birch Society, which had its heyday in the 1960s, reemerged in local and national politics.

Christa Hazel, who lives about an hour south of Sandpoint near Coeur d’Alene, is a former elected precinct member on the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee (KCRCC). She also noticed a shift around this time, between 2008 and 2012.

“The Ron Paul-ers were very upset in 2008 that the Idaho Republican Party went with McCain,” she said. “And they vowed at that time … that they would take over every single position starting from the lowest seat. They would run for every position, water board, sewer, library, school district. And that has been consistently what we see.”

“It’s a systematic approach at every level to decrease services, to defund public assets, and to stick it to the federal government, whether or not it hurts us,” she added. “There’s just no regard to whether or not we’re cutting our nose off to spite our face with some of these stances.”

Hazel resigned from her post in 2017, shortly after a man named Brent Regan was elected KCRCC chair. He remains in the role. Regan also serves as the board chair for the Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF), an influential far-right think tank that, among other things, reviews and scores proposed bills and gives lawmakers “grades.” (Herndon is IFF’s top-ranked Idaho state senator.) KCRCC touts its similar “rating and vetting” program for candidates, which it employs even for offices that are technically nonpartisan.

In another example of the dysfunction Hazel and Abbott describe, when KCRCC-backed trustees gained a majority on the nonpartisan board of trustees for North Idaho College—a community college in Coeur d’Alene that is a major economic engine for the small city—their mismanagement nearly caused the college to lose its accreditation. The school’s future still hangs in the balance.

“This is bad governance in action,” Hazel texted me during an October 25 board meeting, as trustee Greg McKenzie, who was running the meeting, called for security to remove a member of the public over objections from North Idaho College President Nick Swayne, who was ousted by the trustees but reinstated after winning a lawsuit against the school.

“I’m walking out the door!” the woman shouted. “I hope the KCRCC is good, too … bunch of Nazi bastards!”

McKenzie was replaced as board chair in the next month’s meeting.

A man who sees rape as an “opportunity”

Outside of Real Life Ministries
Real Life Ministries says all are welcome, while its website admonishes abortion as wrong, states that there are two genders, and declares that marriage is only between men and women. (Margaret Albaugh/For Rewire News Group)

Herndon, the anti-abortion activist-turned-state senator who also has IFF ties, made waves several times during his first legislative session in 2023. In the course of debate surrounding Idaho’s first-of-its-kind “abortion trafficking” bill, for example—which made it a crime for a non-parent or guardian to help a minor get an abortion in Idaho—Herndon argued the bill should go further, criminalizing parents and guardians as well. (Enforcement of the law is currently blocked as a legal challenge proceeds.)

Herndon also unsuccessfully attempted to remove the rape and incest exceptions from Idaho’s criminal abortion ban. (These exceptions are already so narrow that the Department of Justice has argued they violate federal law.) Senate Minority Leader Melissa Wintrow pushed back, asking Herndon if hypothetically his bill would force a 13-year-old girl who had been raped by a family member to continue her pregnancy.

In response, Herndon referred to such a situation as an “opportunity.”

“I got shell shock, and that’s the only way I can describe it,” Wintrow said when I met her in Boise in late October. “Because it was so violent for a senator to say there should be no exceptions for rape or incest for an abortion.”

Most mainstream anti-abortion groups are careful to say they don’t support criminalizing pregnant people for seeking abortions. The model legislation they draft focuses on the actions of doctors instead. But Herndon was a leader of the North Idaho chapter of Abolish Human Abortion (AHA), one of a handful of groups on the anti-abortion movement’s fringe in which members identify as “abolitionists.”

“Pro-life is the expression of a moral opinion. Abolition is the expression of a moral action,” the AHA website reads. “When you call yourself ‘pro-life’ you are letting people know what you think about abortion. When you call yourself an abolitionist, you are telling them what you aim to do about it.”

These self-identified “abolitionists” believe fervently that abortion is homicide. Most also want pregnant people who seek abortion to be imprisoned or even face the death penalty. And one of the prongs of their approach is “agitation.” In other words, AHA members are encouraged to be confrontational. You can see evidence of this on Herdon’s YouTube channel, where recent videos show him speaking on the floor of the state legislature, but older ones feature AHA actions. In one video, Herdon’s children sing a song with lyrics referring to abortion as “child sacrifice” and “a Holocaust disguised.”

While AHA admonishes members to be nonviolent, the group argues it is within the state’s power to use violence to end abortion. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that a leader of this movement would work his way into government. And according to an ex-member of AHA North Idaho—whose name has been changed to “Casey,” to protect their anonymity—Herdon’s beliefs don’t stop there.

“I remember them talking about how the government should be a Christian theocracy,” said Casey.

When I met with Casey late in October, it was cold and gloomy in North Idaho. Everyone was gearing up for the season’s first snow. But Casey had walked instead of driving, because that morning they’d awoken to find the rear window of their car smashed in. Was it an accident, a random robbery attempt, or a threat?

“I have to think about that,” Casey said. “It’s intimidating sometimes.”

Casey grew up in a fundamentalist Christian church, which they describe as a cult. They were homeschooled and generally “raised away from society,” all of which they believe made them particularly susceptible to extremist ideologies. They were drawn to AHA because they felt they weren’t being encouraged to do enough to end abortion within their own church. If abortion is murder, Casey wondered, why aren’t we speaking out against it?

Then they encountered the “abolitionist” movement.

“I started watching all their YouTube videos, and it was all these people that call themselves Christians who were boldly declaring their faith … applying their faith to confront culture, is how they always presented it,” they said.

A local polling place in Couer D'Alene features campaign signs for a variety of local positions.
Extremist transplants are clashing with Idaho locals, who are fighting to keep the far-right from completely overtaking local offices. (Margaret Albaugh/For Rewire News Group)

Casey was hooked and became an active member of the group, joining protests at local schools, stores, events, and at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Spokane, Washington, about an hour and a half away from Sandpoint. But then community members started pushing back.

“It made me really paranoid to be in Sandpoint because I felt like people were looking at me and targeting me,” Casey said. Around the same time, a group of women from the original AHA group in Oklahoma started to speak up about misogyny within their movement.

“They started basically educating me on women’s issues from a Christian perspective,” Casey said. “If God created everybody equal, and that’s the platform we’re running on to say ‘unborn’ children have rights, then why don’t women have equal rights?” Ultimately, Casey was one of several people kicked out for standing up for that idea.

Casey is also queer and recognizes now that fear and self-hatred was part of what drove their actions in the past.

“I grew up hating myself because I thought [my sexuality] was a crime. It was against God. I tried to kill myself over it, and I never got help from the church,” they said. “And so as I’ve gotten away from that kind of thing—this is going to sound really cliché—but I try to be the person that I wish I would’ve had when I was younger.”

Transplants taking over

A tombstone-esque version of the tablets featuring the ten commandments outside Alter Church in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho.
Many extremist transplants move to North Idaho seeking a white, Christian, conservative utopia. (Margaret Albaugh/For Rewire News Group)

When Casey was young, their parents moved the family to North Idaho in search of a white, conservative, Christian utopia. The same is true of many on Idaho’s far right. They consider themselves political refugees from liberal cities, mostly, though not exclusively, on the West Coast. Herndon, for example, moved to Idaho from San Francisco in 2004. Some born-and-raised Idahoans will tell you that means he’s not a real local. But many of Idaho’s most prominent far-right voices are even newer.

This includes provocateur, propagandist, and January 6 insurrectionist Vincent James Foxx, who moved to Post Falls, a town near Coeur d’Alene, in 2021 with the stated goal of a political takeover. He’s open about his views.

“We are the Christian Taliban, and we will not stop until The Handmaid’s Tale is a reality, and even worse than that, to be honest,” he said on one of his live streams. Foxx has ties to the America First Foundation, an organization founded by white supremacist livestreamer Nick Fuentes, whose followers call themselves “groypers.”

Another recent Post Falls arrival is David Reilly, an associate of both Fuentes and Foxx who participated in the 2017 Unite the Right rally. Reilly was previously involved with Identity Evropa, a white supremacist group that later rebranded as American Identity Movement and started collaborating with Fuentes and America First. One of Identity Evropa’s goals was to infiltrate young Republican groups and local elected offices, and it appears Reilly aims to do just that. He ran for school board in Post Falls with KCRCC’s endorsement in 2021, and though he didn’t win, he was later elected as a delegate from Kootenai County to the state GOP convention.

Foxx has gone so far as to tell longtime Idaho residents that they should leave if they don’t like what’s happening, leading to a debate about who is a “real” Idahoan and what true Idaho values are—a conversation that is as insulting as it is absurd to Tai Simpson, founder of Indigenous Idaho Alliance, who in her words is “Indigenous to Idaho before Idaho was ever Idaho.”

“They would all die before seeing me free,” Simpson said. “And the audacity, on my land.”

Echoes of the past

Many outsiders associate North Idaho with extremism because of its history: in particular, the fact that a white supremacist group called the Aryan Nations was headquartered there from the late 1970s until about 2000. But back then, Idahoans came together to oust the Aryan Nations from their home. Can they do something similar again?

Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler built a compound for his group—and its associated church, the Church of Jesus Christ Christian—near Hayden, Idaho, which is just north of Coeur d’Alene, in the late 1970s. According to Tony Stewart, one of the founders of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, the number of people who actually lived full-time on the compound with Butler was small—25 to 30 at any given time. But during the group’s annual “world congress” events, they’d attract crowds of up to 300.

Initially, Aryan Nations members mostly mailed out racist and anti-semitic flyers, and they occasionally marched through downtown Coeur d’Alene. But over time, their activities expanded to include physical assaults, vandalisms, bombings, bank robberies, and attempted assassinations.

The task force was founded in 1981, after Aryan Nations members graffitied swastikas on the outside of a restaurant owned by a Jewish family, Stewart said. One of its first projects was getting anti-hate crime legislation passed in Idaho. But in 1998, Aryan Nations security guards violently assaulted a local woman named Victoria Keenan and her son, Jason, after their car backfired outside the Aryan compound.

“I felt like I was going to die. I am an American Indian, and I had to denounce my Indian heritage,” Keenan later said. “They asked me if I was Indian and I said, ‘No, I’m just a poor white farmer girl.’ It made me feel pretty low.”

Keenan’s first call was to Stewart.

The coast of Coeur D'Alene, Idaho.
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, has deep ties to both white Christian nationalists and the activists who worked hard to kick them out of their community the first time. (Margaret Albaugh/For Rewire News Group)

“She said, ‘I don’t trust institutions. I don’t trust attorneys. But I trust the task force. Please help me,’” Stewart said.

The next day, he connected her with local civil rights attorney Norm Gissel, who later recruited the Southern Poverty Law Center to help with the case. In 2000, the Keenans won a $6.3 million verdict against the Aryan Nations, which ultimately forced the organization to give up its compound. While splinter groups remain, the Aryan Nations as it was no longer exists.

“We’re still here”

An intersection in Coeur D'Alene at night.
The Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations was formed in response to the Aryan Nations’ activities north of and in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. (Margaret Albaugh/For Rewire News Group)

The lawsuit is considered a landmark victory in countering extremism. Many locals are still proud of the ouster, and the case bears numerous parallels to what’s happening in Idaho today. After all, Butler and most of his followers were relative outsiders, recent transplants to Idaho—in that case, most had come from California.

Back when Aryan Nations members would demonstrate in town, or commit petty crimes, Hazel said, “there was always a community response.” But while Butler might have had the ear of one or two elected officials, his group never had the kind of hold on local politics that extremists have achieved today.

Hazel grew up just three miles from the Aryan compound. “I have a lot of distinct memories that I don’t give a lot of time to,” she said. “I learned to keep my head on a swivel.”

This might be especially true considering that Hazel’s father, Wayne Manis, was the lead FBI agent on the investigation into the Order, a spinoff group founded by one of Butler’s acolytes. Members of the Order were responsible for a multimillion-dollar crime spree intended to fund a war on the U.S. government, and committed several murders.

Manis also arrested Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge. He wasn’t involved in the 11-day standoff between Weaver and the U.S. Marshals—he was specifically brought in to make the arrest after the case was transferred to the FBI. But extremists, including Regan, have twisted this association to suggest that Hazel’s father was entirely responsible for Ruby Ridge. Say that in North Idaho and it’ll raise some eyebrows.

“I know what that means when you fire up the Weaver crowd in North Idaho,” Hazel said. “It was like a guy on a runway waving in a plane to land. And they were hoping I’d be harmed out of retaliation.”

Stewart agrees. The extremists of Idaho’s present “don’t wear robes, and they don’t burn crosses,” he said, but they’re carrying out a “serious attack” on public institutions like libraries and schools. And while most of them are not engaging in physical violence, another effect of their threatening rhetoric “is that it’s very difficult to get some really reasonable people to run for office because they fear the attack on them and their families,” Stewart added.

The Coeur D'Alene, Idaho location of Birthright, a national organization of "crisis pregnancy centers."
Birthright, a national “crisis pregnancy center” organization, set up shop in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. (Margaret Albaugh/For Rewire News Group)

There are also extremists that Idahoans never managed to oust. For example, the dominionist evangelical pastor Douglas Wilson arrived in Idaho around the same time that Butler did. (Some of Wilson’s greatest hits include the claim that chattel slavery was “a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence,” and more recently, browbeating local elected officials over COVID-19 mandates and allegations of widespread abuse.)

Wilson continues to run an empire that includes a church, a school, and a right-wing religious press. He and other members of his church have bought up a significant number of businesses in Moscow, Idaho, where the University of Idaho is located, and exert significant influence there.

Still, Idahoans are hoping for another—and perhaps even greater—ouster, and they’re taking steps to make it happen.

Shortly before I arrived in Idaho, voters turned out in significant numbers to recall two far-right school board trustees in the West Bonner County School District, about half an hour west of Sandpoint. Branden Durst—a former IFF analyst who had been appointed superintendent despite a lack of qualifications—was forced to resign. To continue fighting the Republican Party’s internal dysfunction, Hazel is encouraging others who oppose extremism to run for their local precinct committee seats.

On the statewide front, Reclaim Idaho is gathering signatures for a ballot initiative that would open Idaho’s primaries, and every person I spoke with expects to succeed in getting onto the 2024 ballot. Many people I spoke with said they believe an abortion rights ballot measure could eventually succeed, too.

“We’re still here,” Casey said. “We’re fighting … so that we can be safe.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Branden Durst’s role in the West Bonner County School District.