Idaho is on the verge of electing a Republican atheist to the State Senate. And virtually no one saw it coming.
Geoff Schroeder isn’t merely an atheist. He’s the type of guy who owns the “ATHEIST” license plate in the state—and has it signed by Richard Dawkins.
Schroeder is also no stranger to public service. He’s served for years as city prosecutor, was elected to two terms on the Mountain Home City Council (in 2007 and 2013), and spent more than two decades before that with the Idaho Army National Guard.
His entry into legislative politics began in 2010, when he became precinct committeeman for the Elmore County Republican Party. He later became vice-chair, then chair.
Schroeder won the Republican primary for Idaho State Senate
This past year, after redistricting moved the incumbent state senator to a neighboring district, there was an opening where he lived. So Schroeder decided to hop into the District 8 State Senate race against three other GOP challengers (including Terry Gestrin, a longtime State House member hoping to level up).
On Tuesday, the unofficial results showed that Schroeder won the race with a plurality of the votes. The other opponents don’t seem to be contesting any of this, and the official announcement is merely a formality at this point.
More importantly, there are no other challengers from any other party. They’ve conceded this race to Republicans, which means Schroeder should skate to victory in November. As far as I can tell, that would make him the highest ranking openly atheist elected official in the Republican Party. (Indeed, he would be the only openly atheist elected Republican in statewide or federal office anywhere in America.)
That raises a number of questions, though…
Did Schroeder’s atheism ever come up in the State Senate race?
Nope. It wasn’t a factor. His opponents didn’t bring it up and Schroeder never talked about it. That’s actually one of the upsides to local races; the “culture war” issues aren’t always front and center. When asked about his top three priorities, he talked about giving local leaders more control to solve problems (rather than issuing inflexible mandates from the state), protecting the education system against the barrage of attacks from people (they come from a “position of ignorance”), and making sure his district has access to good clean water (“I fully support aquifer recharge efforts”).
All of that is to say religion wasn’t a driving force in this primary. It’s not that Schroeder was hiding it; it’s that he didn’t talk about it and no one asked about it.
If they tried, though, Schroeder told me he had a response ready to go. He planned to tell people that the U.S. Constitution forbids a religious test for public office and embraces religious freedom, including freedom from religion. His also pointed out that his wife is Christian. He has a history, in other words, of respecting people of faith and isn’t some anti-theist purposely picking fights about religion.
“I understand where the basis of their faith comes from, so I’m not antithetical to people of faith,” he told me. He added that being an atheist in a community with a few different (and conflicting) religious beliefs could arguably made him a better arbiter of policies that affect everyone because he has no dog in the fight.
But none of that ever came up in the race. In fact, the Idaho 97 Project, which fights extremism and disinformation, endorsed Schroeder and said he was in a race against Rep. Gestrin “and two far-right extremists.” So for most primary voters, it was really a question of whether they preferred a seemingly moderate newcomer to the state legislature, one of the two far-right candidates, or a long-time politician. They went with the new guy who talked about issues that everyone could get on board with.
Why is Schroeder a Republican?!
Let’s admit it: None of you really care about any of that. You just want to know why the hell this guy is a Republican.
The simple answer, in my opinion, is that if you want to be involved in politics in this part of the state, you have to be a Republican. Having a “D” after your name is a political death-wish. And Schroeder happens to be the kind of old-school Republican who believes the extremists represent the fringe of his party. Yes, he admits they’re growing, and yes, he knows they’re vocal, but he’s always been focused on local and state-level politics, and he typically doesn’t encounter the sort of extremism that we tend to hear about in the news. He’s not oblivious to it, but in his circles, most Republicans are the kind he’d consider moderate, and they want politicians to take care of the roads and schools, not engage in “culture war” battles.
In a phone call with me earlier today, he even name-checked Christian hate-preacher Greg Locke. His point? There are loud extremists out there, and they certainly have a following, but they’re not the majority. (He pegged the extremist wing as about “30%” of the Party. I would argue that’s both an underestimate and hardly a fringe group.) He believes moderates need to fight back. It won’t be easy, he acknowledged, but his goal was to conduct the business of state and local government, not get distracted by those high-profile controversial issues.
To put it another way, Schroeder is a conservative who lives in reality and he intends to govern that way. He’s the sort of person who believes extremist Republicans are hijacking the GOP, not that the Party has always been this bad but just kept it under wraps.
To be fair, he has no other option if he wants to create change than to call himself a Republican. District 8 is so red that a Democrat hasn’t even run for State Senate since 2012. The Republican on the ballot has won every election with over 70% of the votes since that time. If you can get past the GOP primary, the seat is yours.
Schroeder has pushed back against extremism in the Republican Party
But that doesn’t mean Schroeder has gone along with a far right-wing agenda. In fact, in the past, he’s used his position within the party to push for change. In 2012, shortly after he won a second term as a Republican precinct committeeman, Schroeder switched his party affiliation to “Unaffiliated” as a rebuke against the state’s closed primaries.
The GOP is “leering over … a list of who is and who isn’t declared as a Republican, a creepy aspect of government that is done by people like Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler,” Schroeder said. “I’m not going to be a part of it.”
That’s not the only time he’s pushed back against GOP norms. In 2011, he apparently told a story at a local atheist gathering about how he had to give an invocation at a Mountain Home City Council meeting… but didn’t go through with it. As one attendee put it:
One story Geoff told was about when he was asked to lead the invocation for a council meeting. He agreed, folded his arms, and stared at the clock for about a minute. Eventually the person next to him nudged him and asked him when he was going to start and he just said that the invocation was done and they could move on. If he had some warning he would have put together some grand invocation to the FSM, which would have just been awesome, but a minute of awkward silence….that’s a pretty damn good way of handling it with no notice.
And if you want more proof he’s not a right-wing extremist, he recently got criticized by a right-wing troll for acknowledging that Joe Biden won the 2020 election:
So how does he reconcile his atheism with the Republican Party’s overtly Christian nationalist agenda? He doesn’t see those as a contradiction. The roles he’s taken on so far haven’t required him to choose between rational thinking and religious extremism. It’s not like there’s an atheist position on fixing potholes or a conservative Christian stance against water safety.
When there has been a conflict, though, he’s come at the issue from a smaller government perspective. In a questionnaire for the Idaho Statesman, for example, he condemned a resolution that gave “working groups” the ability to censor books in public libraries:
… The legislature should not have passed a resolution creating a “working group” regarding materials in public libraries. There are already over 100 such “working groups”: the library boards that govern each library in Idaho. There are already statutory provisions for library patrons to address materials they are concerned with and adding yet another level of state-mandated interference is wasteful and harmful.
He also said the state should work on offering “better access to mental health resources,” which isn’t exactly the sort of FOX News bait you expect from a Republican politician. (One of his opponents, by the way, responded to the same questions by saying his priority in office would be fixing the “failure to teach basic Christian values” to kids.)
Where does Schroeder stand on hot-button issues within the Republican Party?
What about LGBTQ rights? What about abortion rights? I pointed out that he could avoid those issues on a local level, but he will eventually have to vote on bills concerning those topics. Was he going to do the right thing or throw marginalized people under the bus?
Without giving specifics, he told me the questions guiding his votes would be “What’s the proper role of government?” and “Does this bill accomplish that?” He added that careful analysis of the language of the bills would likely put him at odds with folks on either side.
That’s all fine, but c’mon, just answer the damn question. Do you support abortion rights?
He told me that medical decisions are not the role of government, and he opposed politicians making decisions for women. He was also adamant that Republicans focusing on issues like that were costing the state its infrastructure. He didn’t want to get elected to make noise. He wants to get elected to make a positive difference.
It’s not like he hasn’t pushed back against prominent extremist Republicans. Schroeder has long criticized Christian nationalist Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin (who just lost her gubernatorial primary). He even called for the removal of Donald Trump from office after the January 6 insurrection attempt.
Schroeder also had a succinct response yesterday after he was accused of being a Republican In Name Only (RINO):
Who are Schroeder’s Republican role models?
I asked Schroeder if there were any Republicans he admired, thinking he might throw out the name of Liz Cheney or Mitt Romney or any number of Republicans who are conservative on just about every issue but occasionally do the right thing (and get fawning coverage for it).
Instead, he mentioned former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt, who ran the state from 1995-1999 and was the state’s first Republican governor in 24 years. In his 90s today, Batt criticizes the extremist shift in the GOP and advocates for civil rights, including for LGBTQ people. Schroeder also brought up Barry Goldwater (for putting country over party) and former Idaho attorney general and Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Jones, who, in retirement, has lashed out against right-wing extremism.
I wondered if there was another way to get to the heart of the matter. It’s one thing to say you respect those moderate Republicans, but when push comes to shove, what do you do?
So I asked him if he voted for Donald Trump in 2020.
After a brief pause, he responded with, “… Can we not?”
It was the only question I asked he didn’t want to answer, and he justified it by saying he never paid much attention to national politics because Idaho’s electoral votes were always a foregone conclusion, making his vote for president effectively meaningless. For someone whose passion has always been local and state politics, that’s not necessarily a bad point. But it’s also not an answer.
So now we wait.
The question is what he’ll do when he’s sworn into office, assuming there are no surprises between now and November.
Schroeder is a Republican. He’s just not one of the insane ones. That’s a start. But we’ll see what he does when he actually has to cast votes and take positions on issues he’s been able to avoid for years.
One thing’s for sure: He’s not going to use his platform to advance his atheism. That’s not the role of government, he said, and he defines himself by his brand of old-school conservatism far more than his atheism, which he adopted much later in life.
In fact, he told me he’s working on transferring his ATHEIST license plate to someone else in the state whose focus is on combatting religious extremism. She deserves it, he said, since his focus necessarily needs to be somewhere else now.