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Idaho Freedom Foundation quietly hired Dave Reilly to help shape messaging

by DANIEL WALTERS/Investigate West
| December 11, 2023 1:00 PM

In the months leading to the infamous 2017 Unite the Right Tiki-torch rally in Charlottesville, Va., then-talk radio host Dave Reilly had some messaging-strategy tips for the attendees from the alt-right, the internet-savvy collection of racist and antisemitic groups that arose during the Trump era.

Using the screen name Davy Crockett, Reilly was part of a private invitation-only online group involved with brainstorming, planning and promoting the rally, courtroom testimony and leaked chat messages subsequently revealed. 

He chided members for posting a Nazi meme publicly on Facebook where the left could use it against them. He advised alt-right gays to “stay in the f---ing closet.” He livestreamed a Charlottesville KKK rally a month before the event, and the top organizer of the upcoming alt-right rally shared it as motivation for his followers to recruit more attendees. 

And he was one of those calling for marching straight through the “commons with torches for the night rally,” arguing that nobody would expect it and it would “give us the opportunity to take photos and videos and lots of good propaganda.” 

"I'm in favor of @DavyCrockett plan," responded a North Carolina state organizer of the rally, a leader in the white nationalist group Identity Evropa. And when the torchlight march for the night rally finally happened, Reilly was there to promote “UNBELIEVABLE DRONE FOOTAGE” of the rally on Twitter, now known as X.

Six years later, Reilly, now a political operative in Idaho, has landed a new messaging gig: helping to shape the communications strategy for the conservative Idaho Freedom Foundation, arguably the most powerful political activist group in the state. 

But while few on the hard right in Idaho have been willing to publicly defend Reilly, few have been willing to explicitly condemn him either. InvestigateWest reached out to the 10 Idaho legislators most supported by the Freedom Foundation, and only one, Sen. Scott Herndon, responded — though he declined to comment on Reilly directly. 

Reilly's effect on Idaho’s far right goes beyond his work for the Freedom Foundation, InvestigateWest has found. He also covertly wields significant influence through political advertising campaigns and an incendiary digital news site. 

But Reilly’s new role represents a much more significant coup: The Idaho Freedom Foundation, which began in 2009 as a libertarian-leaning free-market think tank, has been contracting with the self-described Christian nationalist — who’s said “free markets are a problem,” who hates “libertarianism more than any other political ideology,” and who compares conservatives who make capitalism their highest value to "being a slave and BEGGING your massa to keep you in chains."

“You'd think they could find someone who doesn't have a trail of breadcrumbs that lead in the direction that Mr. Reilly’s do,” said Coeur d’Alene City Councilmember Dan Gookin, a prickly conservative critic of the Freedom Foundation. “It's going to give a lot of ammo to the liberals who say, ‘They're all racists anyway.’” 

FREEDOM AGENDA 

The Freedom Foundation is widely loved by some of Idaho’s most right-wing legislators. Other political figures, like Gookin, describe it as part of the “toxic seasoning that makes the Legislature here dysfunctional.” 

What neither side doubts is the organization’s considerable influence: The Freedom Foundation’s so-called Freedom Index, which scores each legislator based on their voting record, is frequently held up as the arbiter of true conservatism in the redder parts of Idaho. In Idaho Falls, the Post Register reports that a local GOP legislative district committee had even been including failures to vote the way the Freedom Foundation recommends as grounds for triggering an investigation. 

Confirming that Reilly was working for the Freedom Foundation was as simple as typing Reilly’s first name and the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s domain into Gmail. Reilly’s Freedom Foundation email account, complete with his smiling picture, automatically popped up, suggesting he’d been given an official role. 

Alli Megal, the organization’s vice president, confirmed that Reilly had been hired to do “some work for us for comms,” but she stressed he was “just a contractor.” Contractors, however, have often performed significant roles for the Freedom Foundation, including grading how bills score on the Freedom Index. 

Megal declined to comment when asked how the Freedom Foundation was navigating Reilly’s controversial past and said she’d “rather not say” whether Reilly was still working there. 

“Of course” the board knows, she said. 

Reilly, who refers to himself as an “independent journalist” on his X profile, did not respond to questions sent to his Freedom Foundation email, to his personal email and via direct message on the X account he’d previously used to contact InvestigateWest. 

For years, the Freedom Foundation has pursued a particularly combative communications strategy, hammering both the Legislature and the press online. But that philosophy has often meant hiring the exact kind of figures that have drawn the organization into controversy after controversy. 

Parrish Miller, another contractor with the foundation, once wrote that “it's long past time to give up on politics and start shooting tyrants" after the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge standoff in 2016. Its most recent communications director, Brian Almon, like Reilly, has argued that the country made a mistake in giving women the right to vote. By October, Almon had either resigned from the Freedom Foundation or been ousted. 

Asked in a direct message if the Freedom Foundation was planning to replace his role with Reilly, Almon wrote that he “couldn’t possibly comment” on the organization’s personnel decisions. 

Recently, Dustin Hurst, who was overseeing the Idaho Freedom PAC, the legally distinct campaign arm of the organization, told InvestigateWest that Reilly hadn’t played any role with the PAC.

Three days later, however, Hurst suddenly announced he had decided to resign from his position. He would not directly answer InvestigateWest’s question about whether his resignation had anything to do with the Freedom Foundation’s choice to hire Reilly. 

“Here's what I'll say: The PAC has an operational vision I just don't share anymore,” Hurst wrote in a message. “I have other important projects to pursue.” 

The Freedom Foundation’s board chair, Brent Regan, who BuzzFeed once called the “Godfather of North Idaho Politics,” suggested the board was taking a hands-off approach to Reilly. 

“The IFF board is not involved with HR matters,” Regan wrote in an email. “The only person the board directly supervises is the president, Wayne Hoffman, who is Jewish.”

Hoffman, at one time a journalist himself, didn’t respond to a text message to his personal cellphone or an email requesting more details about Reilly’s role, including when he started. 

Devin Burghart, president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, an anti-hate organization, sees Reilly’s hiring as more of a culmination of a long trend than a surprise. 

“It’s a marriage of convenience,” said Burghart. “Irrespective of [Hoffman’s] Jewish heritage, the fact that they're still willing to work with an antisemite like Reilly is an indicator of their willingness to work with the fringiest elements of Idaho politics.” 

WHAT ANTISEMITISM? 

Reilly has denied being an antisemite or a white supremacist, claiming he judges people based on the content of their character. 

Yet his tweets for the past four years have been filled with attacks on "Jewish supremacy," "Jewish subversion," "Jewish privilege" and the supposed "Israeli Industrial Complex." He’s written that Jews "control the media" and "invented terrorism.” He’s claimed that the “Jewish Oligarchy" threatens to make us "economic slaves in our own homeland,” that Jewish behavior was the “number one cause” of antisemitism and that Israel spent “DECADES making White self-determination in the West IMPOSSIBLE." He’s called Jews "our friends in the same way that Cain was friends with Abel,” referring to the first murder in the Bible. 

Both Regan and Hoffman were well aware of many of the antisemitic things that Reilly said. 

Regan was confronted with them repeatedly as the chair of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, the local Republican party organization in Coeur d’Alene. That committee continued to endorse Reilly for the Post Falls School District board of trustees in 2021, even after reporters revealed that Reilly had, for instance, refused to apologize for his involvement in Charlottesville, declaring that "the idea that one can be contaminated by an association is Jewish."

Last year, meanwhile, audio reporter Heath Druzin sent Hoffman verified screenshots of Reilly claiming that Jews “pretend to be white” when expedient, leaving "everyone else of European heritage” footing the bill, and of Reilly responding to a news story that “at least 61 percent of Americans agree with at least one antisemitic stereotype by saying, "Good news! Let's get those numbers up!” 

But Hoffman refused to consider the evidence. 

“I don't know the guy, and I'm not in the habit of accepting whatever pretend ‘reporters’ have to say on any topic,” Hoffman responded, arguing that he would do his “own due diligence, thanks.” 

ONLINE INFLUENCERS 

To Gookin, the ongoing refusal of party officials to actively oppose Reilly or his ideology is infuriating. 

“To have the official Republican Party refuse to condemn someone who openly embraces white supremacy is wrong!” a visibly angry Gookin said during a contentious confrontation at a Kootenai County Republican women’s luncheon this fall. 

The video of Gookin’s condemnation was quickly uploaded in a story from the Idaho Tribune, a particularly incendiary digital news site in North Idaho, with an inaccurate headline: “UNHINGED: Woke Coeur D’Alene City Councilman Goes On Tirade Calling A Room Full Of Elderly Republican Women ‘White Supremacists.’”

On social media in October, former Idaho Freedom Foundation staffer Branden Durst, a rare public defender of Reilly, confirmed that Reilly was the one behind the Tribune. 

The Tribune’s journalistic ethics are dubious. It once digitally inserted Pride flags onto the photo of the dais of the Caldwell School Board, though the photo was changed after it was called out. And the Tribune doesn’t tell readers that the bylines on many of its stories — such as “Samantha Collins” — are fake names paired with AI-generated photos. (Regan is an exception, publishing a column in the Tribune under his own name.)

“If Reilly’s the guy who's doing it,” Gookin said, “he is truly driving a wedge in this community. He's misrepresenting people. He's making falsehoods.”

Reilly’s communications strategy has used deception before. Last year, he distributed "Pizza For The Hungry” flyers in Twin Falls, tricking homeless people into crashing the campaign event of a Republican he opposed. 

During the 2022 campaign of far-right gubernatorial candidate Ammon Bundy, Reilly resurrected one of his old personal accounts and pretended to be an antifa-supporting leftist claiming that Bundy might be too tough on “groomers.” Records show Bundy paid $30,000 for marketing work to a Reilly-connected ad firm named Revere Media. 

“Reilly’s driving a wedge, making us dislike each other, distrust each other," Gookin said. 

FASCISM OR CONSERVATIVE?

When Reilly talks about being “America First,” he’s clear he’s not necessarily talking about Donald Trump — who he has accused of being too “pro-gay” and “Israel First.” He’s talking about the original America First movement of 1940s isolationists, and specifically praising the political ideology of men like Father Charles Coughlin, Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh, three leaders some historians see as antisemites and Nazi sympathizers. 

And he’s talking about the modern “America First” movement of Nick Fuentes, perhaps the country’s most prominent white nationalist. Fuentes has described race-mixing as “degenerate,” mocked Holocaust numbers and accused a white Christian conservative pundit of being a “race traitor” for working for Jewish conservative pundit Ben Shapiro.

Back in 2019, Reilly was a hardcore Fuentes supporter, arguing that he had “done more for Catholicism and brought more converts to the church than any bishop alive today.” That support hasn’t waned. 

Last year, Reilly reaffirmed he was a Nick Fuentes “stan,” slang for a diehard fan. This fall, Reilly popped up at an online audio chat event about how Fuentes was “changing the Overton Window,” the types of arguments that Americans consider acceptable. 

Burghart, the extremism expert, notes that Fuentes’ “America First” movement has also had a considerable influence in Arizona, where U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar has repeatedly promoted and defended Fuentes. 

“But with on-the-ground politics stuff, Northern Idaho has been where they've really had the impact,” Burghart said. 

Lately, he said, Fuentes has been "politically positioning himself in a more overtly fascist direction.” 

Reilly has previously called fascism "democratic," "popular" and "rational,” and has scoffed at the relevance of the Constitution. 

For this story, InvestigateWest reached out to the 10 highest-scoring Idaho legislators in the Freedom Index, asking whether they were concerned with Reilly's views or the Freedom Foundation contracting with him. Reps. Heather Scott, Elaine Price, Dale Hawkins, Tina Lambert, Tony Wisniewski and Mike Kingsley didn’t respond. Neither did Sens. Glenneda Zuiderveld, Tammy Nichols or Dan Foreman.

Sen. Herndon, the very highest-ranked senator on the Idaho Freedom Index, was the only one who responded. In his reply, Herndon was only willing to explicitly speak out against Fuentes, the alt-right figure who Reilly once said was “serving the will of God” and that “his enemies are now my enemies.” 

Herndon suggested that the same kinds of conservative, limited-government principles that resulted in his scoring so high in the Freedom Index compelled him to oppose Fuentes, whom he sees as holding something closer to radical leftist ideology. 

“The rhetoric and movement he represents appear to promote government expansion, collectivist ideological principles, identity politics and even a socialist-style dictatorship,” Herndon said. “Those principles are flat-out anti-American.” 

But Regan has taken a different approach. As news of the Freedom Foundation’s decision to hire Reilly began to trickle out throughout the community, former state Sen. Mary Souza — recently a vociferous critic of the Freedom Foundation — demanded that Regan disavow the “racism, misogyny and authoritarianism of Fuentes’ America First group."

Regan refused. 

"I've never met this guy or studied him, so I'm not going to be a sock puppet to satisfy the fever dream of some virtue-signaling Woke Stasi Karen," Regan responded on social media.

***

InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. A Report for America corps member, Daniel Walters covers democracy and extremism across the region. He can be reached at daniel@invw.org.

    Dave Reilly ran for both Post Falls School District Board of Trustees in 2021 and a stunt campaign as a Democrat for Idaho governor in 2022.
 
 
    Dave Reilly (right) poses for a Tiki-torch selfie with James Allsup, another alt-right media figure. Both were at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. (Instagram screenshot)
 
 
    Coeur d'Alene City Council member Dan Gookin, an incumbent candidate for the council, addresses the Kootenai County Republican Women Federated during a luncheon Oct. 6, 2023 at the Best Western Plus Coeur d'Alene Inn.
 
 


    Herndon
 
 
  
    Brent Regan pauses during the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee's annual Lincoln Day Dinner Feb. 11, 2023 at The Coeur d'Alene Resort.