Freedom Caucus Network power broker Maria Nate blasted controversial state Rep. Heather Scott for support of “moderate” House speaker

By Daniel Walters / InvestigateWest

It was the middle of March in the Idaho Legislature and Maria Nate, one of the most powerful lobbyists in right-wing Idaho politics, sounded like she’d been stabbed in the back. 

She’d just learned that Rep. Heather Scott — her friend, ally, and one of the most conservative legislators in the Idaho House of Representatives — had been considering doing the unthinkable: teaming up with a supposedly “moderate” Republican. 

“I’m asking you to not repeat that outside of this room,” Scott, R-Blanchard, told Nate.

But while the door was closed, the walls were thin and their voices were loud. 

Two weeks later, everything they said — every insult, sob, unflattering impression or bark of derisive laughter between two of the most prominent figures in Idaho politics — was already being passed around by political insiders. 

Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, has been one of the most popular and controversial far-right lawmakers in the Idaho Legislature since her election in 2014. A secret recording of Scott and lobbyist Maria Nate shows some of the divisions emerging among conservatives in Idaho’s lawmaking body. (Kathy Plonka/Spokesman-Review)

Nate declared that Scott was “undermining” her. She warned Scott that “trust lost is very hard to regain” and told her that cutting Nate out of the “inner circle” was a “big f—ing deal.” 

It was all on tape. A nearly two-hour secret recording reveals Nate was incensed that Scott and her allies were “hatching a plan” to send out a letter praising House Speaker Mike Moyle, a Republican frequently attacked by the far right as insufficiently conservative. 

Last month, that recording was leaked to InvestigateWest by a third-party source not involved in taping it. When asked for comment, Scott and Nate refused to talk, and the Idaho State Police reached out to InvestigateWest to let us know the recording was part of a criminal investigation and to warn of potential criminal liability if we disclosed the recording’s content. 

The recording, which we are not posting at the request of our source, is an unfiltered look into a fracture among key far-right figures in Idaho politics, in a state where many races turn on contests of conservative purity.

It’s a portrait of the tangled relationship between a power broker and a politician. It includes Nate insulting other legislators and accusing Scott of joining the establishment. It shows Scott questioning both whether God wants women in leadership and whether she wants to remain in Idaho at all. 

In total, it’s evidence that the attempt to run the bare-knuckled right-wing playbook of Congress’s House Freedom Caucus has backfired in the solidly red Idaho Legislature. 

Instead of simply forcing legislative leaders to reckon with their influence, Nate and Scott’s coalition of conservative legislators have turned on each other.

“There’s not unity,” Nate said. “I’m really trying to pray to get unity. I would die for this.”

“JUST REMEMBER WHO THE ENEMY IS”

Heather Scott and Maria Nate have each established their own perch in Idaho politics. 

Scott, from her district near the top of the Idaho Panhandle, has made plenty of headlines. During her first week in office, lawmakers accused her of cutting down a piece of the fire suppression system because she believed it was a “listening device” — a claim she denies.

She’d explained that the Confederate flag she’d been photographed waving was merely signifying her support for “free speech.” She’d been removed from a committee after she was overheard saying that female House members “spread their legs” to get leadership positions — the same month that Moyle married a fellow legislator. 

But despite all that — or, perhaps, because of all that — she’s cultivated an army of die-hard supporters from the North Idaho grassroots. Even her weekly constituent newsletters developed a fan base. 

“That’s why you were the perfect choice to be the leader,” Nate told Scott in the recording. “You have all the people.” 

Maria Nate, who leads the Idaho chapter of the State Freedom Caucus Network, was unhappy when one of Idaho’s most prominent conservative lawmakers, Heather Scott, began supporting a moderate House leader, according to a secret recording of the two having a heated discussion in the Idaho Capitol. Nate is shown here at a meeting in Rexburg, Idaho. (Mary Boyle/EastIdahoNews.com.)

Nate, meanwhile, has a powerful conservative coalition under her own roof. Her husband, former Republican legislator Ron Nate, was recently appointed head of the Idaho Freedom Foundation — the heavyweight think tank that grades the Legislature on its “Freedom Index,” scorecards that purport to separate true conservatives from phonies. 

And Nate herself is the Idaho director of the State Freedom Caucus Network, a national nonprofit that aims to equip the farthest-right members of state legislators for their battles with the Republican establishment. It was inspired by the House Freedom Caucus in Congress, an alliance of the most right-wing legislators who frequently are at war with Republican congressional leaders.  

Scott is the legislative co-chair picked to lead the state representatives who’ve adopted the Freedom Caucus brand. 

When the State Freedom Caucus Network launched its Idaho affiliate in January 2023, it looked like a conservative dream team: Scott and Nate, bomb thrower and power broker, with a legion of newly elected conservative legislators marching beside them. 

In the Idaho Senate last November, Freedom Caucus members were removed from committees for having “aggressively attacked, disparaged and degraded fellow members.” In February, in the House, Republicans agreed to boot out comparatively moderate House Majority Leader Megan Blanksma. 

But Maria Nate was far from happy. On social media, she and her husband, Ron, declared that Idaho wasn’t truly conservative, accusing Republicans of teaming up with Democrats “to pass bad bills and kill good bills.” A school choice bill failed. A bill expanding contraception access passed. 

The Freedom Caucus had split on issues like immigration. A divided caucus was a weaker caucus, Nate emphasized on the recording. 

“You watch the Democrats: They operate like a single unit, and they’re freaking powerful because of that. They’re a formidable unit that must be dealt with,” Nate told Scott. “You guys are not.”

“That’s fine because we all see ourselves as individuals,” Scott said. 

To Scott, that individualism was an asset. To Nate, it created a problem, calling it a “nut” that needed to be “cracked” to have true success.

“The Freedom Caucus is supposed to be the tip of the spear, the straight arrow,” Nate said. “But if you’re discontented about things, and you talk about it in the caucus … then I can see how things can go sideways. And then before you know it, you’re just barely one degree off of Moyle. So just remember who the enemy is.”

“DO YOU THINK I’M STUPID?”

Moyle, Idaho’s speaker of the House, doesn’t exactly see Maria Nate as an ally, either. 

“Maria Nate just wants total chaos, because she thinks somehow it’s going to generate more money for her cause,” he told InvestigateWest. 

He had nothing but praise for Heather Scott. 

“Sometimes I think others have tried to muzzle her or hold her down,” Moyle said. “I just let her do her thing.”

Moyle is the kind of politician who rattles off the reasons why he’s “very conservative” with speed, at length, and in the third person. 

“If they think Maria Nate’s gonna tell Mike Moyle how he’s gonna vote, they’ve got the wrong guy,” Moyle says. “I do what’s best for Idaho.”

But lately, he’d become a target for the Young Americans for Liberty, the libertarian-leaning group that’s spent more on lobbying in the last three years than any other group in Idaho. 

“Make Liberty Win,” a PAC funded by Young Americans for Liberty, had been flooding Moyle’s district with mailers declaring that “Swamp King” Moyle had been “cheating conservatives” by putting in “just enough Democrats and (Republicans-in-name-only) to kill conservative policies.”

“Their flyers they’re sending out on me, total lies, misrepresentation of the truth — it’s just garbage,” Moyle said. 

Despite the criticism, Scott and several members of the Freedom Caucus were ready to come to his defense this spring. They were preparing to send a letter to the Young Americans for Liberty, declaring their support for Moyle and objecting to YAL’s attempts to defeat him. They credited Moyle with the “largest income tax relief in 10 years” and with”pushing back on the woke agendas creeping into Idaho.”

But others on the right viewed such a letter as a betrayal that undermined their efforts to oust Moyle. The Idaho Freedom Foundation, which has long been considered the most influential right-wing think tank in the state, had given Moyle an F for his “freedom score” and an F — a 22 out of a possible 100 — in the “spending” category.

Yet at least half of the Freedom Foundation’s top-six-scoring legislators had endorsed him, suggesting that the foundation’s power may have waned. 

“Even their own guys have said ‘IFF has gone crazy,’” Moyle told InvestigateWest. “Their own guys are saying they’re nuts.”

Nate warned Scott repeatedly that there could be consequences to sending the letter supporting Moyle. 

“If you do this thing with Moyle … the ramifications you could have outside of this building, to your allied partners could be very, very devastating,” Nate warned on the recording.

“Do you think I’m stupid and don’t know that?” Scott said. “Don’t you think I would take that into consideration?”

Nate said that Young Americans for Liberty was planning to spend $1.1 million worth of campaign assistance for its preferred candidates, but warned Scott that if YAL “can’t make gains in the Legislature, they’re gonna pull out of Idaho, which means no more funding.”

Scott wasn’t particularly desperate for that support, accusing YAL of inflating the numbers of voters they’d actually called. 

“They dropped the ball last time,” Scott said. 

In the recording, Scott defended Moyle as someone who had already put conservative legislators on several key committees, booted the moderate House majority leader and passed long-desired budget reforms.

“Mike is pushing up against the executive branch,” Scott said. “I don’t see anyone else in this building doing that. They all bow down to (the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry) and the governor.” 

Supporting Moyle wasn’t compromise, she argued. It was part of a long-term strategy to increase conservative influence in the Legislature.

“That is what politics is all about: building relationships and still getting the best you can get,” Scott said. 

Moyle was a “game player,” Nate argued, and Scott was getting played. 

For years, Scott had decried the Boise establishment as a “swamp” brimming with “evil people,” bullies, and “gravy train” crony capitalists. 

“I see you playing in the system more than you have before,” Nate told Scott. 

“You’re worried that we might try something new,” Scott said. “I’ve watched for 10 years, and nothing has happened in this place. Nothing.”

“OUT OF YOUR LANE” 

Scott assured Nate that she would have the stamp of “final approval” over anything the group sent out supporting Moyle. 

That itself was remarkable: a lobbyist gaining veto power over communications from legislators. Lines between lobbyists, political action committees and politicians can always be blurry, but the line between the Idaho Freedom Caucus — the group of elected legislators — and Nate’s State Freedom Caucus Network was an ever-shifting scribble. 

At times even Freedom Caucus members grew uncomfortable with how entangled Nate was with the group. 

“You are awesome. Everybody loves you. You understand the system,” Scott said. “The only thing is you’re out of your lane a bit.” 

Nate objected. 

“Now I’m stepping out of my lane?” Nate said. “I don’t even know what my lane is anymore.”

At some points, Nate accused Scott of treating her “like staff,” making her do all the social media posts, newsletters, messaging cards and managing a campaign.

But in others, Nate talked like she was the boss, in need of new legislators to act as employees for the caucus. 

“Where’s my comms manager on the House side?” Nate would ask. “Where’s my whip on the House side?”

She managed a spreadsheet with recommendations for how legislators should vote, but maybe, she said, she should stop doing voting recommendations entirely. 

“If you guys can’t figure out how to vote, that’s on you,” Nate said. 

Nate accused Scott of listening too much to Rep. Josh Tanner, whom she identified as a “silent member” of the Freedom Caucus not listed on the website, and claimed he’s “loyal to Moyle.” 

She chided Scott and other Freedom Caucus members for pushing back at how the Idaho Freedom Foundation was planning on scoring certain budget bills, complaining that the process had gone “off the rails” because they weren’t trusting the experience of Freedom Foundation experts like her husband “Ron, an economist.” 

She declared that the Freedom Caucus co-chair, Sen. Tammy Nichols, wasn’t going to be the leader next year, just a caucus member. 

“I don’t talk to Tammy at all,” Nate said. “Nobody respects her as a leader.” 

The work was taking its toll, she said. Nate had a “meltdown at morning prayer,” she said. She was up in bed every night at midnight and back at the Capitol every day at 6:45. 

“Tell me what you want me to do,” Nate said. 

Sleep,” Scott said. 

“WE WANT TO GET THE HELL OUT OF IDAHO”

“I don’t know that I buy into all of this,” Nate acknowledged about her Freedom Caucus Network role. “I buy into the message, but I don’t know how to do it when we don’t have wins.”

Nate also lamented that the old Heather Scott, the one who could rally grassroots support, who was known for constantly sending out newsletters to her constituents, seemed to have gone missing. 

“You told me you weren’t going to run again, Heather,” Nate said at one point. “You were so disengaged last session.” 

“If I seemed to disengage, it’s because (my husband) Andrew’s like ‘I’m sick of this, don’t do this anymore,’” Scott said. “We’ve been living on my salary for eight years on 20 grand. We don’t have debts. We’re fine. But there’s a lot of stresses. So we want to get the hell out of Idaho. We’ve applied. We’re looking.” 

Nate wondered if Scott’s problem with her was sexism. 

“Heather, do you just not trust me because I’m a woman?” Nate asked. “I do wonder, because you’d said to me a lot of times that women need to follow men.” 

Scott insisted she trusted Nate but acknowledged that she does “think men are stronger leaders.” 

“I just think that’s how God designed us,” Scott said. “Obviously, we’re in a time of attack and crisis. And I think that God has put a lot of women in leadership positions because we’re in judgment. That’s why we’re always — it’s not natural, I don’t think.”

It’s not clear if she meant God’s general judgment on humanity or a more targeted type of punishment. 

Repeatedly, Nate suggested that her relationship with Scott had been irreparably broken, that Nate didn’t know how to talk to her anymore. Scott stood out as the one who believed their decade-long friendship could be saved. 

As fellow Christians, Scott stressed to Nate, they’re sisters.

“I’m not trying to fight. I’m not trying to be argumentative. I love you,” Scott told Nate. “I think you’re doing a great job, and I’m not trying to undermine you.” 

Scott made her choice. She and some of her conservative allies did send the letter praising Moyle to the Young Americans for Liberty, though they didn’t mention their Freedom Caucus affiliation. Moyle says a number of them have donated to his campaign as well. 

On April 1, more than a week after the recording, Scott sent out a newsletter to her constituents. It praised Moyle’s leadership, declaring that “change doesn’t come fast in Idaho but I’m seeing great signs for the future.”

Just one paragraph below, she praised Maria Nate to her newsletter readers, for her “help with organization and vision” of the Freedom Caucus.

But by then the secret recording was already circulating, and a nasty anonymous social media account — an increasingly common feature of Idaho’s political landscape — had begun taunting both women: “Hey Maria, what is the Moyle letter and why didn’t @HeatherScottID want you to know about it?”


FEATURED IMAGE: Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, asks a question a joint session of the Senate Judiciary and Rules and the House Judiciary, Rules, and Administration committees during a special session of the Idaho legislature at the state Capitol building in 2015. (AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger)

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.