Dan Popkey: Fulcher challenge fits on a bumper sticker

Gov. Otter’s backing of a state-run insurance exchange would define a 2014 contest.

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comOctober 23, 2013 

It’s happened only twice since 1904, but Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher’s prospects of unseating an Idaho governor in his party primary are helped considerably by his simple message.

The Meridian Republican says his opposition to Idaho’s cooperation with the Affordable Care Act would be his “signature issue” should he decide to make the race after an upcoming statewide “listening tour.”

“We’re trying to prop it up,” Fulcher said. “Not another dime, not another man-hour should go into this thing.”

Fulcher’s Saturday announcement that he’s exploring the race was brilliantly timed. It coincided with intense media focus on the technology failures of HealthCare.gov, the federal platform supporting Otter’s Your Health Idaho exchange in the first year as the state works to build its own site. Fulcher got an assist Monday when one of Otter’s appointees to the Idaho exchange board, Frank Chan, was pressured into cancelling a $180-per-hour, no-bid tech-consulting contract.

Fulcher’s case against the exchange is easily branded. It took me about two minutes to come up with a slogan — “No Obamacare, No Ottercare.”

“That’s true,” said Fulcher, adding that the personal nature of health care is capable of capturing any voter’s attention. “It’s going to be the signature issue for the whole deal.”

Jim Weatherby, political scientist emeritus at Boise State, has studied Idaho politics for more than 40 years and thinks Fulcher just may have a shot.

“Even though we would ordinarily say a little-known state senator based in the Treasure Valley might have difficulty running a statewide race, that might not be the case here,” Weatherby said.

Odds are, Weatherby said, Fulcher will return from two weeks on the hustings and say he’s in.

“Surely, he’s close to making a decision that he will run,” Weatherby said. “You don’t necessarily speak your mind in public unless you’re willing to follow up on it and already have considerable support and ideas and resources.”

While conceding Weatherby’s point, Fulcher insists his tour in search of “wise counsel” is critical to his decision.

“You’re right, if I weren’t serious I wouldn’t be this far,” Fulcher told me. “No question about it because, when you go public, OK, it’s going to be a tad awkward going into the next (legislative) session. I’m not naive about that.”

But Fulcher, 51, said he must “take the pulse” of “critical stakeholders” statewide. “It’s not a done deal,” he said. “If I get out there and run into a bunch of brick walls then OK, I know the score. And, conversely, if it looks like I’ve got some anticipated support then that gives me a good indication as well.”

One source that could help in a GOP primary is right-wing talk radio. On Monday, KIDO’s Kevin Miller all but endorsed Fulcher.

“If you go after the Death Star or the Empire, the Empire is going to strike back and people are going to have to be all in,” Miller told Fulcher. “It’s one thing for you to commit everything, but people have to understand this is a group effort.”

Replied Fulcher: “I know you can’t do it without the grass-roots support of the people of this state.”

What about Otter’s financial advantage?

“Well,” Fulcher told Miller, “it’s difficult (for Otter) to fight the people. I mean, you can have all the money in the world, but if you don’t have the people then you don’t have the votes.”

The last time an incumbent Idaho governor lost a party primary was 1966, when three-term Republican Gov. Bob Smylie lost to Sen. Don Samuelson of Sandpoint. It wasn’t close. Though ridiculed as “Dumb Don,” Samuelson smashed the intellectual but distant Smylie, 61 percent to 39 percent.

There are parallels between Smylie and Otter. Smylie was attorney general for seven years before his 12 years as governor. Smylie cultivated New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and aspired to be the GOP’s vice presidential candidate, had Rockefeller won the 1964 presidential nomination that instead went to Barry Goldwater.

Otter, 71, may still be roping rodeo calves, but he carries the burden of longevity in a climate where many voters are flat-out fed up with incumbents. Elected lieutenant governor in 1986, Otter served 14 years before resigning to spend six years in the U.S. House. In 2006, he beat Democrat Jerry Brady, 53 percent to 44 percent, to become governor. In 2010, he won with 59 percent.

Another bumper sticker? “Kick Out Career Politicians, Vote Fulcher.”

Having backed Mitt Romney, Otter’s taste in presidential candidates is better aligned with Idaho primary voters than Smylie’s. But Otter bubbled about his ambition to return to the dysfunction in Washington as interior secretary or, better yet, U.S. trade representative. Just last month, Otter reminded reporters that could happen under a GOP president in 2017.

The first closed primary election for statewide office would likely help Fulcher, Weatherby said, by turning out a disproportionate number of conservatives in May.

If the Obama administration doesn’t repair the health exchange’s technical flaws, the issue would plague Otter during next spring’s campaign. Another national issue — debt and deficit — also could hurt Otter by souring voters on the GOP establishment, which Otter now clearly represents.

Sure, Fulcher needs to listen carefully when he takes his party’s temperature for change. But my guess is the internal conversation he’s been having for months has him ready to take on the Empire.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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