Dan Popkey: Fulcher-Otter race could spark tea party ticket

Litmus tests on health care, Common Core and Medicaid would raise Idaho challengers' profiles.

November 20, 2013 

Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher completed his listening tour last week, but began this week in campaign mode on the tea party circuit.

Though Fulcher, R-Meridian, hasn't yet said whether his exploratory effort will turn into a race against two-term incumbent GOP Gov. Butch Otter, he hit on another issue that holds promise in the May 20 primary.

Speaking Monday night at North Idaho College in Coeur d'Alene, Fulcher took on Common Core K-12 standards backed by Otter and GOP Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and approved by the 2011 Legislature.

"The responsibility for Idahoans' education needs to be kept here in Idaho," Fulcher said. "So I have a problem with the Common Core as it's currently being laid out."

That won a shout-out from an audience member at the "1st Annual MP2 Economic Tour," according to Northwest Public Radio. MP2 stands for Motivating People to be More Productive.

Fulcher appeared with three of the GOP's most vocal tea party-backed foes of Otter's state-run health insurance exchange, Rep. Vito Barbieri and Sen. Steve Vick of Dalton Gardens and Sen. Steve Thayn of Emmett. Announcing his exploratory campaign in October, Fulcher said Otter has "lost touch" and cited the exchange as Example No. 1.

Common Core offers another way for the Senate's No. 4 Republican leader to differentiate himself from Otter. Fulcher was on the Senate Education Committee that unanimously approved the State Board of Education rule to adopt Common Core on Jan. 24, 2011. Sure, he was for it before he was against it. But Fulcher's deft enough to turn that to his advantage with a story of how he changed his mind.

The chairmen of the Legislature's Education committees, Rep. Reed DeMordaunt of Eagle and Sen. John Goedde of Coeur d'Alene, reaffirmed their support for Common Core last week, a sign they anticipate a serious push to reverse the rule. DeMordaunt and Goedde said Common Core's standards "are critical in making sure every child is prepared for success after high school."

Thayn may take a run at challenging Luna, whose support of Common Core has puzzled and even enraged his tea party base.

With a crowded primary for secretary of state including former House Speaker Lawerence Denney, Todd Hatfield's tea party run against Controller Brandon Woolf and the prospect of challengers for Luna, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and Lt. Gov. Brad Little, the 2014 GOP primary could pit a tea party ticket against establishment incumbents.

Fear of such unified opposition has unnerved incumbents. Among the reasons Secretary of State Ben Ysursa struggled so publicly deciding not to run for a fourth term was pressure from Otter to remain on the ballot as the most popular vote-getter of his era.

In January, Otter may provide the tea party another catchy issue if he endorses Medicaid expansion. Though it could save local and state taxpayers $1 billion over a decade while serving health care to more low-income Idahoans, the fight could define the 2014 Legislature and boost exposure for Fulcher, Thayn, Denney and other insurgents.

On Friday, the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry wrote Otter urging Idaho take the federal Medicaid dough for low-income health care. The business group's sturdy backing of the health insurance exchange was critical in helping Otter get the bill through deeply divided GOP caucuses in the House and Senate early this year.

Otter, IACI and the GOP's governing wing may be happy to have such clear issues to motivate business-friendly voters. The result could leave the tea party a fringe annoyance and send its outliers back to their old neighborhoods in the Libertarian and Constitution parties.

But sharp distinctions raise the profile of largely unknown challengers. The result could be campaigns pitting money, organization and name ID against passionate activists with a message of change in uncertain times.

Predicting the outcome of such an election would be foolish. Hang on for the ride.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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