With shouts of "Amen!" from a raucous crowd, Sen. Russ Fulcher began his race against a powerful incumbent by making a populist appeal to tea party Republicans.
Speaking Saturday at a Meridian hotel two miles from the dairy farm where he grew up, Fulcher emphasized his fourth-generation roots and two decades as a marketing executive for Micron and Preco.
"From the farm to the fab to foreign lands with faith, the last 51 years have taught me how to prosper for the next 51 years," Fulcher said.
Visits to 26 countries on business taught him to appreciate home, Fulcher said. "The birth of this nation and our system was divinely inspired, where the people are supposed to be the pinnacle of governance," he said.
After a month's travel around Idaho to weigh a run against two-term GOP Gov. Butch Otter, Fulcher said: "We are in danger of losing that uniqueness, that specialness. Most of the people of Idaho aren't feeling like they're the pinnacle of governance right now."
The heart of Fulcher's campaign is opposition to Otter's adoption of a state-run insurance exchange under President Barack Obama's health care law.
In a campaign ad that played before Fulcher emerged from behind a black curtain at the Courtyard by Marriott on Eagle Road, an announcer spoke in a dirge-like tone: "The lobbyists' money poured in. Idaho leadership joined 13 Democrat governors by voluntarily adopting Obamacare exchanges. Now, Idahoans suffer the consequences."
The ad closes with Fulcher casting his "no" vote in the Senate, saying, "I'm just one little state senator in one little state, but I'm trying to do everything I can to minimize the strings of the federal government."
In an interview with the Statesman on Friday, Fulcher was asked whether the plagued rollout of online marketplaces means that he'll spend the campaign saying, "I told you so."
"I wouldn't say it that way, but we knew this was going to happen and we did it anyway," Fulcher said. "A lot of us knew this was going to be a disaster from the get-go."
Otter, 71, has continuously held high office since 1987, as lieutenant governor, congressman and, since 2007, governor.
He was unavailable for comment, but his campaign manager, Jayson Ronk, issued a one-sentence statement: "The governor has a campaign plan in place that we intend to execute."
After unsuccessfully suing to overturn Obama's health care law, Otter convinced a majority of Republican lawmakers in the 2013 session that a state-run exchange was the best way to ensure state sovereignty. He got widespread support from businesses, including health insurers.
TEA PARTY-INSPIRED CAMPAIGN
Fulcher, 51, says he offers new leadership founded in traditional values but steeped in a modern economy.
Fulcher said he takes heart from the success of tea party Republicans, including Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador and U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Marco Rubio, R-Florida.
"Those are examples similar to what I think is about to happen in Idaho," Fulcher told the Statesman. "I think we're at one of those points in history where it's time for a change."
The crowd of more than 200 in Meridian included Tea Party Boise co-founder Russ Smerz, now coordinator of the Leadership Council, a group of 23 affiliates, including 14 Idaho tea party groups and Glenn Beck's 9/12 Project, Ada County Militia, Oath Keepers, Idaho Open Carry, the John Birch Society and others.
Jack Stuart, famed for his Patrick Henry impersonation at tea party events, was front row, center. Other luminaries included longtime Otter foe and former Senate Majority Leader Rod Beck, and Ada County GOP Reps. John Vander Woude, Steven Harris and Jason Monks.
Former Sen. Darrel McRoberts, former Rep. Herm Steger and former Ada County Commissioner Sharon Ullman joined anti-abortion activist Brandi Swindell in cheering Fulcher, who received a boisterous welcome.
"I kind of feel like I'm running out on the field at the San Diego State game," said Fulcher, who holds a bachelor's and MBA from Boise State.
OUSTING THE 'GOOD OLD BOYS'
Though a governor has been defeated in his primary just twice since 1904, the unpopularity of the Affordable Care Act makes Fulcher's challenge to Otter serious, longtime Idaho political observer Jim Weatherby said.
Before flying to Coeur d'Alene and Idaho Falls, Fulcher warned his supporters that the GOP establishment will fight hard.
"I'm going to be attacked, I'm going to be vilified and my line of thinking is going to be distorted," Fulcher said. "And I will lose the battle to raise money. That's just going to happen. But understand, you are the voice. You make the final call. I believe in you!"
Fulcher was introduced by Diego Rodriguez, who owns a Boise marketing company and is planning a race against Boise GOP Sen. Fred Martin, one of 45 Republicans who backed Otter's insurance exchange.
"It's time for new leadership in this state that actually represents the people and not the good old boys network," Rodriguez said. "It is time to put an end to the era of career politicians!"
Rodriguez urged the crowd to volunteer and give money; many filled out contribution envelopes after Fulcher's 13-minute speech. A phone-bank operation started Saturday.
Fulcher told the Statesman that he is undaunted by Otter's advantages.
"I think the time is right," he said. "I believe I'm going to win."
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics