Sen. Russ Fulcher says 'time is right' to unseat Gov. Otter

Acknowledging his underdog status, the Senate majority caucus chairman calls for a return to traditional values.

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comNovember 24, 2013 

  • Fulcher's defiance endangers his leadership role

    Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher's rise in the Idaho Senate has been swift, even with bumps in the road. But his campaign against Gov. Butch Otter might make his continued role in leadership difficult, he says.

    As the No. 4 Republican in the Senate, Fulcher's duties include acting as spokesman for the 28-member GOP caucus and participating in regular meetings of the four leaders, who frequently strategize and negotiate with Otter, the party's standard-bearer.

    "I do not want to put my caucus, or for that matter the discussions between the legislative branch and the executive branch, at risk," Fulcher said.

    Asked whether he planned to resign from leadership, he said, "I don't want to commit to that yet, but what I will commit to is making sure that awkwardness is minimized."

    Fulcher came to the Senate in 2005, appointed to replace the disgraced Sen. Jack Noble, who had lied to colleagues about his personal interest in a liquor bill he authored.

    Fulcher had tough primaries against Steven Ricks in 2006 and 2008, winning by 130 and 149 votes, respectively. In December 2008, Fulcher failed in his bid to unseat Assistant Majority Leader Joe Stegner, then the chamber's leading moderate. But a month later, opportunity knocked. When GOP Caucus Chairman Brad Little was appointed lieutenant governor, Fulcher was elected by colleagues to replace him.

    In 2010, minutes after the news that President Pro Tem Bob Geddes would not seek re-election to the No. 1 post, Fulcher emailed colleagues to say he wanted the job. He lost to Sen. Brent Hill, who remains in power.

    Out of leadership in 2012, Fulcher and eight other Senate Republicans took the extraordinary step of publicly announcing their dissent from a secret caucus vote to retain Caucus Chairman John McGee, of Caldwell, after a celebrated DUI arrest.

    In what turned out to be prescient, Fulcher said: "There are two things that genuinely concern me: John's well-being and the reputation of the institution we serve."

    Six weeks later, McGee resigned from the Senate after a secretary said he propositioned her for sex outside his Capitol office. McGee ultimately spent 39 days in jail for disturbing the peace. Fulcher replaced him as caucus chairman.

    A lifetime as a salesman makes him reliably quotable. He has good relationships with Democrats. When Fulcher became caucus chairman in 2009, former Democratic Leader Kate Kelly praised his personality and work ethic.

    Fulcher's conservative credentials are stellar. Ten hours after his 2005 appointment, he voted to require parental consent for minors having abortions. In 2006, he argued to ban gay marriage, saying, "It's a culture war that we're in. ... We get pounded by influences that are outside our own great state."

    He has opposed assisted suicide, fought domestic partnership benefits for gays and voted against an increase in fuel taxes and a ban on texting while driving. He failed to persuade colleagues to assert that states could nullify federal laws. Lawmakers also rejected his pitch for Idaho to adopt tough immigration reforms.

    He won an increase in the sales tax credit for groceries and advocated annexation reform.

    However, Fulcher said he has no opinion on abolishing the Federal Reserve or re-establishing a gold standard, doesn't believe the 9/11 attacks were a domestic conspiracy and said he has "no reason to believe" President Obama wasn't born in Hawaii. While not taking a position, he said "it's going to be difficult" to repeal the direct election of U.S. senators and return that authority to state legislatures.

    "I'm not going to be waving those flags," Fulcher told the Statesman.

    In 2006, Fulcher ended 23 years of employment in high tech. Now an agent for Mark Bottles Real Estate, he says the Idaho Land Board should get out of commercial real estate. But he defends Otter's courtship of overseas business, including Chinese investment.

    "We need to continue to open markets," he said.

    DAN POPKEY, dpopkey@idahostatesman.com

  • About Dan Popkey

    Dan has covered Idaho politics since 1987. He wrote the stories about ethics issues that prompted Sen. Jack Noble to resign in 2005, which ultimately led to Russ Fulcher's appointment to the Senate by Gov. Dirk Kempthorne.

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

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