Reader's View: Can history repeat itself in Idaho gubernatorial race?

December 9, 2013 

The last time an Idaho governor received a serious primary challenge, he lost.

It was 1966 and three-term incumbent Republican Robert E. Smylie seemed to be at the zenith of his power — chairman of the National Governors Association, senior governor in the nation and serious player in national politics.

Time magazine noted Smylie's commanding position in April 1966 when it mentioned a "fourth four-year term, which if completed would make (Smylie's) the longest gubernatorial tenure in U.S. history." The magazine also noted that the governor had "led the 1965 fight to dump Goldwaterite Dean Burch as GOP national chairman" and might not serve out his term since he was being mentioned as "a 1968 vice-presidential hopeful."

Time confidently predicted that Smylie was "assured" of winning the GOP nomination. But he wasn't. The future vice-presidential hopeful lost his party's nomination to a little-known state senator from Bonner County named Don Samuelson.

In the mid-1960s, the national Republican Party was badly divided, much as it is today, between an insurgent wing loyal to Barry Goldwater's brand of unflinching conservatism - a 1960s tea party if you will — and a more moderate wing.

Bob Smylie found himself swept along in these roiling political waters with a national profile as a moderate who had to appeal to an increasingly conservative Idaho GOP.

Looking back on this near ancient political history, it is now easy to see that Smylie, a governor who deserves to be well remembered for creating a state park system and establishing a balanced tax system, committed a cardinal political sin - he lost touch with his base. Undoubtedly this supremely self-confident man became overconfident, particularly since the Goldwater wing of his party, lead by a talented political operative named Gwen Barnett who was deeply offended by Smylie's role in ousting the national party chairman, quite openly set out to teach the incumbent governor a lesson. Barnett not only recruited Samuelson to run, but helped round up money and supporters.

"When the primary returns were tabulated," University of Idaho political scientists Syd Duncombe and Boyd Martin wrote, "Samuelson carried all but seven of Idaho's forty-four counties to defeat Smylie 52,891 to 33,753. One columnist attributed Smylie's defeat to his long term of office, his support of the sales tax, and opposition from Goldwater Republicans stemming from his role in the replacement of Dean Burch."

Fast forward to 2013 and the recent news that a relatively unknown state senator will challenge two-term incumbent Butch Otter for the Republican nomination for governor in 2014. As Mark Twain is famously reported to have said, "history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."

It would be easy to overstate the parallels between 1966 and 2014, but it's impossible to miss some similarities about the two races separated by nearly 50 years.

Like Smylie, Gov. Otter has a long tenure in elected office. His opponent, Sen. Russ Fulcher, is courting support from the party's insurgent wing after building a very conservative voting record in the legislature. And, Fulcher may have an issue — the governor's support for a state-managed health care exchange — that will rival the political power of the sales tax in 1966. Add in a closed GOP primary next May and Idaho politics just became more interesting.

While it should be said emphatically that Butch Otter has many, many significant advantages as he goes for a third term as governor — a solid conservative record, a winning personality, a polished retail approach to politics, lots of money, and the advantages of incumbency — once in a while history does rhyme. After all, in 1966 an incumbent governor was unbeatable until he wasn't.

Marc C. Johnson was a top aide to Gov. Cecil D. Andrus and since 1995 has been a partner with Gallatin Public Affairs, where he frequently writes on politics and history. A longer version of this article appears on his blog The Johnson Post at www.manythingsconsidered.com.

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