Health exchange vote a 'tipping point' for GOP?

Many incumbents who joined Gov. Otter to favor a state-run plan expect primary challenges from the right.

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comJanuary 5, 2014 

  • ABOUT DAN POPKEY

    Dan is covering his 26th session of the Legislature this year. He was thrice elected to office, as Hyde Junior High student body president in Cupertino, Calif.; freshman class president at Cupertino High; and president of the Record-Searchlight Editorial Association at the Redding, Calif., Record-Searchlight.

In the 2012 Republican primary, Danielle Ahrens got whipped, winning just 30 percent of the vote against Sen. Shawn Keough. When supporters urged Ahrens to try again in 2014, she shied.

"I said there's a 40-point spread there," Ahrens recalled. "You can't argue with statistics."

She became emboldened after Keough, of Sandpoint, voted for a state-run health insurance marketplace in February and March, making Idaho the only state with both a Republican governor and Republican-led Legislature to do so under the Affordable Care Act.

"After she voted for Obamacare, her base just became enraged with her," said Ahrens, who spent the 2013 session in Boise monitoring legislation and testifying on behalf of folks back home.

"I kept being asked, over and over, please run. That was the tipping point."

Keough rejects the view she voted "for Obamacare." Rather, like Gov. Butch Otter and other Republicans, she says a state-run exchange was the best way to protect state sovereignty and jobs, and to assure accountability.

The longtime vice chair of the budget committee acknowledges that the rocky rollout of the exchange complicates her bid for a 10th term. Expect to see a long and dramatic campaign.

"Stock up on popcorn," said Keough, who held fundraisers in November and December and added an online donation tab on her campaign website. "I have never started this early."

Idaho Republican Chairman Barry Peterson predicts that 2014 will be the most active GOP primary in his 66-year lifetime, with more challengers, money and early campaigning.

"It appears to me to be unbounded," he said in October.

IDEOLOGICAL PURGE?

Forty-five Republican lawmakers voted with Otter on the exchange, 40 were opposed. The issue prompted Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher to challenge Otter in the primary, calling the two-term governor out of touch.

As GOP chairman, Peterson's duty is to advance the party's general good health and not take sides until battling Democrats in the general election. Before the 2013 session, Peterson issued a warning reminding Otter and lawmakers that the state Republican Central Committee voted to oppose a state-run exchange.

With primaries approaching, Peterson's neutrality is questioned by some exchange proponents, including GOP Rep. George Eskridge, who was part of a joint December fundraiser with Keough and fellow District 1 Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake.

"I'm disappointed," said Eskridge, of Dover. "I'm hearing things about (Peterson) encouraging people to run against the governor. I'm hearing that he's a strong advocate of purging the party. And yeah, it bothers me."

Peterson says he gave Fulcher, of Meridian, the generic advice he gives anyone considering challenging an incumbent: "If you have an interest in the office, then put your name on the line."

But Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, said she smelled a wolf when Peterson spoke gleefully to the media about a busy primary season.

"It's not surprising that the chairman's licking his chops," said Perry. "It's that really strong ideological divide and the attitude is you are not Republican enough. You know what it reminds me of? McCarthyism."

In August, GOP Reps. Perry, Wendy Horman, Kelly Packer and Julie VanOrden - all exchange backers - held a "Four Friends" fundraiser in Boise, raising about $8,000 each.

Packer, appointed by Otter to the Your Health Idaho exchange board, expects financial support from the coalition of business groups that urged Otter and the Legislature to risk their political fates.

"I've received a lot of commitments for future support," said Packer, of McCammon. "I hope and pray that they'll truly be there in 2014."

Packer said voters who hear her out are generally persuaded. "Most of the constituents I talk to, regardless of the horrific job the federal government has done with their exchange portal, still agree that we did the right thing by protecting Idahoans from a federal exchange," she said.

EARLY EFFORT

The House Republican Caucus Fund held a Dec. 11 fundraiser that drew dozens of lobbyists and a large crowd of lawmakers, including 11 of the 14 GOP freshmen who voted for the exchange.

Peterson said Eskridge has misjudged him.

"He can draw the conclusion that I'm a conservative fellow, but he cannot draw the conclusion that I treat anybody unfairly or that I'm purging the party," Peterson said.

Peterson said he attended the House fundraiser and greeted exchange friends and foes alike. "I tried to shake hands as evenly as I could with everybody that I came across," he said.

The caucus raised about $16,000 to be spent in the Nov. 4 general election, not the May 20 primary, according to Caucus Chairman John Vander Woude of rural Ada County.

Vander Woude, an exchange opponent, said House leadership's duty is to re-elect incumbents.

"I have a hard time believing one vote determines whether you're a good legislator or not," he said. "Just because they vote different than me I'm not going to try to run them out of the Legislature."

But the high-profile issue offers a hook, something often difficult for challengers to grasp.

"It's being set up as a litmus test, which is unfortunate because the Legislature is much more complex," said Rep. Robert Anderst, who voted for the exchange.

In August, Anderst and Rep. Rick Youngblood, both GOP freshmen from Nampa, held a fundraiser featuring sporting clays and golf. Youngblood said he voted for the exchange as a practical reality.

"There is no opt-out button to push," he said.

ANTI-INCUMBENT CLIMATE?

Heather Scott is a first-time candidate taking on Anderson in Bonner and Boundary counties over his exchange vote.

"Big government has pulled up a seat at your dinner table without being invited," she says on her website.

A biologist, Scott has 16 events set in coming weeks, including one Tuesday in the Bonner County hamlet of Edgemere Vay.

Anderson, who spent $45,000 to win his fifth term, expects a slightly bigger budget in 2014, though he won with 64 percent in the 2012 primary and 71 percent in the general.

"My gut tells me they're wrong - that these challengers won't prevail," Anderson said. "But I'm going at this as if I'm on the ropes."

Scott intends to use Anderson's fundraising among Boise-based lobbyists against him.

"You can't tell me he's not being influenced by Boise. The Boise people don't know where Edgemere Vay is!" she said.

Ahrens, Keough's foe, said Scott's on to something: "People are just very angry at career politicians."

Sen. Jim Rice, a freshman from Caldwell who backed the exchange and also sits on the board, predicts serious challenges in pockets of Idaho and agrees with Vander Woude that a single issue is unlikely to bring a sweeping result.

"It will get a lot of play, but they're not going to vote yea or nay on the basis of one vote," Rice said. "Idaho voters are just smarter than that."

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, entering her 24th session, says some in the largest freshman class in Idaho history may be overreacting. "I have to think from the high caliber of most of the new legislators, they are a little too worried," she said.

House Revenue & Taxation Committee Chairman Gary Collins, R-Nampa, echoed Bell but acknowledged that the disastrous rollout heartens challengers.

"I think I can justify my vote, although it's a little hard with the explosion of the federal exchange," he said.

DIALING DOWN

Last month, Otter predicted a short, controversy-free 2014 legislative session. He removed one potential battle by putting off the possibility of raising transportation taxes. Few expect action on Medicaid expansion; any move to repeal the state health exchange will meet resistance from GOP leadership.

Eskridge, the District 1 lawmaker, says nervous incumbents welcome the lower expectations. "There will be a real effort to get out early," he said, clearing lawmakers to return home to campaign against challengers who will have been beating them up rhetorically in their absence.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, Otter's most important ally on the exchange, is displeased with two billboards erected in his district by the anti-exchange Idaho Freedom Foundation, targeting Bedke, GOP Rep. Fred Wood and GOP Sen. Dean Cameron.

"They didn't need to implement ObamaCare," the signs read. "Repeal the insurance exchange in 2014!"

Bedke said the nonprofit group is "electioneering for the primary," and he views a coordinated effort to oust incumbents as a tactical error. He cites the Idaho GOP's considerable success, including control of the Legislature since 1961.

"I get to know these legislators pretty well, and I know their core values overlap so much that there really shouldn't be all this internal squabbling," Bedke said.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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