Threat to GOP incumbents after health exchange vote doesn't pan out

Republican legislators who backed the online insurance exchange will face fewer primary opponents than some had expected

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comMarch 22, 2014 

  • ABOUT DAN POPKEY

    In his 27 years covering Idaho politics, Dan has more than rarely inflated conventional wisdom only to see the balloon burst. A recent and relevant example is his Jan. 5 story, which began with these headlines: "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." You can read that story here.

A year ago this week, Republicans who voted for Gov. Butch Otter's state-run exchange were warned they'd pay the price in 2014 for defying an angry electorate.

"I will do everything I can to alert the citizens of Idaho that you must be defeated at the next election," a Bonneville County Republican wrote to GOP Rep. Wendy Horman of Idaho Falls.

As one of 14 House GOP freshmen who cast the deciding votes on House Bill 248 to establish Your Health Idaho, Horman took the threat seriously. Starting fundraising early, she was in Boise in August for a "Four Friends" event with Reps. Christy Perry of Nampa, Julie VanOrden of Pingree and Kelley Packer of McCammon.

To their surprise, only Packer has a contest in the May 20 primary. Horman, Perry and VanOrden are assured second terms, with no primary or general election opponents.

"I was really surprised," VanOrden said. "We were promised candidates."

"This was supposed to be the litmus test to determine how conservative or not conservative you are," Perry said. "We expected we would all be targeted. It didn't pan out."

'LOOKS LIKE A WASH'

The four friends are more than anecdotes.

As a measure of resistance to President Obama's signature policy, the Idaho Republican Party's state central committee passed resolutions calling for lawmakers to oppose HB 248 and, after it passed, to vote for repeal.

But the proportion of those who voted for HB 248 who have primary challengers is identical to that of those who voted no.

Fifteen of the 42 Republicans who cast "yes" votes have primary opponents, or 36 percent. Thirteen of the 36 who voted "no" have challengers - also 36 percent.

"This is the ultimate reality check," said House Speaker Scott Bedke, whose unseating of former Speaker Lawrence Denney cleared the way for passage of HB 248. "I understand Republican Party leadership had been trying to make this a bigger deal than it is - it is a big deal, I don't mean to downplay it - but it looks like a wash to me."

"There were a number of legislators that had concerns that their vote on an issue or two might draw an opponent," said Bedke's Senate counterpart, President Pro Tem Brent Hill. "For the most part, those concerns didn't materialize."

'I'M NOT A PROPHET'

Idaho Republican Chairman Barry Peterson predicted in October that 2014 would "be the most active primary season in decades - in my lifetime, in fact. It appears to me to be unbounded."

Asked what happened, Peterson, 66, said, "I'm not a prophet. I might have got it wrong."

Peterson suggested another measure. How does the 2014 primary compare to 2004, with both contests following the busy decennial post-redistricting election?

"I wonder how that was 10 years ago?" he asked.

The result makes Peterson look less prophetic.

With redrawn districts in 2002, 57 percent of primaries for GOP-held seats were contested. In 2012, the figure rose slightly to 60 percent.

When candidates finished filing this March 14, there was a significant falloff. In 2004, 45 percent of 82 GOP-held legislative seats had primary contests. This year, just 35 percent of 85 GOP seats are contested.

"It is a little surprising," said Rep. Tom Loertscher of Iona, an exchange opponent who is running unopposed for his 14th term. "It just says it didn't make a whole lot of difference."

WHY THE TEPID RESPONSE?

Sen. Jim Rice is a freshman Republican from Caldwell who had a 2012 primary but is unchallenged in May. He'll face Democrat Michael Deloria in November.

Despite his junior status, Rice was a major player in the debate for Otter's exchange and was appointed to the Your Health Idaho governing board.

He cites two reasons more challengers didn't show. First, the relatively smooth rollout of Idaho's exchange, which ranks second in the U.S. in per capita enrollments with 44,000. Second, voters usually don't vote based on one issue.

"This single issue was overblown," Rice said. "There are more similarities in viewpoint than there are differences."

Sen. John Tippets, R-Montpelier, had a tough primary in 2012 but none this year, despite his vote for the exchange.

"Most of the people in my district understood the reasoning that we are going to have one or the other," Tippets said. "And most understood the reasoning for having a state exchange as opposed to a federal exchange."

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, did draw an anti-exchange opponent, Mary Souza, who lost a 2013 race for mayor. But Goedde said voters understand why a state exchange was preferable.

"I think Idahoans realize that the real issue is Washington, D.C., and until that's fixed, our hands are tied," Goedde said.

'POLITICS IS LOCAL'

Nineteen of the Legislature's 20 Democrats voted for the exchange, while just 45 of 85 Republicans backed Otter. House Democratic Leader John Rusche of Lewiston said Otter's decision not to take up Medicaid expansion this year was a wise strategy viewed simply as a move to protect incumbents.

"The effect on the population, both clinically and financially, is something different," Rusche said. "But if there had been serious consideration of Medicaid - the other part of Obamacare - there probably would have been more primaries."

Rusche, also an exchange board member, said results have also helped.

"The health exchange is working. The ranting and raving about 'Oh, it's bad, bad, bad' is put to rest by the fact that almost 45,000 Idahoans are getting health insurance, most at a relatively low cost," he said. "It's hard to rant now."

Sen. Steve Thayn, R-Emmett, an exchange foe unopposed in both primary and general elections, said opponents lacked a meaningful alternative because the feds would be running Idaho's exchange even had HB 248 been defeated.

"There was never really any choice in the minds of the electorate," Thayn said. "Unless you have a solution, you don't play in the minds of voters."

Thayn also said talking about running for the Legislature and actually doing it are two different things.

"It's a fairly small number of people that have the time and disposition to run," he said.

Rep. Janet Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls, voted against HB 248 and has a primary rematch with former Democratic Rep. Ronald Lechelt.

Reviewing the primary lineup, she said races are happening in districts like hers that are usually competitive.

"You're always going to have those areas that are very hotly contested," she said.

"All politics is local," said Wayne Hoffman, the executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which strongly opposed HB 248 and scolded "yes" voters on billboards statewide.

STATEWIDE CONTESTS

The one place where competition has been boosted is for seven statewide offices, where six contests feature GOP primaries - the busiest since 2002, when six races also were contested.

Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, simply wouldn't be challenging Otter absent HB 248.

"I don't know that there would have been the same amount of activity for the constitutional offices," Fulcher said. "I know I wouldn't be running, OK? And I know that the fact that I've engaged has influenced others."

The other primaries are: lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, controller and superintendent of public instruction.

Of the modest legislative slate, Fulcher said, "I'm not that shocked. Once you get into a legislative district and you're that granular, people look at their legislator on a whole host of issues. The exchange is a big one, but it's not the only one."

The exchange's relevance to races outside the governor's contest where Otter was the leading advocate has yet to be seen. Former Speaker Denney, one of four GOP candidates for secretary of state, said he's unconcerned that the exchange may not carry the heat some anticipated.

"I don't think you can run on one issue anyway," Denney said. "I think people are still not happy with the insurance exchange."

Should Denney win the primary and face Democratic Rep. Holli Woodings in November, will he use her "yes" vote against her?

"You know, I doubt it," Denney said. "I don't know what the issues will be."

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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