Idaho governor candidate A.J. Balukoff spurns NRA questionnaire

No candidate since Cecil Andrus has taken on the gun rights organization and won.

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comApril 12, 2014 

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Susie and A.J. Balukoff, with Linda Payne Smith, right.

KATHERINE JONES — Katherine Jones / Idaho Statesma

  • ANDRUS’ FIGHT WITH THE ‘GUN NUTS OF THE WORLD’

    In 1986, the NRA endorsed GOP Lt. Gov. David Leroy, who barely hunted, over Democrat Cecil Andrus, a noted hunter, fisher, ex-logger and former U.S. interior secretary.

    Leroy recalls that the October endorsement included a "major mass mailing" and was "a spectacular push as we were gaining momentum in the final weeks."

    Andrus had filled out the NRA questionnaire, differing with the group on armor-piercing "cop-killer" bullets and a 72-hour waiting period to buy inexpensive "Saturday Night Special" handguns. Andrus got a "C-" grade. Leroy got an "A."

    Andrus won by 3,600 votes out of 383,000 cast.

    When the NRA sent a conciliatory post-election letter about working with Andrus, he scrawled at the bottom, "You've got to be kidding," and returned the letter.

    Six months later, Andrus vented at national NRA officials, who had visited Idaho in 1986 to meet with Leroy but didn't bother sitting down with him. In a TV appearance, he called NRA leaders "the gun nuts of the world."

    It's a line still attributed to Andrus on online quotation sites.

    Democratic Congressman Richard Stallings called Andrus' statement "unwise," reflecting Idaho's tradition of strongly pro-gun politicians, from Democratic Sen. Frank Church to Republican Sens. Jim McClure and Larry Craig.

    The NRA's Wayne LaPierre fired back in a mailing to 22,000 Idaho members, describing Andrus as "a lap dog for the national gun-control movement."

    LaPierre is now the NRA's CEO.

    In 1989 as Andrus prepared to run for a fourth term, the NRA's then-CEO J. Warren Cassidy visited Idaho and said, "We certainly hope he has a viable, credible opponent."

    Andrus relished the fight, saying, "I do not appreciate the comments made by the three-piece boys out of Washington, D.C."

    Andrus had the last laugh. Though he refused to answer the NRA questionnaire in 1990, the group stayed neutral. Andrus defeated Republican Roger Fairchild by 117,000 voters, with 68 percent of the vote.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate A.J. Balukoff has refused to answer the National Rifle Association survey and blasted the group for its push for Idaho's latest pro-gun bill.

"Special interests gave us Idaho's guns on campus law," Balukoff said. "We don't need a governor and Legislature who are beholden to special interests. We need independent thinkers in government who answer to voters."

Rather than complete the 23-question survey, Balukoff wrote a letter to the Virginia-based political powerhouse.

"The leading questions and multiple-choice answers in your questionnaire allow only for polarizing and extreme positions," Balukoff wrote Dakota Moore of the NRA's Political Victory Fund PAC. Moore, a lobbyist, led off the testimony in February in the Senate State Affairs Committee on the guns on campus bill - Senate Bill 1254 - sponsored by Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa.

Balukoff wrote Moore that he supports gun rights and the 2008 opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller, the first Supreme Court ruling holding that the Second Amendment protects the individual right to keep and bear arms for self-defense. But Balukoff continued by saying Heller allows regulation, including limitations on concealed weapons and firearms possession by the mentally ill, ex-felons and other restrictions.

That didn't sit well with NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam, a former executive director of the Idaho Republican Party.

"The NRA often receives similar letters from candidates who support gun bans and other draconian gun control schemes," Arulanandam said.

As for the "special interest group" complaint, Arulanandam said, "NRA has tens of thousands of dues-paying members in Idaho and they are the constituents that he seeks to represent."

Arulanandam said the NRA will make an endorsement in the May 20 GOP primary between Gov. Butch Otter and Sen. Russ Fulcher and signaled good news for Otter.

"Gov. Otter has a steadfast record of supporting the Second Amendment and self-defense rights of law-abiding Idaho citizens," Arulanandam said.

TORCHING THE NRA

Balukoff said his campaign manager, Marie Hattaway, counseled him against the move.

"This is really risky in Idaho and you shouldn't be taking on the NRA," Hattaway told Balukoff.

"I said, 'That's not my intention,' " Balukoff recalled. "I just want to make sure people have an accurate view of what my position is with regard to gun rights and the Second Amendment."

Before pulling the trigger, Balukoff consulted the last Idaho politician to win such a confrontation - Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus, who overcame NRA opposition to defeat Republican David Leroy in 1986 and win his third of four terms.

Balukoff said Andrus endorsed his idea, adding the suggestion that Balukoff post his letter and the blank questionnaire on his campaign website. Balukoff followed that advice Thursday, along with issuing a news release.

Leroy said the good news for Balukoff is his gambit will boost his public profile.

"The bad news is it thoroughly, completely and publicly burns his bridges with pro-gun citizens of Idaho," Leroy said. "They're largely going to be disinclined to believe that the NRA is what Balukoff describes."

Leroy said guns on campus is a legitimate campaign issue Balukoff could have raised without such a high-profile snub of the NRA.

"You could answer the questionnaire and not get the endorsement and still make it a major issue," Leroy said. "It shouldn't be a great embarrassment to support your local police chief or college president, but you don't have to torch the NRA to do that."

GUN-LOVING IDAHO

Jim Weatherby, an emeritus professor of political science at Boise State, also called Balukoff's strategy risky, "particularly with the way the NRA is already spinning it. The question is how ferociously might they come after him for making this kind of public statement?"

Weatherby wondered whether Balukoff may have polled about Otter's signing of SB 1254, which was opposed by presidents at all eight of Idaho's public colleges.

"Apparently, his judgment is that in some of the urban centers, there's real anger about the guns on campus bill," Weatherby said.

Balukoff said he hasn't done any polling, but that in his travels he finds considerable concern about the new law that allows students over 21 to be armed at school. But he concedes his evidence is anecdotal and that most of his visiting has been with sympathetic listeners.

"The groups I'm talking to for the most part are Democrats, so I don't know that I'm getting a real accurate read," he said.

Weatherby is skeptical, saying, "We're a gun-toting, gun-loving state and the NRA couldn't be stronger than it is now, even in the wake of Sandy Hook and everything else."

NOT IN ANDRUS' LEAGUE

Andrus' differences with the NRA were rooted in his devotions as a sportsman. Objecting to the NRA's backing of armor-piercing ammunition, he once said, "I've never seen an elk wearing a bullet-proof vest."

Despite concern from campaign staff about the tight race in 1986, Andrus insisted on his annual elk hunt and took off a weekend just weeks before the election. He bagged his elk.

Balukoff said he got his first gun, a modified Enfield rifle, at age 16 as a member of the Explorer Scouts. He shot skeet and birds with shotguns, hunted deer with his four sons and fished with his four daughters. He said he gave up deer hunting after his boys grew up, but remains an angler and regularly hunts waterfowl. He plans to trout fish on the Owyhee River next week.

But, Balukoff acknowledged, "I'm not in Gov. Andrus' league, for sure."

Andrus was a rare bird in surviving a fight with the NRA, Leroy said.

"He was forgiven because of who he was and what the electorate already knew about him," Leroy said. "This electorate doesn't know Balukoff."

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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