After nearly a quarter-century in the Idaho House, Lawerence Denney is a step closer to a new role in Idaho government.
The Midvale Republican's closest competitor in Tuesday's primary, Ada County Chief Deputy Clerk Phil McGrane, was endorsed by popular three-term incumbent Ben Ysursa and heavily backed by county clerks throughout the state. His supporters banked on Idahoans wanting to keep the office relatively nonpolitical, opting for a professional clerk with an approach similar to Ysursa's and that of his even longer-running predecessor, seven-termer Pete Cenarrusa.
But when the vote tally wrapped up Wednesday, Denney - a powerful and sometimes controversial lawmaker who spent three terms as speaker of the House - led McGrane by 9 percentage points and more than 2,500 votes.
"I think probably the biggest factor was having four people in the race," Denney said Wednesday. "I have a pretty solid base, and I think that prevailed."
He won 37.1 percent of the vote to McGrane's 27.9 percent, leaving more than a third of the total ballots divided between former Pocatello lawmaker Evan Frasure (19.3 percent) and former state Sen. Mitch Toryanski of Boise (15.7 percent).
"If it had just been Lawerence Denney and myself, I think we'd have had a different result," McGrane said, adding that Toryanski cut into his advantage in Ada County. McGrane said he's proud of the campaign he ran and the relationships he built across the state.
Denney also credited his statewide name recognition and decades of experience, both in public service and in the private sector as a farmer and communication tech.
He now faces Democrat Holli Woodings in November. He said he plans to enjoy a few weeks away from campaigning before developing a strategy for the general election.
Woodings, who represented District 19B in the House for the past two years, might stand a better chance against Denney than she would have against McGrane, said longtime Idaho political observer Jim Weatherby, an emeritus professor at Boise State University.
"I think McGrane could make a better argument of continuing the tradition of Ysursa and Cenarrusa" for conducting the office without partisan bias, Weatherby said.
"Lawerence Denney's well known in this state but he's also a controversial figure ... the only or one of the only sitting speakers to ever be defeated," he said.
Just before the 2013 legislative session, Denney's GOP colleagues voted to replace him with Rep. Scott Bedke. Among their complaints: Denney donated money to GOP opponents of incumbent lawmakers.
Denney has said his top priorities if elected will be improving the security and ease of Idaho's voting experience and two objectives related to the secretary of state's seat on the Idaho Land Board: getting the board to stop purchasing commercial property that competes with private business interests, and using political and legal approaches to gain state control of the vast tracts of federal land within Idaho borders.
McGrane said that last issue in particular seemed to resonate with voters.
Kristin Rodine: 377-6447