Gov. Butch Otter says he's not surprised that state Sen. Russ Fulcher came within 8 percentage points of upsetting him in Tuesday's GOP primary.
Fulcher was "very effective" on issues of concern to Republicans, especially the health insurance exchange and Common Core education standards, Otter said Wednesday.
"It was a very active group against those issues and that base was about 36 percent of the vote," Otter said. "So that was pretty solid."
Otter defeated Fulcher 51.4 percent to 43.6 percent, but lost Ada and Kootenai counties, as well as his native county, Canyon.
"Otter did not receive an overwhelming endorsement from the party faithful," said Northwest Nazarene University's Steve Shaw. "Will this cause Otter to move to the right to try to placate the right wing in his party?"
Democratic nominee A.J. Balukoff said Otter's showing demonstrates his weaknesses.
"Gov. Otter's narrow primary win over a relatively unknown, extremist opponent affirms what I've been hearing as I travel all over Idaho," Balukoff said in a statement. "People like Butch well enough personally, but after almost 40 years as a career politician, it's time for him to retire to his ranch."
Balukoff's landslide margin in his primary victory, 65 percent to 35 percent, wasn't as large as expected over former Republican Terry Kerr, who didn't campaign.
Otter said he decided against making a speech at the election night celebration because Kootenai County returns still hadn't been reported when he left a Boise hotel about 1 a.m.
"I just didn't want to jinx myself," Otter said. "I was concerned that it was close. Russ is a good campaigner, he's a hard campaigner, he's got a lot of talent and enthusiasm."
Fulcher made his congratulatory call to Otter shortly after 7 a.m. Wednesday. He said Otter's strength in rural Idaho might have been decisive. He also thought that winning the state's three biggest counties would have won him Idaho: "I would have said it's a done deal."
Fulcher said he hopes Otter grasped the message of those who voted for change.
"We're trying to figure out how to transition control from government to the people," Fulcher said in an interview. "Hopefully, that's something he'll move forward with."
Otter saluted all GOP candidates, saying they are united in wanting a better economy, better schools and reduced federal influence.
"I agree with every one of them - and, especially, Russ Fulcher," Otter said in introducing his vanquished foe to a rally crowd of about 100.
Fulcher thanked supporters, quoted Ronald Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt, and said, "Primaries are just hard."
Before the speeches, Otter joked with Fulcher about playing golf, saying, "I hope you slice - everything."
Fulcher's endorsement of Otter was more formal than warm.
"It is fitting, it is proper, it is necessary for me to congratulate Gov. Butch Otter, first lady Lori (Otter), the Otter campaign team for their hard work and dedication," Fulcher said.
"Folks, we do disagree on some issues, but we agree on this: Idaho is the best place to live, work, raise a family. Idahoans have the character to lead a nation to prosperity and Republicans have the principles and the will to best get us there. It is an honor. Thank you."
Asked afterward whether "smooth sailing" is ahead for the former rivals, Otter said: "Oh, I don't know if it's smooth sailing, but I'm going to call on Russ and his group and ask them and ask Russ to help me. And he's pledged his help."
Boise State political scientist Gary Moncrief said the campaign revealed weaknesses in the two-term governor's record.
"Fulcher ran a good campaign given the constraints of his limited funding," Moncrief said. "He raised important issues about Otter's record in recent years."
Otter outspent Fulcher by more than 2 to 1.
LOSING FOUR OF FIVE
Otter said he doesn't regret endorsing challengers to five Fulcher allies in the Legislature. One of those allies lost: Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth. Sen. Bob Nonini and Reps. Vito Barbieri, Ron Mendive and Kathy Sims, all from Kootenai County, beat Otter-backed challengers.
If Otter is re-elected in November, he said, he expects no problems with those lawmakers. "They follow the same rule that everybody else does: my 24-hour rule. You want to get in to see the governor, you can get in in 24 hours, or get a personal phone call from him," he said.
At least three incumbents backed by Otter lost to challengers from the right: Senate Education Committee Chairman and seven-term Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene; seven-term Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover; and freshman Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden, who had provided a key vote to pass Idaho's health exchange.
But at the rally, Otter heard conciliatory words from a key figure with whom he has clashed: Rep. Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, who won a four-way race for the secretary of state nomination.
"You know, we disagree on very, very few issues," Denney said at the Capitol. "And some of those things we disagree on vehemently, but we can disagree and still agree on the majority of things. Certainly, if we can agree on 80 percent of the things, we can all come together and we can bring this party back together."
After the rally, Otter sought out Denney, slapping him on the back and conferring on campaign signs and strategy for the fall, when Denney faces Democratic Rep. Holli Woodings, of Boise.
"I've not agreed to any debates until after Labor Day," Otter told Denney.
Dan Popkey: 377-6438