Democrat A.J. Balukoff says he's putting his money where his mouth is as he campaigns to become the first Idaho Democrat elected governor since 1990.
With a net worth he estimates at $40 million to $50 million, Balukoff said when he announced his run in December that he would subsidize his challenge to two-term GOP Gov. Butch Otter.
Balukoff's contributions accounted for about one-fifth of his fundraising through his May 30 Sunshine report.
Now, he's telling supporters he'll match every dollar they give three for one.
"I know that pay-to-play politics will put my opponent at a financial advantage, but I was surprised to find out how slanted it is," Balukoff said in a fundraising email this week with the subject line, "Jump in July: TRIPLE MATCH!"
Balukoff said the promotion is limited to July "for now," but that he expects his campaign will spend about $2 million before the Nov. 4 election. Otter spent $1.95 million to win in 2006 and $1.84 million in 2010.
"I think it's important that this race be competitive and that we talk about issues," Balukoff said in an interview Wednesday. "People pay attention when they realize there's a viable alternative to Gov. Otter."
Otter began 2014 with $708,000 banked, but spent $751,000 on a bruising 51 percent to 44 percent May 20 primary win over Sen. Russ Fulcher. Otter raised $494,000, January through May, reporting $451,000 in cash May 30.
Balukoff salted his campaign with $91,000 in December and raised $20,000 from others that first month. In the first five months of 2014, he received $307,000 from a contributor list now exceeding 1,400 individuals. Much of that came from Balukoff phone pitches, a procedure he calls "the root canal of campaigning."
So far, his spending has included advertising, events, food and refreshments, management services, travel, wages, printing, postage and utilities.
His May 30 balance was just $38,000 - less than a tenth of Otter's cash on hand.
"I've got to somehow offset that advantage," Balukoff said.
He acknowledged his own poll early this year showed he's not well known outside Boise, where he has been on the Boise School Board for 16 years.
"People would say, 'Who?' " Balukoff acknowledged. But when surveyors told respondents about Balukoff's biography - including his success as a businessman and accountant - his numbers rose to what he calls a "dead heat" with Otter.
To reach voters unfamiliar with him, Balukoff said, he will buy TV and radio but wouldn't say just when.
BECOMING A FACTOR
Former Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick said Balukoff can win.
"I definitely think it's doable, given the split in the Republican Party and that fact that Idaho, by any objective standards, is not doing well in terms of educating its citizens, providing them well-paying jobs or creating economic opportunity."
Minnick is the last Idaho Democrat to win statewide or federal office. His 2008 win over Republican state Rep. Bill Sali cost $2.5 million, twice what Sali spent. Of that, about $925,000 came from Minnick's own pocket.
"If you're a Democrat in Idaho, you have to get your message across to folks enough that they will consider voting for the person, rather than their party," Minnick said. "It requires communication."
For Minnick, TV advertising began in July, unconventionally early. Social media has changed campaigns, Minnick said, so Balukoff's strategy may be different. Whatever media mix Balukoff chooses, Minnick said, he can't wait until the traditional Labor Day push.
"If I were A.J., I would start that process in summer and not try to cram it into the two months of fall when the airwaves are very cluttered and everybody else is trying to do it," Minnick said.
Boise State political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby agreed, saying Democrats who've followed the conventional calender have found themselves hopelessly behind.
"They were never a factor," he said.
"We're moving toward August," Weatherby continued. "A lot of people are maybe not paying attention, but I think it's important for him to get his name out as early and often as he can."
QUALIFYING THE BUDGET
Of his advertising plans, Balukoff said, "Stay tuned."
He also qualified his commitment for a $2 million campaign.
"It's going to depend on how things roll out," he said. "If the polls show that I don't have much of a chance, there's no point putting that money in. If it shows it's doable, I want to keep this race competitive. And if it's competitive, we're going to do what it takes to win."
Weatherby said Balukoff's admission that he won't toss good money after bad is a slip, perhaps rooted in his first outing as a partisan candidate and his career as a CPA.
"It's a reasonable statement, but perhaps not for an aspiring politician," Weatherby said. "What the contributors want to hear is, 'I'm in this all the way to win. Period.' "
STRIKING THE RIGHT NOTE
The school board president said his emphasis on improving education is resonating with ordinary voters.
"Education invariably comes out as the top issue," Balukoff said. "Right on its heels is the economy, jobs, low-paying jobs. The other thing is ethics in state government - some people use the word 'cronyism,' other people call it the 'good old boys network.' It just comes down to open government."
He cited July 4 stops in Malad, Pocatello and Idaho Falls, where he was invited to attend the huge Melaleuca Freedom Celebration by CEO Frank VanderSloot.
VanderSloot, a major GOP contributor, suggested Balukoff conduct the Freedom Symphony during Sousa's "The Stars and Stripes Forever" before the fireworks.
"It was nice visiting with him," Balukoff said. "In fact, he told the crowd this is the first time he'd had a Democrat lead the orchestra."
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics