For the first time in nearly 30 years, there’s a real horse race brewing in Idaho politics.
With six months to go, the May 15 Republican gubernatorial primary is shaping up to be a classic. Three legitimate, well-funded candidates are actively campaigning for the nomination, while a handful of dark-horse entries could play spoiler.
Boise businessman Tommy Ahlquist, Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador and Lt. Gov. Brad Little have been canvassing the state for months, wooing voters and sharing their vision for Idaho’s future. Barring any major stumbles, the race could go down to the wire.
Having a truly competitive statewide primary is more the exception than the rule in Idaho. Since 1982, the average margin of victory in contested gubernatorial primaries is nearly 31 percent for Republican nominees, while Democratic nominees defeat their rivals by almost 54 percent.
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Only two Republican primaries during that period were won by single digits: in 2014, when former state Sen. Russ Fulcher came within 7 percentage points of unseating incumbent Gov. Butch Otter, and in 1990, when state Sen. Roger Fairchild defeated fellow Sen. Rachel Gilbert by 4 percent.
Prior to that, you have to go back to 1978 to find another close Republican primary. Less than 3,300 votes separated the top three finishers that year. Former state GOP Chairman Vernon Ravenscroft appeared to be the front-runner, but House Speaker Allan Larsen made a late charge down the stretch to nip him by a nose. Larsen won with 28.7 percent of the vote, compared to 27.6 percent for Ravenscroft and 26 percent for Otter, then a state representative.
Given the likelihood of another close contest next year, the Tribune asked several campaign strategists and political observers to handicap the 2018 primary. Here’s the skinny, the likely strategies they’ll use and some of the unknowns that could trip them up along the way.
Besides these three favorites, five other Republican candidates fill out the primary field: Eagle’s HyDee Liebelt, Boise’s Lisa Marie, Twin Falls’ Steve Pankey, Boise’s Sidney Taylor and Kuna’s Steve Tingey.
None of them reported more than $1,500 in campaign contributions, and none of them are running active, statewide campaigns.
Nevertheless, they’ll capture some votes simply by being on the ballot. In a tight race, that could be enough to block the winner’s circle for one of the top thoroughbreds.
Boise businessman A.J. Balukoff, who unsuccessfully challenged Gov. Otter in the 2014 general election, has filed paperwork indicating that he’ll take another run at the state’s top office in 2018. He joins Boise homeless advocate Troy Minton as the only Democrats in the race.
Independent candidate John Thomas Wiechec, a Middleton resident, also is running.
Ahlquist is making his first run for political office. He grew up in Utah and initially came to Idaho to attend college. He worked as an emergency room doctor for nearly 20 years and later started a real estate development firm that has built more than 2 million square feet of commercial space around the state.
By all accounts, Ahlquist is a high-energy individual. His resume points to someone who has been successful throughout his life. That gives him the confidence and resources to run with the big boys. He also embraces his outsider status, saying his experience as a physician, businessman and job creator gives him a fresh perspective and the real-world skills needed to improve Idaho’s future.
“If I look at my background and what I’ve done, and I look at the governor’s office, that’s where I fit best. I don’t want any other office,” he said during a September interview.
However, Ahlquist’s lack of a political pedigree could hurt him in the primary. He wasn’t active in Republican politics until very recently. He didn’t vote in a Republican primary until last year, according to The Associated Press, and he contributed money to Democratic candidates in the past.
Record: 12-0, including 11-0 in contested races; average margin of victory, 37 percent
Reputation: Not a “nice horsey.”
During seven years on the national stage in Congress, and four years prior to that in the Idaho Statehouse, Labrador has made a point of bucking the establishment rather than simply going along.
As a two-term state representative, for example, he was part of the conservative faction who opposed Gov. Otter’s choice for state party chairman, and he later helped block Otter’s $175 million transportation funding initiative.
In Congress, Labrador co-founded the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which made its bones by ousting House Speaker John Boehner.
“Our agenda is to represent the interests of our constituents back home, and to have a party that keeps the promises it makes,” he said in an interview last year.
Labrador’s refusal to be bridled by special interests has earned him a solid base of support, particularly among those looking for a candidate who has the stomach to say no. However, his conservative views have also led him to oppose bills that were important to Idaho — such as a temporary reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools program and funding for the Idaho National Laboratory.
Moreover, while voters might rejoice in sending a war horse back to Congress, it’s not clear that’s who they want occupying the governor’s office. Labrador has demonstrated he can buck, but hasn’t yet shown he can govern.
Record: 12-0, including 9-0 in contested races; average margin of victory, 44 percent
Reputation: Steady as she goes.
As the son of a seven-term state legislator and Republican national committeeman and grandson of Andy Little, the “Idaho Sheep King,” Little has the strongest pedigree of any candidate in the race.
His family roots in Idaho date back to 1894, when his grandfather immigrated from Scotland. He has extensive political and business ties across the state, as well as an intimate familiarity with Idaho’s economy. With four terms in the Idaho Senate and two terms as lieutenant governor under his belt, he knows the players, knows the issues and understands how government works.
“I have a history and knowledge of Idaho, I have a black-and-white plan that people can see — and I can get ver done,” he said in September.
Little’s theme is that he’s saddled-and-ready, meaning he can step into the governor’s office and be effective immediately. However, his close ties with “the establishment,” and in particular with the Otter administration, will be seen as a negative by some primary voters. They would view his candidacy as a “fourth term” for Otter, a continuation of top-down “crony politics.”
To those looking for change, Little is the epitome of the status quo.
All three major candidates have the financial resources needed to run an effective race, and they’ve each hired capable, experienced campaign staff to help plot their course.
To date, each appears to be doing what they should be doing: increasing name ID where necessary, meeting with voters, solidifying their base. Over the next six months, they’ll try to build on that base, attracting undecided voters and pulling in others who were leaning toward their competitors.
Todd Cranney, senior adviser for Ahlquist, sees the pool of likely primary voters breaking down into three main lanes: a “status quo” lane for voters who are generally satisfied with the way things are going, a “far right” lane for more ideological voters, and an “outsider” or change lane for voters looking for something different.
Each candidate will have to focus on one of those lanes to find running room, he said. The goal is “to own your own lane and then look for ways to pick up voters from the other lanes.”
Ahlquist’s approach is clear: “We think there’s a huge opportunity in the political outsider lane,” Cranney said.
Not only is he arguably the most personable and enthusiastic candidate in the race, he also has the life experiences to show that he can get things done. His message is that Idaho can do better than the status quo, and that only an outsider can lead that charge.
“Twelve years of the same thing always brings an opening for something different,” Cranney said, referring to Otter’s first three terms.
However, just as Ahlquist embraces the outsider role, Little is content to run on his record of supporting and advancing the status quo.
“Brad isn’t going to run away from who he is. He’s proud of the accomplishments he’s been a part of,” said Zach Hauge, Little’s campaign manager.
Idaho is experiencing record-low unemployment and strong job growth, he said. The state has also maintained healthy budget surpluses, even after more than $1 billion in cumulative tax relief over the past decade.
“That doesn’t happen by accident,” Hauge said. “Brad’s been part of the leadership team, and will run on that record.”
Regional differences can influence what issues voters see as most important, he noted, but they all share some common concerns.
“How to put food on the table, how their kids can get a good education, how to retire. Looked at from that perspective, (primary voters) are pretty homogeneous,” he said. “And we’ve very much a jobs, economy and education platform.”
That could influence the way Ahlquist and Labrador run the race. If voters are clearly satisfied with the way things are going, attacking the status quo will be a hard sell. People may be reluctant to bet on another horse — even one that’s flashier or more spirited than Little — if they think it’s going to run off in an entirely new direction.
For Labrador’s camp, the message is one of consistency: If voters want conservative leadership, his record shows he’s the real deal. Other candidates may talk conservative, but he’s the one who doesn’t flip-flop, who has demonstrated long-term, steadfast commitment to the path.
“Our strategy is that Raul just needs to be himself,” said Scott Phillips, Labrador’s senior adviser. “Voters want someone who will stand tough and not back down just because it’s difficult.”
With these varied approaches to the campaigns, many observers think the race may come down to intangibles – which candidate is seen as the most likable and which one are voters most comfortable with.
“Generally, people elect the guy they like the most and who has a shared vision for the state,” Cranney said.
One major unknown that could dramatically influence the outcome of the race is whether newly registered Republican voters — and particularly Trump voters — will turn out for the primary.
Thanks to a long and heated Republican presidential primary, the Idaho Republican Party added more than 120,000 voters during the 2016 election cycle, an increase of 41 percent. But will they continue to participate — and if so, which guy benefits?
Few observers were willing to hazard a guess on that issue, but several people noted that President Donald Trump is popular in Idaho right now.
“Our most recent polling shows President Trump has an 87 percent favorable job approval rating among (likely) primary voters,” Phillips said.
Not surprisingly, he sees that as a plus for Labrador.
Labrador also announced an endorsement from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz this past week – and Cruz, not Trump, was Idaho voters’ choice in the presidential primary here. A week earlier, Ahlquist announced an endorsement from former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Another unknown is which direction Ada and Canyon county Republicans will fall.
In the 2014 gubernatorial primary, former state Sen. Russ Fulcher won both counties — the two largest voting districts in Idaho — besting an incumbent governor by a margin of 23,688 to 21,708.
That was largely interpreted as a sign of “Otter fatigue,” an indication that voters were looking for change. If that remains the case, it will likely hurt Little.
“If Fulcher can almost beat Gov. Otter, I don’t understand how anyone believes Brad can beat Labrador,” Cranney said.
Hauge, however, noted that things have changed considerably since the last primary. For example, the percentage of voters who feel the state is on the right track is 20 points higher today than it was in 2014.
“That makes for a much different landscape for candidates,” he said. “A lot of things that shaped the 2014 election aren’t necessarily relevant today.”
One final, critical aspect of the primary race is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Candidates will need to pace themselves and manage their resources wisely.
At this point, the safe assumption is that all three contestants will poll around 30 percent. Over the next six months, they’ll each be looking for the slightest advantage, the narrowest opportunity to pick up a few more votes and edge ahead.
“Everyone’s looking at pockets where they can go to get (more votes),” Hauge said. “I think it will go down to the wire.”