Gov. Butch Otter said Thursday that he's spoken with "a lot" of candidates for Idaho Republican Party chairman and that he's "comfortable so far with everybody that's called."
Otter declined to name the candidates, but suggested he hopes to avoid making an endorsement and let the "grassroots" decide when they vote at the state GOP convention June 14 in Moscow.
That's the strategy suggested last week by Rep. Raul Labrador — the most prominent figure to back Otter's now-vanquished primary foe, Sen. Russ Fulcher. Otter defeated Fulcher 51 percent to 44 percent on May 20.
"If folks really want a grassroots candidate, those of us in leadership positions are going to have to abstain from anointing or endorsing anybody," Otter told the Statesman.
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"All the folks calls that I've taken, I've just said, 'Listen, go to the convention, talk to the folks before you get to the convention, see what your chances are,'" Otter said.
Last week, Labrador criticized Otter for a history of pettiness over the chairmanship. Otter has complained — most recently in the May 14 televised debate — that in 2008 Labrador and others "threw out my chairman."
In 2012, Otter was neutral in the chairman's race won by Barry Peterson of Mountain Home over Gayann DeMordaunt of Eagle. But Otter and his supporters have since grown testy with Peterson, alleging he favors the more extreme wing of the party led by Labrador.
"My advice to the governor is pretty simple," Labrador said last week. "Work with the grassroots of the party to find an acceptable chairman for the party. So be part of the team, don't try to dictate to the party who his choice is going to be."
Peterson, who says he plans to run for a second two-year term, was not among the candidates for chairman with whom Otter had spoken as of Thursday afternoon.
Peterson said the governor has not yet replied to a message he left on Otter's cell phone late last week. "I have not talked to the governor," Peterson said shortly before 2 p.m.
Other rumored prospects are Fulcher, retiring Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and Premier Technology co-founder Doug Sayer. Sayer, of Blackfoot, is the brother of Otter's Commerce director, Jeff Sayer.
Otter said he hasn't ruled out making an endorsement. "If I see the grassroots getting behind a candidate because they want a grassroots candidate, then I may. But I'm not committing to anything right now."
County GOP central committees are meeting this week to organize, elect officers and elect delegates to the state convention. Until that process is complete, it's impossible for the Otter or Labrador factions to gauge their strength at the convention.
Last week, Labrador said Otter would be re-elected to a third term "overwhelmingly" if he gets grassroots Republicans behind him.
"A strong leader looks at a group of people who rejected him and tries to figure out how he can get that group to work with him," Labrador said.