The top individual campaign donors in Idaho in 2014 included wealthy residents with prominent business interests in ranching, horse breeding, farming, timber or other agriculture sectors, three of them part-owners in the Garden City racetrack that lost out when the state banned computerized betting terminals.
The partners in Treasure Valley Racing, operators of Les Bois Park, gave generously to Gov. Butch Otter and other candidates, as did groups aligned against the instant racing terminals the track gambled would bring in new customers and revenue to reverse racing’s economic slide. The battle over the terminals played out publicly during the 2015 Legislative session and beyond, with divided lawmakers voting to ban the terminals they once approved and Otter vetoing the move, only to have that veto challenged and ultimately overturned last month by the state Supreme Court.
The track operators’ contributions were among the $21.8 million that donors gave to Idaho political interests during the 2014 election. They stand out less for the actual dollar amount given and more for being a clear example of a single-issue group hoping to gain traction for its cause in the political realm. The lead opponents of instant racing terminals, the casino-operating Coeur d’Alene Tribe, gave large amounts.
The contributions came to light in a review of statewide campaign giving during the 2014 elections. The Idaho Statesman refined and analyzed data initially compiled by the National Institute for Money in State Politics. An earlier story focused on overall giving by corporate interests. Among the findings:
• Two-thirds of the $21.8 million in campaign contributions given to candidates for Idaho state and federal offices in 2014 went to Republican candidates and causes, an advantage that swelled to a 4-1 GOP edge when the self-funded campaign of the Democratic candidate for governor is discounted. Republican candidates raked in $13.9 million in donations compared to $7.6 million for Democrats, with slightly more than $230,000 going to all others.
But A.J. Balukoff, the Democratic candidate for governor, funded his bid with $3.7 million of his own money, $500,000 of which his campaign committee subsequently gave to the state Democratic Party. Subtract Balukoff’s donations and Democratic candidates and party organizations tallied $3.45 million, just one-quarter of what Republicans received.
• Slightly more than $11.3 million, or 52 percent, of contributions to the 243 candidates who filed finance disclosures for 2014 came from individuals. Of that total, $4.5 million was from candidates themselves. Rank-and-file donors chipped in more than $4.8 million. Just more than $1 million in donations came in amounts of less than $50, which are not itemized.
• The top five individual donors, and 15 of the top 25, were candidates financing their own campaigns. There are no limits on campaign self-funding. Self-funded candidates accounted for more than $4.3 million of campaign contributions — but just $667,000 with Balukoff’s self-financing omitted.
HORSE, GAMBLING INTERESTS
Three of Treasure Valley Racing’s owners — rancher Harry Bettis, Robert Rebholtz of Agri-Beef Co. and horse breeder Larry Williams, who founded Idaho Timber — gave more than $80,000 combined to candidates in 2014, including a combined $20,000 to the governor. A fourth part-owner, Linda Yanke, chipped in another $5,500 to the governor, and another, Jim Grigsby, gave $1,950. The corporate entity itself gave Otter $10,000.
John Sheldon, president of Treasure Valley Racing, issued a statement through a spokeswoman on behalf of the owners in response to a request to discuss the contributions.
“Prior to each election cycle, the Treasure Valley Racing group and its owners evaluate the candidates and actively participate in the political process by both voting and contributing to candidates who understand and respect our business interests,” he said.
On the other side of the issue, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe gave the governor more than $11,000, $1,000 of which was subsequently returned because it was over the limit. The tribe was one of the top 10 corporate donors leading up to the 2014 elections, donating $79,000 in all to candidates.
“This year wasn’t a new thing,” said Heather Keen, a spokeswoman for the tribe. “We contribute to folks who we think are good people that will make good legislators and make good decisions.
“Not everybody that we supported votes on our side on all of the issues, and that’s OK. Ultimately we want people that are going to be good representatives of the area and listen to both sides and make good decisions.”
INDIVIDUAL, OUT-OF-STATE DONORS
Among the individual contributions of less than $50 each that are not itemized, Sen. Jim Risch collected the most cash by far — more than $395,000, or 37 percent of the $1 million total. U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson reported nearly $88,000 in nonitemized contributions. Seven of the 10 candidates who collected the most in small cash donations were candidates for federal office.
Of the total contributions reported by candidates and political parties, $6.9 million went to federal candidates, $9.4 million to statewide candidates, $1.4 million to state Senate candidates, $2.8 million to state House candidates and $1.2 million to parties.
One-third of all contributions, just more than $7 million, came from out-of-state interests. Of that, nearly $4.7 million went to federal candidates, and most of that sum went to Idaho incumbents. Simpson received nearly $2 million of his $2.5 million total from out-of-state donors. Risch, whose total also neared $2.5 million, received more than $1.8 million from out of state. Reflecting their incumbency, most of their out-of-state contributions came from organizations in and around Washington, D.C. Other top donor states were California and Texas.
Otter received a little more than $908,000 from out-of-state sources, the largest sums coming from Utah, Washington state and California, in that order.
Outside of incumbents, the most out-of-state money to a candidate went to Republican Bryan Smith, who unsuccessfully challenged Simpson in a GOP primary. Smith, backed by the conservative anti-tax group Club for Growth, received $461,000, or 54 percent of his total, from out-of-state interests, including $125,000 directly from the Washington, D.C., policy group. Individual donors from California and Florida gave him $54,000 each, with Texas residents sending $44,000. Club for Growth bailed on Smith in the weeks leading up to the Republican primary.
Out-of-state contributions sometimes come up as an Idaho campaign issue, but haven’t influenced outcomes.
“Those who don’t get the out-of-state money complain about those who do, but I’m not sure that is a very effective argument in most cases,” said James Weatherby, emeritus professor of political science at Boise State University and longtime observer of state politics. “You would think that (voters) would care about having outside groups trying to influence state and local elections, but I haven’t really seen where that’s been a determining factor in any race.”
AGRICULTURE TOPS THE LIST
The top five contributing business sectors in order of rank were agriculture, primarily forestry and timber interests; financial interests, led by real estate and insurance firms; energy and natural resources, led by electric utilities, oil and gas interests, and mining; general business interests, led by retail sales, alcohol, and gambling and casinos; and health care.
Among the top five sectors, Otter was the top beneficiary in all except energy. Agricultural interests gave him nearly $300,000; financial interests gave him $295,000; general business groups gave $317,000; and health groups $170,000. The top beneficiaries from the energy and natural resources sector were Simpson and Risch, who received $326,000 and $236,000, respectively. The issues and interests of energy and resource businesses typically transcend state lines, which helps explain why Idaho’s federal representatives got so much from the sector.
More directly, Risch serves on the Senate Energy & Natural Resources committee, while Simpson chairs the House subcommittee on Energy and Water Development Appropriations and serves on the House Appropriations Committee.
THE RICHEST RACES
Among statewide races, after the $6.8 million raised in the governor’s race, the next richest race was for secretary of state, where candidates got more than $900,000 in contributions. Democrat Holli Woodings donated nearly $200,000 to her campaign and received another $113,000 from individuals. Lawerence Denney received $114,000 of his $297,000 total from individual donors and contributed about $22,000 of his own funds.
In the statewide race for superintendent of public instruction, Republican Sherri Ybarra raised just one-quarter of Democratic candidate Jana Jones’s total, $39,000 to $154,000, but won the race.
In the Legislature, Republican House Speaker Scott Bedke was, unsurprisingly, the top recipient of campaign money, but with no opposition, he gave $31,000 of his $111,000 total haul to other candidates. Two other House members followed, exceeding all Senate candidates. Ilana Rubel, the Boise Democrat, raised just more than $100,000, including $10,000 of her own, and John Rusche, the Democratic House minority leader, raised nearly $82,000. Rusche’s race against Republican Mike Kingsley was the richest legislative contest overall; Kingsley raised nearly $51,000. Rusche won the race by 48 votes out of more than 12,000 cast.
The top Senate recipient, the incumbent in the richest Senate race, was Republican Sen. Shawn Keough, who gathered more than $80,000, or four times as much as her challenger, Christian Fioravanti. The total raised in the race was $105,000. Republican Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill was the second-highest recipient, pulling in more than $78,000. He faced only a marginal primary challenge from Republican Scott Smith, who reported $1,400 in contributions, $600 of his own money and $300 from, of all people, Brent Hill.