Surrounded by a loud, jubilant crowd in a small Boise bar, Paulette Jordan claimed victory in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, beating two-time candidate AJ Balukoff and going one step closer to becoming the first female, Native American governor in the United States.
“I didn’t win this race by Democrats alone,” the 38-year-old former state legislator declared as red white and blue balloons popped and supporters cheered, nearly drowning her out. “We won this race by everyone.”
She thanked her supporters and her family and her ancestors. She vowed that “never again” will Democrats have to vote for the lesser of Republican evils. She promised to fight “with every single ounce of my life” for access to health care and better education and to preserve the wild lands that make Idaho so special.
“We are not afraid, and never again will we stand down,” Jordan said. “This is a great celebration tonight... Come tomorrow this race is still going on. We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
Jordan had 60 percent of the vote as of 11 p.m., outpacing Balukoff, the 2014 Democratic nominee who this time had 38 percent. The third candidate in the race, Peter Dill, tallied roughly 1 percent support.
Balukoff was subdued but gracious as he conceded the race to Jordan. He told reporters that the 38-year-old most likely appealed to younger voters. To his supporters, he was grateful and conciliatory.
“So now let’s begin to come together,” he said as the crowd cheered. “Let’s work hard and let’s bring our message of proper education funding, access to health care and protecting our public lands.
“Paulette’s campaign platform is very similar to mine in these respects,” he continued. “So I think it should be easy for us to come together as a party. And let’s work hard and have a success in November.”
At the HandleBar – small, noisy and pulling for Paulette Jordan – cheers went up at odd moments, supporters pulled up early results on smart phones and the Kevin Littrell Quartet played smooth jazz as rumors of the candidate’s arrival came and went.
Hallie Decime wore her support quite literally. The 22-year-old Eagle resident had painted her long fingernails white, with “Paulette Jordan” and “Gov” on nails on her right hand and “Kristin Collum” and “Lt. Gov” on nails on the left.
“We haven’t had a Democratic governor since the ‘90s,” she said of her support for Jordan. “It’s time we have somebody to challenge the establishment here in Idaho. She’s better suited to that than AJ [Balukoff] is.”
A couple of blocks away at the Red Lion Hotel Boise Downtowner, the official Democratic victory party was a more somber and, yes, establishment affair. Balukoff circulated in the ballroom, chatting with supporters. Mayor Dave Bieter was in attendance.
“I’m doing really well,” Balukoff said in an interview. “I feel good. We’ve worked hard, done everything I think we could do to run a good race. I hope we prevail. We’ll see how it turns out tonight.”
One Balukoff supporter at the official Democratic party, John Hartwell of Nampa, said, “I like both the major candidates, But I know AJ better than I know Paulette Jordan.”
The nuclear physicist turned sheep rancher, age 72, quoted Republican Tommy Ahlquist to explain his position: “As I saw Tommy Ahlquist say in an interview when he was questioned about a Brad Little ad, ‘I contributed to Mayor Dave Bieter and AJ Balukoff because, if you know them, they’re two of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.’
“That’s about the only accurate thing I’ve heard Tommy Ahlquist say,” Hartwell continued before acknowledging that he’s “willing to work very hard for Paulette Jordan if Paulette Jordan wins.”
The Democratic frontrunners made an 11th-hour get-out-the-vote effort in Boise Tuesday, where they were greeted by voters, thunder, lightning and some very heavy rain. At the end of Election Day, Jordan planned a victory party at The HandleBar, while Balukoff was scheduled to attend the Democratic Party’s soiree at the Red Lion Hotel Boise Downtowner.
Balukoff knocked on doors in the North End, carrying campaign brochures and a bright smile. A gray ball cap and rain shell protected the millionaire businessman and school board member from the elements.
Jordan made a campaign stop for caffeine and hand-shaking at Downtown's Flying M Coffee House. Lisa Sawyer, an ardent Jordan, was happy to introduce Jordan to her friends. "She's way better than all the white guys, that's for sure," Sawyer said. "She understands everyone."
The 38-year-old former state legislator is definitely a change for Gem State politics. If elected to the state's highest office — and that’s a big if in this ruby red stronghold — she would be the first woman to hold the job and the first female Native American governor in the United States.
Her celebrity endorsements include Cher and Khizr Khan – the Gold Star father, Pakistani-American lawyer, Hillary Clinton supporter and Donald Trump target. She’s received donations from Planned Parenthood Votes NW and Jonathan Soros, chief executive of a private investment firm and son of billionaire philanthropist George Soros.
For a politician in a state that rarely rates national attention, she’s been featured in The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, Vox and Teen Vogue. HuffPost gushed that the enrolled member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe “comes from thousands of years of intergenerational leadership in Idaho and the Pacific Northwest. Her grandfathers were chiefs. Her grandmothers were chiefs.”
But beneath the glitz, beyond the firsts, Jordan isn’t all that different from Balukoff and Peter Dill, a 63-year-old Emmett organic farmer and attorney who is also seeking the governor’s mantle.
They all want to protect the environment, do a better job of educating young Idahoans, repair roads and bridges and make health care accessible. None of them wants to accomplish those tasks with a major tax hike. In response to inquiries from the Statesman, Jordan and Balukoff both said they support the Second Amendment. Dill did not make his gun views known.
Balukoff, the 72-year-old co-owner of The Grove Hotel and the Idaho Steelheads hockey team, was endorsed by another select group: most of the Gem State’s Democratic establishment, many of whom served with Jordan in the state legislature.
Of the 16 Democratic lawmakers with whom Jordan worked in the last two sessions, 12 endorsed Balukoff. None slammed Jordan; all praised Balukoff for his work ethic and political inspiration.
“I have known both AJ and Paulette well,” said Rep. Sue Chew, when she endorsed Balukoff. “I’ve served with Paulette; I know AJ. When AJ asked me to endorse him, I readily agreed. AJ is in this race for the right reasons — he really cares about all of us and he really works hard for Idaho.”
Late Tuesday, Democratic legislative leaders congratulated Jordan. "The primary has energized so many voters around the state and we sincerely hope that momentum carries into the general election. Like so many Idahoans, Democrats value the opportunities that education and expanded access to quality health care can bring to our citizens. We support Paulette’s fight to bring those issues to the forefront so every Idahoan has a fair shot at success, prosperity and a healthy future."
Jasper LiCalzi, professor and chair of the Department of Political Economy at the College of Idaho, said this unusually competitive Democratic primary has “really kind of split the party.” Speaking before Tuesday's results, he said the establishment supports Balukoff, while younger voters and those who don’t regularly vote in primaries are drawn to Jordan.
“She needs high turnout and high turnout among people who usually don’t come out in primaries,” LiCalzi said. Turnout is usually around 25 percent in the primaries, he said, but “I think it will be higher this year. With both sides having contested races, I think it could be higher than usual.”
Balukoff ran unsuccessfully for governor against Butch Otter in 2014. Political commentator Chuck Malloy, who writes for Idaho Politics Weekly, points to Balukoff’s earlier run as a cautionary tale.
“I think Jordan excites the imagination a little bit more than Balukoff,” Malloy said. “She’s a lot younger. I’m not saying she’s loaded with great ideas. But Balukoff the last time was running to show how Republican he was and how conservative he was. I think that kind of struck a sour note with quite a few Democrats.”