Pete Weir got the call in late April: As mayor of Hagerman, a Magic Valley town with a population on the short side of 900, could he meet a candidate for governor who’d be passing through?
“I thought I might as well do that — he may be the next governor. Who knows?” Weir recalled this week.
Meeting at the renowned Snake River Grill, Weir told the candidate about the challenges his small community faces, but also what the community was doing to meet them. He talked about the bike path Hagerman wants to build to link to a nearby state park, hoping to attract more tourism dollars to help pay for projects like fixing roads and sewers.
“He could see what we’re trying to do to not get in the doom and gloom of things, because it is doomy and gloomy out there,” Weir said. “Small towns that don’t have a constituency of much over 900 people, if that, it’s hard to get revenues to keep streets that were built in the ’30s together, hard to put in a new sewer system.”
The candidate, Treasure Valley real estate developer Tommy Ahlquist, was impressed, and the mayor returned the compliment. Weir, who hosted one of outgoing Gov. Butch Otter’s “Capital for a Day” government visits in 2013, found Ahlquist’s interest in small-town Idaho “refreshing.”
The visit was part of a 97-city, 7,000-mile road trip Ahlquist made to kick off his outsider’s bid for governor. He is one of four major candidates seeking the Republican nomination in a contest already well underway, nearly a year ahead of the May 2018 primary, in what will be the busiest state election in a generation.
“He actually took the time to drive to as many (cities) as he possibly could,” said Weir, who’s been mayor or a city councilman for more than 20 years. “Those are things that governors should do. They should get out and see what happens, our funding hassles, our issues, which is just miniature state things, really. But it’s a lot to us. I applaud Tommy.”
The 75-day excursion, which the Ahlquist campaign says included 296 stops across all 44 of Idaho’s counties, did much more than populate the candidate’s Instagram account with photos. It was pretty much a strategic must for a first-time candidate who is not as well-known as his opponents outside a base of recognition and support in the Treasure Valley.
“He’s doing what he has to do, which is introduce himself around the state,” said Corey Cook, dean of Boise State University’s School of Public Service.
Indeed, along with the extensive travel has come Ahlquist’s heavy and early radio and TV advertising blitz to boost his name recognition.
“You don’t usually see advertising in a race a year out, but I think he’s wise to do that,” Cook said. “Defining himself before others define him is one of the key goals of politics.”
Ahlquist, 49, is chief operating officer for Gardner Co., the Salt Lake City-based real estate company whose building projects have helped remake Boise’s Downtown. Before Gardner, he was an emergency room doctor for 18 years, including serving as head of emergency medicine at St. Luke’s Meridian Medical Center.
He is the only announced major GOP candidate for governor who has not previously held office, and he is in his first campaign. As such, he hopes to tap into what in 2016 proved to be the national electorate’s hunger for change, and its willingness to bet on a political outsider like businessman Donald Trump.
“One the one hand, in this political climate, that could be compelling,” Cook said.
“On the other hand,” Cook said, referring to the state’s 2016 GOP presidential primary, “this is a state that voted for Ted Cruz, not Trump.”
‘I’M FOR SURE THE UNDERDOG’
Ahlquist is quick to characterize his newcomer status as a strength, not a weakness, and stress a business and entrepreneurial background that he hopes shows as prominently as the Boise skyline he helped push to new heights.
“I’m for sure the underdog,” he said in an interview in his Downtown Boise office. “There’s people who say, ‘There’s no way you can do this.’ I think it’s still name ID, it’s still getting my name out there and my ideas out there. That’s going to be a constant battle.”
He embarked on his travels across the state soon after announcing his candidacy on March 1, spending parts of successive weeks on the road and returning to Boise in between travel legs.
“People said, ‘Well why did you do so many so quickly?’ But to me, not being a politician and just trying to understand, ‘OK, what are the issues facing our state?’, it was really important for me,” Ahlquist said. “I think ‘listening tour’ sometimes gets clichéd. This was more of, I want to go here and meet the people that are in the trenches, that are actually dealing with real problems — not what you read or hear about. But what are the issues.”
WHAT HE HEARD ON THE ROAD
From those he met, Ahlquist said he heard about financial pressures on Idaho’s rural communities, like the $10 million upgrade Hagerman is making to a 40-year-old sewer system that discharges into the Snake River; Hagerman is footing half the cost on its own and half through higher user fees. There’s also the $12 million project the North Idaho city of Plummer, with 1,000 residents, faces to remove phosphorus from its water supply.
Ahlquist said he heard a lot about government mandates, state as well as federal, that burden localities with costs as they try to keep up with deteriorating schools and roads. He mentioned a school district superintendent who showed him four pages of new state mandates, the product of this year’s legislative session alone. Another superintendent told him his district loses state aid when student athletes miss school for games in far-off corners of the state. That is on top of paying to to get the teams to the games and back again.
Ahlquist said he heard from businesses like a Burley dairy producer who can’t find enough skilled, educated workers, and from numerous businesses across industries that face tough operating decisions because rising health care premiums are pushing up their overhead.
There, in a nutshell, are the themes that could dominate the 2018 election: jobs, schools and health care. Taxes follow close behind, not necessarily because they are high, but in terms of what services and benefits Idahoans actually get for them.
Ahlquist said he thought he knew the state well, but was surprised by the level of regional disaffection.
“I think it would shock a lot of people from the Treasure Valley to hear how disconnected Idaho feels from the Treasure Valley,” he said. “And it’s not just population, it’s not just the cultural things that come with a bigger city. It’s feeling forgotten. … It was a surprise to me how raw and emotional it is.”
In a race with four candidates who all hail from the Treasure Valley, winning support elsewhere in the state could deliver the winning margin. Roughly 700,000 people live in the Valley, more than 40 percent of the state’s population. In the 2014 Republican primary, challenger Russ Fulcher, who’s running again this year, won the state’s two biggest counties, Ada and Canyon, along with seven others, but lost to incumbent Otter overall by 12,000 votes.
OPPONENTS TAKE HIGH GROUND
Ahlquist’s opponents, asked to weigh in on his tour, offered praise, noting in the same breath that it’s a road they’ve already been down. Fulcher was a state senator when he ran statewide in 2014. Lt. Gov. Brad Little has run several statewide campaigns. U.S. Rep. Raúl Labrador’s congressional district might cover only half the state, but he starts out with the best name recognition of the four as a nationally known leading member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
When Andrew Mitzel, Little’s deputy campaign manager, toured the state with Little in 2014, “there wasn’t a square mile it seemed he didn’t have a story about,” Mitzel said.
Steve Ackerman, Fulcher’s campaign manager, said Ahlquist’s move “makes sense. And frankly, it’s what we did last time.”
“It really does come down to name recognition, especially when you have four (major candidates),” Ackerman said, adding: “If you go 45 minutes from the corner of Eagle and Fairview (in Meridian) in any direction, you have a whole different Idaho.”
The Labrador campaign had no comment on Ahlquist’s travels.
For Ahlquist, being competitive in a closed GOP primary against three experienced candidates means showing early on that his campaign is credible. It means demonstrating he has staying power and deep pockets, enough of each potentially to draw support away from the others — from Little for example, who with Otter’s endorsement more or less runs as the GOP establishment candidate. Ahlquist’s campaign hopes to see the race come down to a choice between Ahlquist and Labrador, whose supporters are passionate but to the right of the Republican mainstream, and geographically concentrated in western Idaho.
It’s an outside-in strategy, and it’s essential for Ahlquist: Outsider candidates do well with independent voters and among the general electorate. But Idaho is a red state that comfortably favors Republicans in a general election. So the first test is passing muster with a narrower, more politically active slice of the Republican electorate that expects their candidate to go on to win in November, and wants to know him like the neighbor next door.