BOISE — It will be more than a year before anyone casts a ballot for Idaho’s next governor, but you could be forgiven for thinking it’s coming up sooner.
Tommy Ahlquist, a Boise developer and doctor vying for the Republican nomination, has been traveling the state to campaign and already has ads up on TV. Lt. Gov. Brad Little and former state Sen. Russ Fulcher, both of whom also hope to win the May 2018 GOP primary and replace Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, who isn’t running for another term, might not be on the airwaves yet but they haven’t been slacking either, announcing their intentions last summer and traveling the state to meet people and drum up support.
Both men, unlike Ahlquist who announced his run earlier this year, are former Senate majority caucus chairmen who already have some statewide name recognition and their own natural bases of support. Little was involved in influential business groups such as the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry and the Idaho Wool Growers Association for years before becoming a state senator and then lieutenant governor, while Fulcher ran against Otter from the right in the 2014 primary, getting 44 percent of the vote and carrying the state’s three most populous counties.
“Well, it’s an open race and we have a number of very qualified, competitive candidates running,” said longtime Idaho political observer Jim Weatherby, a Boise State University emeritus professor. “And this is the first opportunity Republican politicians have had in 12 years in running for an open seat in the governor’s office.”
Last time didn’t shape up quite like this race has been, though.
“There was an expectation that there was going to be a contest, a very spirited contest, between Butch Otter and then-Gov. Jim Risch, but Risch decided not to run for election and the pathway was pretty well open for Otter,” Weatherby said. “He had announced shortly thereafter he had been elected to his last term in Congress, and gotten in a lot of endorsements as well as funds.”
Three ... or four Republicans
Otter’s approach then could be contrasted with another possible congressman-turned-governor, Raul Labrador. Labrador, who like Otter once did represents the western part of the state, has been mulling a run for more than a year but has yet to commit. Thursday his political spokesman Doug Taylor pointed to Labrador’s public comments when he was in Idaho in late April, when he said he would decide “sooner rather than later.”
Both Labrador and Fulcher are popular among the further-right wing of the state GOP, and the assumption of many political watchers is that the two would compete for the same voters in the primary. Weatherby said he could see why Labrador would wait to announce, given the favorable publicity he has been getting, but added that if he waits too long, fundraising and garnering endorsements and the right campaign staff could become problems.
“Right now, he seems to be doing quite well, and from what polls I’ve heard seems to be the leading candidate,” Weatherby said. “I think the question for him (is), does he really want to risk his seat in Congress to run for governor? He’s a significant player right now, and would he want to give that up?”
Fulcher doesn’t necessarily buy into the idea that Labrador running would hurt him.
“I don’t think that’s a safe bet at all,” Fulcher said. “It certainly inserts some excitement into the race, but to be honest the biggest shakeup of that is not the governor’s race, it’s Congressional District 1. Because now all of the sudden there’s an open seat and you know there’s going to be a flood of people into that.”
Little and Ahlquist would also be dividing up votes, Fulcher said, and a four-way race would mean that theoretically someone could win with just over 25 percent.
Conversely, some political watchers have assumed Ahlquist and Little will compete for the same votes. Little didn’t sound worried about that in an interview in mid-April, saying Ahlquist didn’t register in the polls he had seen yet. Little touted his own business experience and his family across the state, saying it has given him an understanding of the culture and challenges faced both by “traditional” and “modern” Idaho.
“He’s got a lot of work to do trying to understand rural Idaho the way I understand rural Idaho,” Little said. “He’ll probably take some of my votes away in downtown Boise, that’s probably a fair assessment.”
Weatherby said he is interested to see how Ahlquist positions himself, noting that so far he has been emphasizing his conservative views, which makes sense given the closed Republican primary.
“This is his opportunity to define himself,” Weatherby said. “There is no public record here and at this point we’re really just not clear where he stands on a lot of issues.”
More Democrats expected
John Thomas Wiechec of Middleton and Lisa Marie of Boise, a frequent candidate for higher office (she ran against U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson last year), have filed to run as independents. The only Democrat to have filed so far is Troy Minton, a homeless Boise man who was a plaintiff in a successful 2013 lawsuit that led to the city’s anti-panhandling ordinance being struck down. More Democrats are expected to run, though.
“I think we all just wanted to have a break for a little bit before running again,” joked Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, who also said she is not planning to run herself.
Idaho Democratic Party interim Executive Director Dean Ferguson said the party would be working with interested candidates for governor and other statewide offices over the next couple of months.
“We’re confident we’re going to have a good candidate, but nobody’s ready to announce yet,” he said.
Boise businessman A.J. Balukoff, the Democrat who ran against Otter in 2014, told the Idaho Statesman in late February he is mulling another run. Balukoff didn’t answer an email from the Times-News by press time.
Idaho’s last Democratic governor was Cecil Andrus, who left office 22 years ago. Mathematically, a Democrat who wants to win needs to expand their appeal beyond the Democratic base and reach some Republicans and right-leaning independents who normally vote for the Republican.
“I think he might have some difficulty with a less conservative, quote-unquote, more moderate Republican like a Brad Little as opposed to maybe a more conservative candidate like Russ Fulcher,” Weatherby said.
Issues and ads
There is still more than a year and another legislative session before anybody votes. And, Weatherby said, campaigns matter.
“This is the kind of race where I’m sure the candidates running for governor will be pressed very strongly during the next legislative session to take stands on issues, and I think that will be interesting to watch,” he said.
One issue on which this has happened already is the sales tax on groceries. The Legislature passed a bill to abolish it this year, which Otter vetoed, and all three Republican candidates have come out in favor of repeal. Little told the Times-News last month it would be a broad-based tax cut and would help border communities where grocery stores compete with neighboring states that don’t tax food.
“Bottom line is, nobody wants to tax groceries,” Little said. “And if that’s the case, to be competitive I get that.”
Ahlquist has said he would have signed the repeal bill and also favors more comprehensive tax reform and called Otter’s veto “very disappointing.” And Fulcher was an early supporter of repeal, campaigning on it in 2014.
“Getting rid of this tax will help Idaho families by allowing them to keep more of the money they earn,” Fulcher wrote in late March. “Not only does this provide badly needed financial relief to struggling Idaho families, but it also means local Idaho stores will see an increase in business.”
Weatherby said that, while Little’s association with Otter could be helpful in some ways — polls have consistently shown Otter’s approval rating to be higher than his negatives, and his last two Democratic opponents didn’t surpass 40 percent of the vote — Little would also want to run as his own man and distance himself from some of Otter’s less popular views.
“Well, he needs to distance himself from Otter in some respects,” Weatherby said. “I suspect he will have Otter’s support, but he needs to run as his own person, and he stepped out and did that with the announcement he would support the grocery tax repeal even though the governor is strongly opposed to the repeal for negative fiscal reasons. … But Little, also in some way, he probably wouldn’t want to admit this, was reacting to Russ Fulcher, who openly challenged him to take a position on grocery tax repeal legislation.”
The cutoff for the last campaign finance filing period was Dec. 31, and at that point Little was far ahead — $334,000 in the bank, compared with $80,000 for Fulcher. While Ahlquist has not yet had to file any fundraising disclosures, he has been buying a lot of advertising. The first commercial started to run on TV and digital media in early March and touts his conservatism and belief in Idaho. The second came out a month ago and is about creating jobs by cutting taxes and red tape.
“The goal of the ads is to introduce Tommy to the voters and outline his conservative principles for building an even better Idaho,” said campaign spokesman Todd Cranney. “Given Tommy is not a longtime politician and is a political outsider, we felt it was important to start early to give voters every chance to get to know him.”
Ahlquist has also been traveling the state since announcing, including stops in the Magic Valley in late April. Cranney said this is more important than the advertising.
“The response has been overwhelmingly positive as Idahoans are looking for the fresh approach and new ideas Tommy will bring as our next governor,” Cranney said.
Little campaign spokesman Andrew Mitzel said he has no plans to match Ahlquist’s early advertising and is focusing on “building up his already strong grassroots campaign,” listing off stops he has made across the state in recent days, including one in Buhl on Tuesday to address the Chamber of Commerce. The primary, Mitzel said, will be won on grassroots support.
“We’re making the rounds, and Brad is fiscally conservative,” Mitzel said. “We’re saving our resources for when they matter.”
Fulcher also said Ahlquist’s push wouldn’t influence his own campaign plans and he doesn’t plan to do any TV ads yet.
“My experience has been if you go too early, you kind of get lost in the shuffle,” he said.
The governor’s race isn’t the only one that’s shaping up to be crowded. With Little seeking to move up, already four people have filed to run in the GOP primary for lieutenant governor — state Sen. Marv Hagedorn, state Rep. Kelley Packer, former state Rep. Janice McGeachin and former Constitution Party gubernatorial candidate Steve Pankey — and Steve Yates, who recently stepped down as head of the state GOP, is considering a run too.
Incumbent state Treasurer Ron Crane is not seeking re-election, and Kevin Jones, who owns an investment company in Boise, is running for the seat as a Republican. And Wilder school Superintendent Jeff Dillon is challenging incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra in the GOP primary.