Now that we’re properly into 2013, time has come — yes, it has — to start looking at the political races of 2014. In Idaho, that starts with governor.

The most day-glo prospect, as we sit in January, is that of a Republican primary pitting incumbent Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter against Rep. Raul Labrador. It’s a prospect too that allows for a real choice for Idaho Republicans.

There’s absolutely no certainty it’ll play out that way. Otter has said he plans to run, but he may have been saying that for purposes of fundraising or avoiding lame duck status. Labrador has expressed some interest in running for governor, but the pull of Washington is often heady stuff. Neither may wind up filing for the office next year.

There are reasons it could happen. The guess here is that a big reason Otter ran for re-election in 2010 was that enough people (Republicans among them) challenged his handling of the job, and Otter responds to challenges. He has one now. Otter is on the side of the Republican Party that is more establishment-oriented and concerned with economic growth; while ideology is important to him, he has shown himself willing to bend on a variety of items. He, like the state’s senators and Rep. Mike Simpson, could be put in the “realist/ pragmatist” camp. You can put on the relevant bill of goods for Otter establishing a state health insurance exchange, dumping immediate reconsideration of the Luna school laws, and improving the state’s transportation system.

Those stands have put him distinctly and fiercely at odds with the part of the party that’s more ideology-driven. Otter’s recent intense lobbying of the state Republican organization for the insurance exchange, and party leaders’ repudiation of it, was but one recent example.

And Labrador (along with Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, who seems to have been almost cast off by Otter) is very much a central figure in that more insurgent ideology group, one overlapping with the Tea Party but extending beyond it. He and Otter were in opposition (over gas tax policy) even back when Labrador was in the Idaho, not the U.S. House. In the Labrador-Simpson dustup in the last few weeks, Otter would clearly be placed closer to Simpson.

If Labrador does decide to bag Washington and run for governor, Otter might feel hard-pressed not to contest him. If Otter doesn’t run, there’s a widespread presumption that his close ally and appointee Lt. Gov. Brad Little will. A few years back, Little would have been considered a field-clearer, an easy winner. Today, he would sweep the general election, but the outcome in a statewide contested primary is harder to assess.

If it turned into an Otter-Labrador battle, the first big battle for a long time among sitting major Idaho political figures, how might it turn out? Hard to say. A general election-type electorate likely would decide for Otter, but this would be a closed primary, a much better group for Labrador.

That Simpson-Labrador spat you saw could well be writ large in 2014, if it mutates into an Otter-Labrador battle. If that happens, Idaho turns into a serious political battleground.

Randy Stapilus is a former Idaho newspaper reporter and editor, author of The Idaho Political Field Guide and co-author of Idaho 100: The people who most influenced the Gem State, and blogs at www.ridenbaugh.com. He can be reached at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com.

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