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TWIN FALLS — A.J. Balukoff kicked off his second run for governor of Idaho this month, with a tour around the state that included stops in Twin Falls and Ketchum.

The Boise businessman’s platform features the same top priority — education — as in 2014, when he faced off against incumbent Republican candidate C.L. “Butch” Otter, ultimately losing with 38 percent of the vote.

But after four years to reflect on lessons learned in 2014, Balukoff’s campaign strategy will look a little different this time around, he said. And in the wake of a recent string of unlikely Democratic victories in red jurisdictions around the country, Balukoff is optimistic that the Idaho governor’s office, which has been occupied by Republicans since 1995, could be the next to turn blue.

“What’s happened in other traditionally red states like Alabama and Viriginia has given me hope that people are getting past party labels and looking at candidates and what they stand for,” he said. “I think people are tired of the partisan bickering that we see, especially on the national level, and especially within the Republican party.”

What does Balukoff stand for? Topping his list is education.

“Four years ago, Idaho found itself at the bottom of national rankings with regard to education… whether you’re talking about education funding or student achievement,” Balukoff said. “Four years later, nothing has changed. We’re still at or near the bottom.”

In the Magic Valley area, for example, schools have had difficulty in recent years attracting certified teachers, Balukoff noted.

Twin Falls School District trustees approved 34 alternate authorizations at the start of the 2017-18 school year to hire educators without the proper certifications, including 20 unlicensed teachers, as the Times-News previously reported. Four of those unlicensed educators were student teachers who hadn’t yet graduated from college.

“Those are the people that are teaching the kids that are growing up in the Magic Valley area,” Balukoff said.

“Twin Falls has been doing a good job in attracting businesses like Chobani, Clif Bar. That’s helping the economy here,” he continued. “But for that to be sustainable, you’ve got to have a robust education system.”

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Another priority for Balukoff in 2018: expanding Medicaid — not just in an effort to close the state’s so-called “Medicaid gap” of people without health care coverage, but with the goal of alleviating the financial burden on rural hospitals in the Magic Valley and elsewhere.

“People often don’t think about that,” Balukoff said. “They think about the 78,000 people that don’t have insurance. We need to help them have access to healthcare, but we also need to help the rural hospitals around the state.”

While Balukoff’s talking points on education may sound familiar to those who followed his 2014 campaign, he plans to deliver those talking points in a more personal way this year, he said.

“I learned a lot about campaigning and especially how important it is to get out and shake hands, look people in the eye. I plan to do more of that this time around,” Balukoff said. “It’s very much a face-to-face, getting-to-know-one-another kind of campaign.”

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