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Little, Jordan talk issues at Idaho gubernatorial debate

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paulette Jordan speaks during a debate at the studios of Idaho Public Television Oct. 15 in Boise.

There’s speculation, with perhaps some wishful thinking among Democrats, that former state Rep. Paulette Jordan will run for the U.S. Senate this year – giving Idahoans at least one competitive high-level race.

As Jordan told me last week, “I’m keeping my options open. Everything is on the table.” That response falls a bit short of saying “yes” to running, but it’s a far cry from saying “no.” My hunch, after our 20-minute conversation, is that she will be challenging Sen. Jim Risch – and I imagine there will be plenty of political fanfare that will go with her “formal” announcement.

Democrats have three candidates lined up to run against Risch, but none with Jordan’s stature. She has strong statewide name recognitions from her run for governor two years ago and the ability to raise money – two ingredients that are essential for taking on a longtime incumbent. The Dems are not going to beat a guy such as Risch with slingshots.

Jordan’s gubernatorial campaign had a few internal speed bumps, but she was a strong candidate overall. People liked what she was saying about access to affordable health care, education and offering a new generation of leadership. Her election-night “concession” speech had more of the tone of a victory celebration – sending the message Idahoans have not seen the last of her.

In some respects, Jordan may be better suited for a national office than the governorship. Two years ago, the national media was giving generous attention to this young female candidate from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe who was vying for Idaho’s top office. Today, she’s working with the Democratic National Committee on a recently created Council on Environment and Climate Crisis. Jordan, the group’s director of Native American Engagement, is focusing on environmental issues (such as salmon recovery) and climate change – matters that have a national scope. So, she has a nice inside lane with the DNC, which will be working to regain the party’s control of the Senate.

Closer to home, Jordan chairs Idaho Voice, a non-partisan organization that promotes government involvement on the grassroots level. She will be the master of ceremonies on a women’s march in downtown Boise (Jan. 18) to celebrate the 100th anniversary of voting rights for women along with various accomplishments of women.

Winning the Senate seat won’t be easy, if she runs. The last Democrat to hold a Senate seat was Frank Church, and that was 40 years ago. Risch strikes the right chords for Idaho conservatives, and he’s running for re-election in a presidential election year. Risch, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has taken some hits for being “too close” to President Trump. But being a Trump ally is an asset with his GOP base.

But Jordan has things going for her. One is age. Risch is 76 and in the twilight of his career. Jordan is 40 and part of a generation that is going to have to lead at some point. Those 40 and younger are the ones who will have to figure out how to manage a $22 trillion debt and have a futuristic outlook on programs such as Social Security and Medicare. They don’t tend to view climate change as a hoax.

Larry LaRocco, a former Idaho Democratic congressman, sees some factors that work in Jordan’s favor.

“If I were Jim Risch, I wouldn’t want that matchup,” said LaRocco. “We’re still in a wave of anti-establishment thinking. You cannot deny that Bernie Sanders was a product of that, and Trump is as well. This is not unique to one political party. If you count the number of days that Risch has been in office – from the time he was a prosecuting attorney to the state Senate, lieutenant governor, governor and U.S. Senate – it’s large. People talk about term limits, but he just blows the lid off that number because he has been on the scene for so long.”

In Jordan’s run for governor, support among her colleagues in the Legislature was mixed. At least some were supporting A.J. Balukoff for the Democratic nomination. Rep. Ilana Rubel, the minority leader of the Idaho House, thinks Jordan would have broad party support if she were to run against Risch.

So, it comes down to this: Will Jordan run? There’s no doubt that competitive races are more interesting to follow than foregone conclusions.

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Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com

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