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Stapilus: Arkoosh and the TBI constituency

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In 2018, the Democratic nominee for Idaho attorney general was Bruce Bistline, running to unseat Republican incumbent Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.

Sort of. He was really a placeholder candidate for the Democratic Party, filed in case Wasden had lost his primary to someone else. Bistline didn’t actually have much problem with Wasden, and he didn’t run a hard campaign for the office. This is to say that, while Bistine was a perfectly decent candidate, the vote he got was really the base of people who would not vote for even a broadly-acceptable Wasden for AG. This was the solidly Democratic vote.

Bistline got 34.6 percent, an unsurprising result.

In this year’s Republican primary election, the placeholder scenario from last time materialized. Former Representative Raul Labrador, who would be considered much less acceptable by nearly all Democrats and some portion of independents and Republicans, took 51.6 percent of the Republican primary vote, besting Wasden’s 37.9 percent. The rest went to attorney Art McComber, whose support base overlapped with Labrador’s, so the anti-Wasden vote from the right actually was about 62 percent.

The Democratic response to this was to change out their placeholder (Steve Scanlin, an attorney and years ago a state legislator) with one intending a serious race: Attorney Tom Arkoosh.

Based on his background, Arkoosh would be a plausible AG candidate in any year. He is a prominent figure in the Boise legal community and has practiced across a wide range of legal specialties, was a prosecutor in Gem County, has deep personal background in the Magic Valley and was highly active in the Snake River Basin Adjudication, the latter a point of high interest in rural southern Idaho.

His political background is slight; he has described himself as a non-partisan independent until registering as a Republican for this year’s primary election, and since re-registering as a Democrat to run for attorney general.

He has full Democratic support, but that alone wouldn’t do the job for him: As recent election results have shown, Democrats in Idaho running against established Republicans have not fared well.

More significant might be support indicated by his campaign treasurer: Jim Jones, the former state Supreme Court chief justice and a former Republican attorney general. (Disclosure: His columns regularly appear on my group blog, and I’ve published one of his books.) He is the most visible of a group of Republicans (one central organization, of which Jones is one of the leaders, is Take Back Idaho) who thought Wasden was a good AG and who consider Labrador an unacceptable option.

Labrador’s rhetoric in the last few months of the campaign has actually been relatively muted, but his stance is clear: He seems likely to inject far right activism into an office that has been run as the state’s down-the-middle law firm. That means he is exactly what many Idaho legislators and rightist agitators want but many other mainstream Republicans (you could likely put Governor Brad Little, who worked smoothly with Wasden, into this group) would not.

Labrador as a three-term member of Congress was more ideological activist—a stirrer of the boiling pot, one of a growing contingent of politicians these days—than a traditional representative. He was completely explicit about this in 2015 during debate over a federal government shutdown, when as a House member he told the magazine the New Yorker, “If people just want to ‘govern,’ which means bringing more government, they’re always going to choose the Democrat.” Doing the work of governing wasn’t what he was about.

Arkoosh, without saying quite so explicitly (he might do well to be more explicit), seems to be campaigning to run the office generally the way Wasden has.

The election is likely to turn on how many of those pro-Wasden voters from the primary (and other general election-only voters who agreed with them) actually might be willing to switch over and vote for a candidate whose background and appeal is independent but is running under the Democratic label.

Important as the office of attorney general is, the implications of the result will run wider.

Randy Stapilus is a former Idaho newspaper reporter and editor and blogs at ridenbaugh.com. He can be reached at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com. His new book “What Do You Mean by That?” has just been released and can be found at ridenbaugh.com/whatdoyoumeanbythat and on Amazon.com.

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