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The super-expensive, heated governor’s race you aren’t paying attention to

There’s a governor’s race in the fastest-growing state in the country: Idaho.

Tommy Ahlquist, Rep. Raul Labrador and Lt. Gov. Brad Little are the three leading Republican candidates in Idaho’s governor’s race.
Tommy Ahlquist, Rep. Raul Labrador, and Lt. Gov. Brad Little are the three leading Republican candidates in Idaho’s governor’s race.
AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger

Believe it or not, Idaho, the so-called flyover state, is the fastest-growing state in the US — and this year, it’s electing a new governor.

On Tuesday, May 15, Idaho primary voters will pick their nominees for the governor’s race. There are nearly a dozen candidates vying for the executive office. Election watchers will tell you there’s only one primary really worth watching: the Republicans.

Republican Gov. Butch Otter, who was first elected in 2006, has decided not to seek a fourth term, leaving Idaho’s governor’s seat up for grabs. There are three candidates in a dead heat in a primary that will likely pick Idaho’s next governor; Rep. Raul Labrador, Lt. Gov. Brad Little, and businessman Tommy Ahlquist.

The three represent the range of the Republican Party, from the furthest-right social conservatism of Labrador, a founding member of the House’s Freedom Caucus, to the establishment business-centric Republicanism of Little and the outsider firebrand of Ahlquist.

Whoever wins will have the chance to be a rising star in the party as the governor of a rapidly growing state. A majority of residents think Idaho is heading in the right direction with Republican leadership. But they will have to address the growing pains that come with that.

This race will likely also have huge implications for the state’s health care system, as Idaho is one of several states that will likely have an initiative to expand Medicaid on the ballot this November. The state’s next governor could be tasked with implementing a Medicaid expansion.

One of these Republican candidates will likely be Idaho’s next governor

The Republican primary is a standard conservative mudslinging contest that has come to typify a competitive Republican primary this year. Headed into election day, the polls are essentially in a dead heat between the three leading candidates and there’s a huge bloc of undecided voters. Still, there’s a fair amount of daylight between the three top Republican gubernatorial candidates.

Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who has held his post since 2009, is the clear establishment choice. He has won the endorsements of all the big business interests in Idaho, and state and national politicians from Sen. Jim Risch to the current governor and state controller. He’s conservative, but he’s been billed as the “pragmatist,” perhaps less ideological on environmental and education issues in the state.

Even so, in the final weeks of the primary, his campaign has been on the attack, trying to establish himself as the most right-wing candidate even on issues like immigration, a debate the state’s legislature has largely stayed out of. He attacked Labrador and Ahlquist for having a “liberal record” on immigration in a campaign ad, which was easily countered.

Rep. Raul Labrador is a more familiar face for national politicos — he’s a former immigration lawyer turned four-term House member and founder of the House’s ultraconservative Freedom Caucus. Easily seen as the most conservative of the group, he is one of the leading conservative immigration voices in Washington, despite running for governor in a state with an agricultural sector that relies on immigrant labor. He left the infamous Gang of Eight bipartisan immigration working group in 2013 over who would pay for immigrants’ health care. (Labrador said he views health care as a “personal responsibility.”)

He’s running on a socially conservative, “tough on immigration,” small government, pro-school choice, anti-Obamacare agenda and made waves when he floated the possibility that he would consider overturning a Medicaid expansion initiative even if voters passed it.

Tommy Ahlquist, a first-time political candidate, former physician, and wealthy commercial real estate developer from Boise, sits somewhere between the two. Ahlquist didn’t have any name recognition a year ago but is now fighting neck and neck with the familiar politicians in the state. He set a new state record for the most cash fundraised in a year for a governor’s race.

“We are going to be a conservative Republican state no matter what,” Justin Vaughn, a political scientist with Boise State University, said. “But are we going to be a conservative state that businesses really like, or are we going to be the conservative state like Kansas or North Carolina engaging in the culture wars and draining the public sector?”

Ironically, not a single one of the leading Republican candidates voted for Donald Trump in Idaho’s 2016 primary. Ahlquist didn’t even vote for Trump in the general. (He says he voted for Marco Rubio.) But that’s all changed now. Ahlquist is comparing himself to Trump as an “outsider.”

With the three barreling into Tuesday’s primary election day neck and neck, the race has become tremendously expensive — especially in term of Idaho politics. Ahlquist, the outsider candidate, has outspent all the candidates at $2.16 million. He reportedly has $2.19 million in contributions, $1.87 million of which came from him personally. The rest mostly came from more than 140 corporations. Meanwhile, Little reported raising more than $1.2 million in the first four months of 2018, loaning himself $800,000. Labrador has spent the least, at $471,296; he’s raised close to $370,000 in the first months of 2018.

There’s also a Democratic race, and it’s a classic red-state intraparty fight

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Idaho state Rep. Paulette Jordan is running as the fresh, young progressive in Idaho’s Democratic race.
Sam Morris/Getty Images

Although all the attention has been on the right, two Democrats are also running in somewhat of a contentious primary for governor in Idaho. The race has become a classic tale of a Democratic Party in a red state.

There’s Paulette Jordan, a 38-year-old two-term Idaho state legislator and a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe with a background in tribal leadership who represents a young, fresh progressive face in the party. She’s received glowing coverage from national outlets like the Huffington Post. Kristin Collum, a 12-year military veteran turned techie who served in the Pentagon with Colin Powell before going to Hewlett-Packard, Micron, and Xylem, has joined the ticket for lieutenant governor.

“We are two progressive women who are very strong-minded,” Jordan told the Idaho Statesman. She would be the first woman to win the Idaho governorship — and the first Native American.

Then there’s A.J. Balukoff, who runs a string of athletic clubs and should be a familiar name to Idaho Democrats. The 72-year-old, whose main political experience is a two-decade stint on the state’s school board, spent $3 million running against Otter for governor in 2014 — and lost.

The race is an interesting test of the state’s Democratic Party, a now-common fight between the old Democratic establishment and a new young progressive base. Bernie Sanders won over Hillary Clinton by almost 70 percent in the 2016 primary.

But much like the Virginia gubernatorial primary, the split isn’t Bernie versus Hillary; it’s national establishment versus state establishment. Jordan has won the endorsements of progressive national groups like Planned Parenthood, People for the American Way, Democracy for America, Indivisible, and People for Bernie Sanders. She’s even won Cher’s endorsement. But state lawmakers and local Democrats are jumping on the establishment train with Balukoff.

But as for Democrats’ chances in the general, they’re not great.

“If a Roy Moore situation presented itself, then maybe a Democrat could win the governor’s race,” Vaughn said, adding that parts of Idaho are so red that even a “Roy Moore situation” wouldn’t change the outcome.

Idaho’s conservative roots will be put to the test on education and health care

Whoever wins the Republican primary on Tuesday will likely be the next governor of Idaho and get the chance to be the leader of a growing conservative state.

With an unemployment rate below the national average and low cost of living, Idaho experienced a 2.2 percent population growth in one year. And a fast-growing tech sector means that influx of new residents is expected to continue. But despite Idaho routinely appearing on “Best Places to Live” lists, the state’s conservative roots will be put to the test in the coming years.

Unlike many states, Idaho was hit less hard by the recession — which Vaughn attributes to a successful bout of conservative budgeting that left a healthy rainy day fund for the period of economic downturn.

The sheer number of Republican candidates is a testament to the attractiveness of that kind of political opportunity. But the job comes with high stakes.

“This new governor is going to take over when the state is experiencing tremendous growth, transitioning out of an agrarian miners economy to tech economy,” Greg Hill, the director of the Idaho Policy Institute, said.

The growing population and business market is paired with a poor education system that’s poised to create some major workforce problems in the state down the line. Idaho’s education system ranks among the worst in the nation, and the state invests little in students. According to a statewide 2017 survey from the Idaho Policy Institute, education is among the top priority for Idahoans:

Idahoans continue to regard public education in the state unfavorably. 62.8% rate the quality of education in Idaho’s K-12 public schools as either fair or poor, a figure which is up slightly from a year ago. Less than one-third of Idahoans rate the state’s public education as excellent or good, with only 4% saying excellent.

Education is followed by the economy and health care, among issues the next governor will likely have to address. Notably, despite being a conservative state, there’s likely going to be a Medicaid expansion initiative on the ballot in November, which actually has a good chance of passing.

While “there is a political culture in Idaho based around limited government intervention,” as Hill told Vox, there’s also an understanding that if taxpayer dollars are going toward Medicaid expansion, Idahoans should benefit.

But depending on who is elected to the governor’s seat, that could pose a major conflict between the state’s government and the will of the people.