Lt. Gov. Brad Little, the state establishment’s pick, has claimed the Republican nomination in Idaho’s governor’s race after a heated and expensive campaign, beating Rep. Raul Labrador and entrepreneur Tommy Ahlquist.
For months, the three Republicans have been leading the pack in a crowded seven-person primary to succeed Gov. Butch Otter, a Republican who decided not to seek a fourth term. The candidates poured millions into the gubernatorial primary. Little reported raised more than $1.2 million in the first four months of 2018, loaning himself $800,000, only second to Ahlquist’s spending — a whopping number in Idaho politics.
He will be up against Democrat Paulette Jordan in November.
In a deep-red, essentially one-party state, Little is expected to win the general election and go on to be the next Idaho governor. Idaho’s executive office presents a unique opportunity to be a rising star in the Republican Party as the governor of a rapidly growing state. Given Idaho’s expanding new tech sector and a booming population, a majority of residents think the state is heading in the right direction with Republican leadership.
Little, an established name in Idaho who has served as Otter’s No. 2 since 2009, will be a clear continuation of that leadership but will have to address the state’s growing pains.
The new governor faces a worsening education system and deteriorating infrastructure in a state that very well may have a Medicaid expansion initiative on the ballot this November.
Little was the establishment choice for Idaho
Despite running on the slogan “Bold New Leadership for Idaho,” Little represents a clear continuation of Idaho’s current leadership. An establishment name in Idaho Republican politics, he has won the endorsements of all the big business interests in Idaho, plus state and national politicians from Sen. Jim Risch to the current governor and state controller.
A longtime rancher, Little began his political career in 2001, when he was appointed to an Idaho Senate vacancy. He remained in the state Senate, filling a leadership role as the majority caucus chair until 2009, when he was appointed by Otter to fill the lieutenant governor vacancy after Risch was elected to the US Senate.
Little is conservative, but he’s been billed as the “pragmatist,” perhaps less ideological on environmental and education issues in the state. He’s said he wants to focus on improving early childhood reading scores and bring back vocational programs, and is against reducing funding for public schools in favor of voucher programs.
“Anytime you do anything that moves the amount of money that’s ready to go into the pool for K-12 spending, I’ve always had an issue with,” Little told the Post Register. “And some of the voucher proposals I’ve seen are pretty significant. I’d have to be significantly convinced that a big voucher program that takes money away from, particularly, rural school districts is good for the totality of our obligation to educate our kids.”
Even so, on paper, Little appears to be consistent with the state’s conservative roots: anti-abortion, pro-tax cuts, anti-Obamacare. And in the final weeks of the primary, his campaign tried to establish him as the most right-wing candidate on issues like immigration, a debate the state’s legislature has largely stayed out of. He even attacked Labrador and Ahlquist for having a supposedly “liberal record” on immigration in a campaign ad, which was easily countered.
Idaho’s conservative roots will be put to the test on education and health care
Idaho has a lot going for it right now. With an unemployment rate below the national average and a low cost of living, the state saw its population grow 2.2 percent in one year. And a fast-growing tech sector means the influx of new residents is expected to continue.
Idaho wasn’t hit as hard by the recession as many other states, which Justin Vaughn, a political scientist with Boise State University, attributes to a successful bout of conservative budgeting that left a healthy rainy day fund for the period of economic downturn.
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.
“This new governor is going to take over when the state is experiencing tremendous growth, transitioning out of an agrarian, miners economy to a tech economy,” Greg Hill, the director of the Idaho Policy Institute, said.
The growing population and business market are paired with a poor education system that may create 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 voters want the next governor to address. Notably, despite being a conservative state, there will likely 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.
Little said he would follow the will of the people if the initiative passes.