Idaho's GOP Governor Faces Two Hurdles: A Wealthy Democrat And Fed-Up Republicans

Oct 28, 2014

Gov. Butch Otter, with First Lady Lori Otter, spoke at the Republican Party's "unity rally" in May.
Credit Emilie Ritter Saunders / Boise State Public Radio

A favorite joke in Idaho -- at least among Republicans -- is that Idaho's Democrats could hold their convention in a phone booth.

Republicans have held the Idaho governor's office for 20 years and are easily the state’s ruling party. But this year, Republican governor Butch Otter doesn't face the easy ride back to office you might expect.

About 30 people gathered in the creaky gymnasium of a former school in Coeur d'Alene. Many were teachers from the local district. They came here to listen to A.J. Balukoff, the Democrat who's trying to keep Gov. Otter from winning a third term.

Balukoff, a long-time member of the Boise School Board, told the crowd he's never considered himself a politician. But he said cuts to Idaho education in recent years changed that.

Fifteen minutes into his talk, Balukoff paused and pointed to a man along the wall. He was wearing a black suit and held a video camera. The campaign said he had been following them since September. They thought he was a political tracker.

“We're not sure who he's working with,” Balukoff said. “He won't tell us.”

Democratic challengers don't usually get political trackers in Idaho -- they're more likely to get ignored. But Balukoff is getting attention.

Looking past the label

He has painted himself as a centrist. He's a Mormon businessman who supported Mitt Romney and once gave to Otter's bid for Congress. Balukoff co-owns CenturyLink Arena in Boise and he's far out-spent Otter by putting more than $3.2 million of his own money into the campaign.

Balukoff said Idahoans just need to look past the Democrat label.

A.J. Balukoff has funded 87 percent of his campaign with his own money.
Credit AJForIdaho.com

“I've just watched how a one-party monopoly has driven our state to the bottom in education and, really, job opportunities and I'm here to change the culture, change the approach and the tone,” he said.

Balukoff has been going after Otter for his handling of a private corrections company that understaffed the state’s largest prison and fraudulently billed the state.

The day after Balukoff’s appearance in Coeur d’Alene, video by the tracker from an earlier stop appeared on the website of the Republican Governors Association. It shows Balukoff saying he would be willing to discuss a new sales tax proposal.

Infighting and animosity

The Otter campaign and its allies may well have reason to watch out for the competition. So says long-time Idaho political observer and retired professor Jim Weatherby. He said Otter’s Democratic challenger is only one threat.

“The question also is about the state of the Republican organization right now, with all of the infighting and animosity and the threats by the right wing that they're not going to support Otter,” Weatherby said.

A couple of big issues have upset people on the far-right end of the Republican party. One, Otter’s support of school standards called the Common Core that some people fear will remove local control. The other, Otter’s decision to create a state-run health exchange under Obamacare.

And now, frustrated conservatives have a third candidate to consider.

A challenge from the right

A roomful of potential voters dig into lasagna and green beans at a church in north Idaho before listening to a panel of candidates. One of the candidates at the front of the room is John Bujak. He's a former Republican who's now running for governor as a Libertarian.

“This time around it's time to vote for the only conservative candidate on the ballot and that's me,” Bujak said. ”I’d appreciate your vote on November 4.”

As Bujak talked, Kris Storey, a Republican precinct chair in north Idaho, jotted down notes. And Storey liked what John Bujak had to say about standing up to the federal government.

“This is tough,” Storey said. “I’ve always voted for Otter. However, maybe for the first time in many, many years I may be voting Libertarian or something instead of Republican.”

“I mean, I'm a precinct chairman, so that means I'd have to give up my job,” she added with a laugh. “But I thought he sounded very good and you know he does sound conservative.”

And for Otter, that’s a threat.

Even so, the Republican incumbent was easily ahead of his Democratic opponent A.J. Balukoff in a poll co-sponsored by the New York Times and CBS in September. But a Democratic-leaning polling firm found only a four-point spread between Otter and Balukoff a few weeks later.

Not taking any chances

The Otter campaign made a swing through north Idaho recently as part of the Republican Party's election year bus tour. Otter has been talking up his own 20-point plan to improve education. He released an ad disputing Balukoff's accusations about the governor's involvement with the private prison company.

And the D.C.-based Republican Governors Association has spent $500,000, mainly for ads comparing Balukoff to President Obama.

Otter is also reaching out to voters in places like Kootenai County, where he lost to a more conservative Republican in the primary. He said he wants to prove that of all the candidates, he comes closest to representing Idaho’s values.

“Ronald Reagan said it best -- ‘You know, the person I agree with 20 percent of the time is not my enemy because we agree 80 percent of the time.’”

Still, the percentages that matter most as election day approaches won't be how much voters agree with Otter, but whether those voters turn out.

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