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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

A Race for Governor in Idaho


Cowboy Wonk Vs. Cowboy Governor

Since 1994, the Idaho Democratic Party has been living the truth of the old saying about insanity. The definition of insanity, it is said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Four times in a row, Idaho Democrats have run essentially the same campaign for governor and four times in a row they have lost, badly.

The next Idaho gubernatorial election may – too early to tell for sure – may offer a different narrative. Twin Falls native Keith Allred threw in with the Democrats last week and barring some big surprise will be the party’s candidate against incumbent Republican Butch Otter. I say “threw in” because until his announcement, most who have known him since he moved back to Idaho five years ago would have been hard pressed to divine his partisan leanings.

After establishing a name for himself in political and media circles as a scrupulously non-partisan policy analyst and founder of a non-profit group – The Common Interest – Allred has decided to try and apply his notions about what he calls “collaborative polling” to a run for the state’s highest office.

Allred is a very smart guy, well spoken and engaging. He is also a first time candidate matched against a guy who has been on the ballot continuously since 1986. Allred is also, and I say this with genuine regard, a policy wonk. If an Idaho election could be decided on the basis of who knows the most about the gasoline tax, Allred would be a shoo-in, and, of course, if smart, wonkish guys always won elections, we’d be remembering the tenure of President Bill Bradley. Politics rarely works that way.

Elections more often turn on other factors – human factors – such as likability, toughness, passion, organizational ability and innovation. Still a deep and wide knowledge of issues sure can’t hurt a first time candidate and it is better to start informed in detail about issues than to have to learn it all during the job interview.

The political and media classes know Allred by virtue of his very solid analytical work on issues like education funding and property taxes. While relationships with the chattering classes helps with early credibility, Allred is far from a household name. To state the obvious, he has a lot of ground to cover to make himself as well know as Otter who has served at Lt. Governor, Congressman and Governor for more than two decades. As the Idaho Statesman’s Rocky Barker correctly noted recently, Otter remains one of the best retail politicians Idahoans have ever seen and retail politics still matter in Idaho.

But, back to the need for a different narrative. The Democratic Party in Idaho, never a real statewide organization, has long lacked an effective plan – including a consistent and compelling message and the leadership to push a message – that might allow it to regain the relevance it lost when Phil Batt came from behind to grab the governorship in 1994. That watershed election ended 24 straight years of Democratic dominance in the big office on the second floor of the Statehouse and Democrats have been struggling ever since.

In the four elections beginning in 1994, no Democratic candidate for governor has captured more than 44% of the vote. The party and its gubernatorial candidate cry out for new approaches, for some innovation and for effective outreach to a new Idaho; the Idaho of young immigrants, Hispanics and high tech entrepreneurs. Having said that, it is admittedly easier to diagnose the problem than to prescribe the precise remedy.

For starters, the state has changed dramatically since 1986 when my old boss, four-term Governor Cecil D. Andrus won a very close election based on his ability to target and carry 13 of the state’s 44 counties. Many of those once reliably Democratic areas have long since ceased to be friendly territory for a Democrat. Organized labor, once a pillar of Democratic strength, is now, thanks in part to right to work legislation passed in 1986, much less a pillar. And the party’s legislative ranks have not proven to be any kind of a farm team of gubernatorial or other statewide talent.

It has been a long time since Democrats have had a successful younger candidate for major office – Andrus was 39 when he was first elected, Frank Church was 32 when he went to the Senate – who could present a new face for the party. One of the brightest potentials of the 45-year old Allred’s campaign is what it might mean in terms of a youth movement for aging Idaho Democrats.

The one thing that may remain relevant from the last successful Democratic gubernatorial campaign is the Andrus message: good schools, a good economy and a good place to live. That basic message, updated for a new century, may be more telling than ever in 2010, but, of course, every good message needs a good messenger.

Meanwhile, with the exceptions of the city limits of Boise and the Sun Valley area, Republicans can, and do, contest and win elections everywhere in Idaho. The GOP does have a farm team and very importantly, as the state’s population has grown over the last two decades, Otter’s home county – Canyon – has become even more critical in a statewide race.

Here is a telling statistic and remember the state’s population growth as you consider this: In losing to Otter in 2006, Democratic candidate Jerry Brady gathered in only 5,400 more votes than Andrus did in winning the governorship 20 years earlier in that very close race against Republican David Leroy. By contrast, Otter won in 2006 with 46,000 more votes than Leroy polled against Andrus two decades ago. Those numbers – growing Republican voting strength and relatively flat Democrat numbers – represent a structural deficit for a Democrat that presents a huge challenge for anyone running statewide.

Nevertheless, at first blush, the Allred candidacy has at least two things going for it: a fresh face backed by Idaho sensibilities and the potential to write a new Democratic game plan. It was no small surprise that respected former Republican State Senator Laird Noh of Kimberly endorsed Allred right out of the box and praised his bi-partisan consensus building skills. Not a bad start, but only a start.

Woody Allen famously said that 90% of life is simply showing up. Ninety percent of politics may be showing up at the right time. Is the timing right in Idaho for a new kind of Democrat? Or, do tough times like the present argue for continuing the politics and personalities that Idahoans have grown comfortable with for 15 years? Such questions make politics winter’s best spectator sport. Tomorrow: A half dozen things to watch as an Otter-Allred race unfolds

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