AJ Balukoff announcing his candidacy for Governor.
AJ Balukoff announcing his candidacy for Governor.

Idaho has not had a Democratic Governor since Cecil Andrus’s last gubernatorial bid in 1992.  Since that time the state has experienced a steady influx of GOP Governors: Phil Batt (95-99), Dirk Kempthorne (99-06), Jim Risch (06-7) and Butch Otter (07-current).  Each election has been won by Republicans by varying margins but the best shot for any Democratic candidate since Andrus was in 2006.  Kempthorne was stepping down and the seat was open.  That year Otter won 53% of the vote against Jerry Brady, still a clear majority, even as his party was being crushed nationwide.  So what chance does Balukoff stand in a neutral to slightly hostile national environment for Democrats in a state as red as Idaho?

As tempting as it is to say not much that is far to simplistic an answer.  Balukoff has a largely non-partisan political record and is well known in Boise for serving as a Trustee on the Boise School District’s board.  Much as Keith Allred ran on in 2010 Balukoff’s campaign will focus on his moderate image, business and education experience and take potshots at the cronyist nature of Butch Otter’s tenure.  Balukoff, a wealthy individual, is certainly not going to lack for campaign cash in an inexpensive state like Idaho.

Perhaps Balukoff’s chances would be even worse if not for the brewing GOP primary between Governor Otter and state senator Russ Fulcher.  Otter is almost certain to run for a third term (unprecedented electorally) while Fulcher is certain to attack him from the right.  In the legislature Fulcher has cultivated an image of a libertarian conservative opposing Medicaid Expansion, higher taxes and voting against the state Health Exchange.  Otter was a vocal supporter of the state Health Exchange and Medicaid expansion is a wildcard heading into 2014.

The primary between Otter and Fulcher is sure to divide the state GOP along business/establishment and conservative/grassroots interests.  This creates an opportunity for Balukoff to appear to be the principled, moderate statesman offering voters a different course for the state.  Easier said than done of course.  Keep in mind in 2010 that Keith Allred tried the same tactic and took a dismal 33% of the vote compared to Otter’s 59%.

Balukoff does have a path to victory even if it is narrow.  His path has been blazed by former victorious Democrats including Cecil Andrus and most recently Congressman Walt Minnick.  Looking at Andrus’s last victory in 1990 (I could not find a map to link so I had to use a data table here) he ran up massive margins in Ada and dominated Northern and Eastern Idaho.  Balukoff hitting Andrus’s margins are unlikely but if he can be even with Fulcher/Otter in North Idaho, run up margins in Ada County and keep down his losing margin in East Idaho he has a shot.

Congressman Walt Minnick’s 2008 victory in the 1st Congressional District should offer him some hope.  That year, Minnick won the part of Ada County in the 1st Congressional district and won over many conservative suburbanite voters. and narrowly lost North Idaho giving him his narrow victory over then Congressman Bill Sali.  Minnick ran as a centrist businessman.  Of course he was swept out of office easily in 2010 when the national environment was toxic to his party.

There are even lessons Balukoff can take from the 2006 gubernatorial campaign between Bill Brady and Butch Otter.  Brady garnered 44% of the vote that year and carried Ada County by several thousand votes.  He also lost Twin Falls and Kootenai County by small margins.  However, in heavily rural small and large counties (think Canyon and Boise for examples) he was crushed.  This means Balukoff cannot just focus on Southeast and Northern Idaho if he hopes to win next year.

Cautions are in order here for the examples I list above.  Andrus’s last run was in 1990 and the state had a great love affair with the former Governor.  Also the GOP put up token opposition to him that year.  In 2006 the GOP brand was toxic suggesting that if Brady can only get 44% in a favorable environment to his party, well, Balukoff will struggle to build on that margin.  Furthermore, in 2008 the GOP brand remained toxic and Minnick was running against a flawed incumbent and the 1st District did/does not include the heavily Republican Eastern Idaho.  Also, voters evaluate state races differently from federal races.

All this considered does Balukoff stand a chance against Otter or Fulcher?  Not really.  Idaho may be changing politically and demographically but it still is a strong Republican state.  Short of metro Boise and Sun Valley the state lacks a strong Democratic constituency for statewide races.  Furthermore, even if Fulcher defeats Otter in the primary it is unlikely moderate voters will run away from Fulcher.  Many of these moderate voters hold fiscally conservative views on issues and oppose Obamacare.  Balukoff cannot deny his linkage to these issues because of his party affiliation.  So in truth Balukoff will just be another has run Democrat in Idaho who started out with a chance but ultimately fell to the political realities of Idaho.

In a future post I will evaluate the Otter/Fulcher primary.

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