State Senator Russ Fulcher could be the first candidate since 1966 to unseat an incumbent Governor in his party's primary.
State Senator Russ Fulcher could be the first candidate since 1966 to unseat an incumbent Governor in his party’s primary.

It took a little digging but the last time an incumbent Governor was defeated in Idaho was back in 1966.  According to Randy Stapilus, rock dealer Ron Samuelson of Sandpoint defeated three term Governor Robert Smylie for the GOP nod in 1966.  Samuelson would go on to win the general in 1966 but be the first of three other Republicans to fall to Cecil Andrus, in 1970.  Now, it appears there is a good chance history could repeat itself next year.

Two term Governor Butch Otter is all but guaranteed to run for reelection despite constant speculation about his future.  Possible challengers to him have run the ideological spectrum.  Earlier in the year conservative activists urged Congressman Raul Labrador to run against Otter.  When Labrador declined speculation turned to a possible Little/Otter primary.  However, Otter and Little are strong friends and supporters of each others agenda and Little soon made clear he is content to be Lt. Governor.  Conservative activists must be thrilled that state senator and Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher announced in late November that he is running against Otter.

This primary has the possibility to deeply divided the party.  Otter represents the business/establishment wing of the party.  Otter urged the legislature to cut personal property taxes last session which they did at the last second.  Also, and more importantly, Otter called for the creation of a state healthcare exchange mandated by Obamacare.  Despite its passage and creation and lawmakers crawling over themselves to decry Obamacare but vote for the exchange (unless you were a Democrat) the issues it has caused for the Governor will surely play out in the primary.

Fulcher, on the other hand, has created a reputation of being a rebel in the state senate as well as breaking with senate leadership when needed.  Most prominent was his fight against the state healthcare exchange.  Fulcher was one of 9 other Republicans who ultimately voted against its final passage.  Fulcher is as strong a social conservative as Otter and is far more populist in his rhetoric and his solutions.  Fulcher is a firm supporter of Idaho managing currently federally managed land and is not a fan of Common Core education standards.  Otter has hedged on both.

The GOP primary’s outcome can be summed up in one word: Obamacare. While Otter is certainly no fan of the law his creation of the state health exchange enraged conservative activists.  They saw Otter’s cave as giving into the federal government on the law and also weakening any future lawsuit Idaho could bring.  Otter and the business community argued they really had no choice.  It was either have the state create an exchange, giving Idaho more autonomy in management of the exchange or do nothing and have the federal government create and manage it. Yet not all has gone smoothly with the exchange.  The board that oversees the panel has had contracting issues (conflict of interests) and worries about its solvency mean fees will be raised to use an insurance plan within the exchange (raising individual prices).

Fulcher is sure to find fertile support among conservatives across the state for his challenge to Otter.  Where he may struggle is courting support among the business community.  Still, Otter is running in an environment where it is not conducive to be an incumbent.  Furthermore, Otter is the first incumbent since Smylie to seek a consecutive third term in office making it easy to brand him as a career politician.  As Senator Fulcher said in an interview with Dan Popkey, “You can have all the money in the world but if you don’t have the people then you don’t have the votes.”

It would be easy to assume Fulcher will find a fertile base of support regionally in North Idaho and Otter in SE Idaho but that is far to simplistic.  In fact there are parallels between Fulcher and than state rep. Raul Labrador in 2010. Labrador won an upset primary victory over establishment favorite Vaughn Ward that year on his way to defeating Congressman Walt Minnick (D) in the general.  Labrador was as conservative as Fulcher and represented a suburban Eagle district, Fulcher represents a suburban Meridian district.  Both also have easily won reelection in these perceived establishment friendly areas.  In reality, many of these suburban Republican voters are strongly conservative and not necessarily supportive of the state exchange and Otter.

By the same token Otter has strong connections to North Idaho both business and personal.  Otter also may have a trump card that Fulcher cannot match.  Otter has strong connections to Eastern Idaho which has a huge contingent of Republicans.  His relations with legislative leadership is also on excellent terms suggesting that leaders like Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill and Majority Leader Bart Davis will heavily push his candidacy in the vote rich region.

Fulcher has something Otter does not however.  The power of a strongly conservative, anti-federal government message and the advantage of not being an incumbent. As Popkey put in his article for the Statesman recently the bumper stickers for Fulcher’s campaign write themselves.  More specifically, “No Ottercare, No Obamacare and “Kick out career politicans, vote Fulcher.”

Fulcher also has a secret weapon that will help his campaign since it is likely to be outspent by the Otter camp: talk radio.  KIDO’s host Kevin Miller has all but endorsed Fulcher.  The grassroots network of Ron Paul and Tea Party supporters will also likely help the challenger get out his message.

It is easy to write off Fulcher’s challenge to Otter.  Afterall, he will be outspent and does not have as strong name recognition as the Governor.  However, his non-incumbent status, conservative stances on key issues and support from talk radio might just be enough to nullify Otter’s edge.  Both Otter and Fulcher have been in politics long enough to know that a lot can change in a short amount of time in politics but right now unless something changes before May this race is likely to divide the party and go down to the wire!

Addendum: Some might think the closed primary will help Fulcher as the closed primary will ensure only registered Republicans can vote in the primary.  This suggests that if the primary was not closed Democrats and Independents would cross over and choose the lesser of two evils and side with Otter.  Yet, they still can, just switch their affiliation before the primary and switch back later before the general election.  It is more likely that the closed primary may have an impact on the winner’s margins but it is unlikely to be the reason Fulcher wins.

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