Since 2006 Democrats have run against the same GOP face for Governor, Butch Otter. Both times (2006 and 10) the party has come up short against what they view/viewed as a flawed Republican. Otter is considered a heretic by some in the party for supporting a state exchange and the state party has deep divisions. This go-round, Democrats have a solid candidate in AJ Balukoff.
Balukoff brings to the table everything Idaho Democrats could want in a candidate. He is an accomplished businessman, serves on several charitable boards and is Chair of the Boise School District Board of Trusetees. His campaign is full of young talent (just look at his staff) and his message is one that speaks to fiscal conservatism and anti-cronyism, all things conservatives and liberals alike love to hear.
But for all his strengths A.J. is inevitably tied down by the two labels he cannot shake, he is a liberal and a Democrat. Since 1994, no Democrat running for the governor’s post has been able to shake these labels.
One ad in particular highlights Balukoff’s problem. The ad, now on TV and also online at http://www.liberalaj.com, portrays Balukoff as an out of touch liberal elitist whose values align with Obama (judge for yourself here). Fair or unfair these attacks work.
The lines of attack in the ad are particularly effective when you consider the issues they touch on; taxes, spending, supporting Obamacare, giving Idaho land to the federal government (Boulder-Whiteclouds Monument), taxpayer-funded campaigns (public financing), wolves and guns. In all cases, Balukoff is to the left of the general Idaho electorate. Today, many of the stances the IACI website highlights are considered “liberal” in the state.
But Democrats have won elections In Idaho even while being to the left of the electorate on some issues.. Cecil Andrus won four terms amidst an electorate that was more pro-gun and anti-union than he was. However, Andrus was a special candidate that came to power due to unique circumstances. He had a touch with voters no other Democrat since has been able to match.
The rise of polarization nationwide also means the other title Balukoff claims, “Democrat,” sinks his campaign. Especially when you consider a prior statement the IACI ad highlights, “I am a Democrat because the values of the Democratic Party most closely align with my own.” Balukoff might have been able to run as being an Independent Democrat, one who puts Idaho first but that statement damns him. Conservative Independents and Republicans link him to Obama and inevitably moderates do as well.
There are not many ways for a Democrat to combat this image once it is ingrained in the Idaho electorate. Business groups such as IACI and the Otter campaign are working hard to ensure it is by November. Meanwhile, the Balukoff campaign is simply trying to introduce their candidate to the broader electorate.
Balukoff faces other issues as well. He is from Boise (politically different from the rest of the state), has the support of LBGT groups and heads a school district most Idahoans view as a boondoggle. The Otter campaign has hammered him for supporting multiple levies since 1997 when he first started serving on the School Board.
Balukoff has tried to head some of these issues off. He has themed his support of LBGT rights around libertarianism. He has hammered Otter on the Luna Laws and education funding (though the FY 2014-2015 budget increases spending 5%) and cites his tenure on the Boise School Board as a strength.
N0ne of these efforts are strong enough to overcome Idaho’s partisan lean in a good year for Democrats however. This election is not looking kind to Democrats anywhere.
Democrats remain bullish on Balukoff but history offers a grim assessment of his chances. Since 1990, when Andrus hit 61% in his successful bid for a fourth term as Governor no Democrat has even reached 45%. Only two have hit or exceeded 40%. Outside of Sun Valley and Boise the party has little base. Further, Idaho has only become more Republican in the age of Obama.
Balukoff is probably the best candidate Democrats could run this cycle. Unfortunately, he is not nearly a good enough candidate to attract the broad support he needs to win against a subpar incumbent. Considering this, the party should consider it a win if he hits 40% this November (I go with 35%-38%).