If you had assumed the Idaho gubernatorial race was going to be a sleepy affair you were on safe ground initially. Afterall, the state has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since 2002 (Superintendent of Education) and no Democrat has occupied the Governorship since 1994. But Democrats have high hopes for this cycle. Their nominee, A.J. Balukoff, a moderate and head of the Boise School District Board of Trustees, has the moderate persona and personal wealth to make the race interesting.
Last week, Politico published its rolling list of the most competitive gubernatorial races in the country. Idaho, along with another state, was listed as a wildcard race. This despite the analysts admitting Otter has led by the high double digits in every poll taken. More recently, late last week, Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball listed Idaho as “Likely Republican” from “Safely Republican.” This has Democrats crowing and arguing that Otter’s liabilities are finally starting to get the better of him. But I wonder if this has more to do with the fact there are only 10 or so competitive races and analysts need something else to talk about.
Polling of the Governor’s race has been sparse. Indeed, the only pollster of the race has been CBS/NYT/YouGov. In the two polls taken on the race (a third expected soon), Otter has led by over 15 points in both. He has led among all age groups and even among Hispanics (the samples were incredibly small). He has led in every region including Southwest Idaho. Still, there are reasons for the Otter campaign to be worried.
In a bid to boost the Governor, IACI (Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry) attacked Balukoff for being a liberal. But whether their ad buy did any damage is debatable. Far more likely, it gave Balukoff name ID in the state and helped more than hurt his cause. Further, the incident is reminiscent of the 2010 ID-1 race where Congressman Walt Minnick (D) faced an upstart state rep. from Eagle in Raul Labrador. Minnick launched a district wide ad buy attacking the little known Labrador for supporting illegal immigrants. But instead of hurting Labrador many state analysts attribute it with helping Labrador gain name ID and eventually cruise to a 10 point victory in November.
In a recent analysis Balukoff has been spending far more money on the air than Otter. Balukoff has spent over $500,00 compared to less than $200,000 for Otter. Most of Balukoff’s ads have focused on introducing himself to voters while Otter’s ads have largely been positive spots touting his efforts. Otter’s ads have not mentioned Balukoff by name and Balukoff’s ads have not gone after the Governor. This is a bit of surprisingly positive campaigning compared to other races.
The ad spending between Otter and Balukoff might explain why Balukoff is seen to be gaining in the race. But, the race ratings changes appear to be moving because of things we already knew (this is from the analysts own mouths). The state GOP is divided (as showcased by the primary), Balukoff has personal money to spend on the race and voters might suffer from Otter fatigue. None of this explains why it took this for analysts to decide to make the race more competitive. Indeed, longtime analyst Jim Weatherby has said much the same since 2013.
So is Balukoff really making a move? I would argue maybe. Lack of polling makes this race difficult to assess and partisans will always argue their candidate is making ground. Heck, Democrats across the state argue all their candidates are picking up speed against their GOP foes. YouGov should come out with a new poll on the race fairly shortly as part of their third wave of polling. We can get a better gauge of the race after this poll is released but right now the race is still very much Otter’s to lose, rating’s change or no rating’s change.
Addendum: I just took the YouGov survey regarding Idaho and as such my views will be included in the next round of polling on the Governor’s race or the round after (likely the last) before election day.