Al Henderson’s family backyard barbecue, one of the Republican Party’s top social events of the summer, is hardly a gauge for handicapping next year’s gubernatorial primary election. But the event hosted by Henderson, who ran the Senate Resource Center for two former GOP senators, reflects the measure of support for one of the candidates for governor — Lt. Gov. Brad Little.
The cover on the Henderson flyer said it all: “Governors Phil Batt, Dirk Kempthorne, Jim Risch and Butch Otter invite you to …”
Not everyone in the crowd of about 600 were political junkies, or necessarily Little supporters. The event also was a fundraiser for Hope House, which works to improve the lives of children and teens who are disabled in some way, or are in dysfunctional living situations. But there were plenty of politicos mixing and milling around, and there’s no suspense about how they are going to vote in next May’s primary election.
Little is their man — a safe and comfortable choice as Idaho’s next governor. He’s not going to come up with a revolutionary agenda, propose massive reforms or dazzle audiences with his campaign stump speeches. But that’s not what his supporters are looking for. Little is an Idahoan through and through — the only candidate who can make that claim — and the feeling is that state government is running well. There’s no need for a Donald Trump clone to talk about “draining the swamp,” or shaking up the core of state government.
As one prominent supporter told me, there is no “swamp” to drain. That was done more than a decade ago when Idaho’s economy was rocked by the recession. There was a lot of pain that came from massive budget cuts in education and other programs. But Otter, with the help of the Legislature, managed to get through those tough years in better shape than a lot of states. The economy has recovered well in recent years, with impressive growth numbers, and there was enough state revenue to bring education funding well into the 21st century.
Little, as a state senator and lieutenant governor, was involved with the management of state government during good times and bad. To his supporters, he has a level head and the kind of common sense Idahoans want in a governor. He’s seen as fiscally conservative, while realizing there is a role for state government and a demand for certain services. As a state small in population, Idaho only can afford so much. But being governor doesn’t mean saying “no” to everything.
His supporters are nervous about the alternatives. Congressman Raul Labrador has made his mark as a political bomb-thrower, and he’s darn good in that role. He’s been a thorn to Otter’s side on different levels for more than a decade and was instrumental in knocking former Congressman John Boehner out of the House speaker’s chair two years ago. But Labrador has never been the guy at the top, and was rejected in his only bid for a leadership position in the House. Little supporters seem to fear what state government might look like under Labrador, or how he would react if he doesn’t get his way with the Legislature. Even the best of governors don’t always win the political battles.
There’s plenty of uncertainty with Boise developer Tommy Ahlquist. As one Little supporter told me, “He was a surgeon, then a businessman and now he wants to be governor … with zero government experience.”
Suffice it to say that Little has a clear lane to the nomination as the GOP’s “establishment” candidate. But this is not the only lane in this gubernatorial race. Labrador has the backing of leading conservatives who seem to put Otter in the same light as Al Capone and think Little offers nothing more than four more years of crony capitalism. Ahlquist supporters think there is room in the governor’s chair for a bright guy with good ideas and a fresh perspective of how state government should be run.
Picking the winner of next year’s Super Bowl would be easier than calling this one. It’s in the hands of about 30 percent of Idaho’s voters who bother to cast ballots in a primary election.
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Chuck Malloy, a Silver Valley native and longtime Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at email@example.com.