On Tuesday night, Rep. Paulette Jordan became the first woman in Idaho history to win a major party’s nomination for governor.
As a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, Jordan also became the first Native American woman in U.S. history to earn that distinction.
While she hails from North Idaho, Jordan’s easy 38,458 to 26,365-vote victory over 2014 Democratic nominee and longtime Boise School Board member A.J. Balukoff came mostly thanks to the voters of the heavily populated Treasure Valley. According to the Idaho Secretary of State office, Jordan defeated Balukoff 18,919 to 10,645 in Ada County. In Canyon County, she beat Balukoff 3,363 to 1,670. Those two counties alone accounted for 58 percent of her total votes and 82 percent of her 12,093-vote margin of victory.
Jordan also fared very well in Latah County, home to most of her former legislative district’s voters. A whopping 76 percent of Democratic voters in the Moscow-dominated county chose Jordan, giving her an additional 1,512 votes to pad her win over Balukoff.
Jordan had less of an easy time winning her home county of Benewah County, site of most of the Coeur d’Alene Reservation. Jordan pulled out a 293-232 win there.
Balukoff fared better in the north and east than in his native Treasure Valley. Balukoff prevailed in Kootenai County 2,583 to 2,480, in Bannock County 1,959 to 1,597, and in Bonneville County 1,056 to 929. However, Balukoff’s margins of victory in the east and north couldn’t keep pace with Jordan’s appeal statewide. Just as Lt. Gov. Brad Little won almost every county west of Twin Falls and south of Riggins in the Republican gubernatorial primary, Jordan fared very well in the southwestern, south-central, and central parts of the Gem State. A third Democratic candidate, Peter Dill, garnered 962 votes, or 1.5 percent, of the Democratic vote statewide.
Jordan attributed her victory to “the people.”
“We’re all one, we’re neighbors, we’re one Idaho family,” she said Thursday. “It wasn’t just Democrats that elected me, it was the entire body of people that represent all of Idaho.”
Paula Neils, chairman of the Kootenai County Democratic Central Committee, said Balukoff’s win in Kootenai County reflects the character of the local area.
“Maybe Kootenai County is a little more conservative than some of the other precincts,” she observed. However, she added that “there was a progressive wave across the state for Paulette. I think that’s kind of good news for the party that we might have new energy blowing in.”
Fittingly, perhaps, Neils will hand over the local party reins to 26-year-old state representative candidate Shem Hanks this month, she said.
Coeur d’Alene Democrat Tom Hearn said the energy behind Jordan’s campaign reminded him of a similar outpouring of love for Sen. Bernie Sanders during the Democratic presidential primary caucus in 2016. The Kootenai County Democratic caucus was overflowing, he said. Seventy-six percent of Kootenai County Democrats supported Sanders.
Speaking of the Jordan-Balukoff contest, Hearn said, “A lot of Democrats saw this race as almost Hillary vs. Bernie, the establishment vs. a more progressive, younger candidate.”
Neils said that when Jordan had spoken at legislative meet-and-greets over the past few years, “She’s always been really articulate and dynamic and that really attracted people’s support.” The Jordan campaign was filled with enthusiastic volunteers who made phone calls and used social media to propel Jordan past Balukoff, said Neils.
Hearn has worked with Balukoff on school board issues and endorsed him during the primary campaign. Balukoff had the support of most of the state’s established Democratic figures, including 12 of Idaho’s 17 Democratic state legislators. No Democratic legislator endorsed Jordan during the primary campaign, even though they had worked alongside her in Boise since 2015.
The Democratic base is frustrated at the Republican-dominated state government’s refusal to address Democratic priorities such as more money for mental health services, public schools, public teachers, Medicaid expansion, and road maintenance, said Hearn. Jordan is a person whom Democrats hope will be able to provide leadership to resolve those issues.
“There’s a lot of energy behind her,” he said.
Jordan promised Thursday that if elected governor, “We won’t be victims to corporate raids. Idaho can band together to guarantee that our farms stay ours.”
She pledged that “fully-funded health care is on the horizon when I’m governor,” as well as fully-funded psychological and mental health services for children, Medicaid expansion, and wildlife preservation.
On education, Jordan vowed “great schools for our cities and rural communities,” better pay for public school teachers, and “opportunities to allow our teachers to succeed in the classroom” that give public school teachers “more freedoms” and “ensure they have the resources they need.”
However, Hearn warned that the 2016 caucus holds a lesson for the state’s Democrats. After Sanders lost to Clinton during the primary season, the progressive wind was no longer in the Democratic Party’s sails, he said.
“Energy went down. A huge amount of Democrats disengaged and were very disappointed,” he added.
That may have led to lower-than-usual Democratic turnout in some local precincts which usually go Democratic but flipped for the Republicans, he said.
Reaching out to independents and persuadable Republicans will be important for Jordan if she wants to win in November, Hearn said. Four-time Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus did so, according to Hearn.
Neils said she had been conflicted as to which candidate to support during the primary, and had hoped that the party’s voters would decide for themselves. By nominating Jordan in resounding fashion, they did, said Neils.
“I’m hopeful and I’m looking forward to all of our A.J. supporters joining the rest of the Democrats in voting her into office,” Neils said.
Jordan follows in the footsteps of former Idaho Attorney General Larry EchoHawk. The Pawnee Nation member won the Democratic nomination for governor in 1994 but lost to Republican Phil Batt. EchoHawk later served as Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs during the Obama Administration.
A spokesman for the Balukoff campaign declined a request for comment Thursday. In a post on his campaign’s Facebook page Wednesday, though, Balukoff congratulated Jordan on her win, thanked his volunteers, and urged party unity.
Jordan said along the campaign trail she “learned that Idaho has a lot of underdogs.” But, she said, “We are the land of champions.”
Jordan had a message to those “not fully committed to the vision: We can do this together,” she said.