Risch, to *lt* governor

Not to hammer the point too heavily, but, well, we thought this might happen. And so we can’t report ourselves shocked, shocked.

Jim RischSome Idahoans probably were surprised, though, this afternoon when Lieutenant Governor Jim Risch said that he would run in 2006, not for governor as many had anticipated, but for re-election as lieutenant governor. (To which office he very likely will be returned. A quick disclosure note here: Your scribe was the manager of the 2002 general election campaign for Risch’s opponent.)

One of them may be a Boise columnist who stated plainly that Risch would be seeking the governorship – as Risch, to be sure, had strongly indicated for quite a while. This space, on July 7, suggested caution in adopting that view.

Here’s a piece of the July 7 post:

The new Dan Popkey column in the Idaho Statesman does something unusual and dangerous: It makes a flat, unqualified prediction about something a politician will do. In this case, in discounting the rumor mill swirling around Boise, it says that Lieutenant Governor Jim Risch will run for governor in 2006.

And maybe he will. But this space wagers not a cent on what Risch will do.

Popkey quotes Risch several times in his column, but the language the lieutenant governor uses is – and this is not unusual for him – a little elliptical. The key quote: “You’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg on the rumors … The whole thing’s a result of this getting started so early. I’ve said all along, ‘We have a plan and we’re sticking to the plan.’ Until then, I’m not doing interviews, and I’m not going to comment on rumors.”

You can keep looking for a while for the “I’m running for governor – period – end of story” in there, but you won’t find it. (If Risch told Popkey something like that, Popkey didn’t use it, which suggests the words weren’t spoken.)

And if the rumors are rampant, the reason isn’t entirely limited to the summer political doldrums. And if the argument for Risch doing something next year other than the governor’s race has gained attention, there’s plenty of reason for that too.

Risch would like to be governor, no doubt, and there’s little doubt that he sought and won his current office with the idea he would move up, either through election in ’06 or succession before then, if Governor Dirk Kempthorne lands an outside job. Succession still could happen, but it grows ever less likely with time. If it does – if Kempthorne really does leave sometime in, oh, the next seven or eight months – then a Risch candidacy for governor would make a great deal of sense. He’d be running as an incumbent, and probably a powerful one.

Meantime, he has a problem named Butch Otter. Otter is a former lieutenant governor and now the three-term congressional from the 1st U.S. House district. Otter may not have formally announced for governor but he’s done everything short of that: raising money, putting together a campaign (including, as Popkey notes, his best possible choice for campaign manager, Debbie Field), staffing an office, touring the state, building bridges. He has held events linking himself to up and coming Republicans, especially in eastern Idaho – his weakest area, and Risch’s strongest. For all practical purposes, the Otter campaign has been moving solidly ahead for half a year, lining up support and exhausting the political oxygen. He still has plenty of critics in Eastern Idaho (for reasons that relate both to lifestyle and his 1978 run for governor in opposition to Blackfoot leader Allan Larsen), but he’s even made some inroads there. He is very strong in the big and fast-growing Ada and Canyon County areas (where Risch did poorly in the 2002 elections), and he has a strong base up north as well. Risch’s reference to the unusually early campaign start is obviously correct; it is also a relevant strategic fact.

Meanwhile, Risch has yet to kick off a campaign. Conventional wisdom in Boise is that the train has already left the station: Otter already is too far ahead to catch.

This space does not adhere to political absolutes: No one is elected until the ballots are certified. (Or sometimes, in Washington state, even then.) Is a Risch win out of reach altogether? It seems highly improbable, but maybe Risch – who is a fine political strategist, one of the best in the state without doubt – has a plan for turning it around. Could be. But day by day, that seems ever less likely.

Jim Risch is liked in some quarters and not in others, but almost everyone who knows him will agree on this: He is a pragmatist. He is no chaser after windmills. He does what he thinks he can do. He does not live in a fantasyland.

And a lot of people will also tell you this about him: He hates to lose.

So when you match the reality of the situation with pragmatism and a serious distaste for loss … The talk about Risch not running for governor has, at least, a logical coherence to it.

Added to which, there are options. One is seeking reelection. He could stay in his office for the asking. That would likely not interest him, but it could be easily done.

Done and done. Risch may have concluded it was either this oropting out or being carried out. And for someone with so much of his life, and energies and skills, invested in Idaho government, being “out” is probably least interesting of all.

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