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The movement, not the candidate

idaho RANDY

The last time an Idaho governor faced a serious primary re-election challenge, he won easily, but not because of massive across-the-board popularity: He proceeded to lose the general election. The last time it happened before that, the same man successfully defeated the then-incumbent governor, who had been elected three times before.

A lot depends on the mood of the party.

This bit of history involves Sandpoint rock dealer Don Samuelson, the conservative Republican who in 1966 beat three-term Governor Robert Smylie in the Republican primary, and won the office in that year’s general election. In 1970 he was challenged, fairly seriously, by former Board of Education member Dick Smith, but easily won the primary. However, he lost in the fall to Democrat Cecil Andrus. He lost in part because some Republicans had become disaffected: The tenor of the party had shifted in ways that made them feel unwelcome and they voted across party lines.

That bit of history came to mind last week when Representative Raul Labrador, who has been much discussed as a possible gubernatorial candidate, said he would run for re-election to Congress instead.

The decision to stay put surely was the safer move. Ask politically connected Idahoans how they think a primary race between Labrador and incumbent Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter would play out, and you get a widely scattered opinions. Party registration for Republican primaries would have been a boon to Labrador, and he would have had a corps of enthusiastic backers, including much of the party structure – an unusual case when a two-term governor is talking about a third term. Labrador would have been a strong contender.

At the same time, Otter has a well-established network, a campaign structure in place, all the financing he could want, and eight years of identification with the office. Those are strong advantages, but they’re also the kinds of advantages Robert Smylie had.

That’s where we get into the mood of the party, and into one other important point about Samuelson: Until he ran for governor, few people in Idaho had ever heard of him. He was a three-term state senator, but not notably prominent, and not the first choice of many of the conservatives who wanted to take on Governor Smylie (who was much closer to, say, Nelson Rockefeller than to Ronald Reagan). Those Republican activists weren’t following a charismatic leader who arose to launch a movement; instead, the movement drafted its leader.

This is why the Labrador decision is both significant and, well, not so much. If a movement to go full Tea Party activist really is strong enough, it doesn’t need Labrador. It will find its own candidate, who need not be a prominent name.

That’s the dynamic to watch in the second congressional district primary, where veteran Republican Mike Simpson is being challenged by a political unknown, Idaho Falls attorney Bryan Smith. If the movement for changing incumbents is strong enough, no more prominent name is needed to run: Smith will have been in the right place at the correct moment. If the movement is not strong enough, no better-known name would likely be enough to beat Simpson anyway.

The same applies to the governor’s race. The next question is: Are enough activist Republicans interested in ousting Otter to generate and support an alternative candidacy? If there are, that person may do about as well as Labrador might have, or – as a fresh face – maybe even better. If not … then Labrador likely made the correct call.

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