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Shaping the campaigns

idaho RANDY

Thanksgivings abound on the part of those who write about Idaho politics – directed at the political figure of the moment, Russ Fulcher. With his decision to run for governor against incumbent C.L “Butch” Otter, politics in Idaho took on some new coloration.

Maybe the challenges of the activist outsiders like Fulcher and (for the second district congressional seat) Bryan Smith will collapse by primary day. But as of late 2013, the raw materials are there for a really competitive showdown that could send Idaho politics, post-2014, sailing off in some new directions.

Caveats must be noted. Otter, who has won every primary and general election contest he has entered with one exception (for governor, in 1978) over four decades, is a strong campaigner. Fulcher is not nearly so experienced and may not be as strong on the stump (though we’ll find out more about that). Otter will have a well-organized and well-funded campaign, likely better than Fulcher’s on both counts. In 2012 organized cadres of activist candidates ran against incumbents for a number of legislative seats, and in Idaho’s second U.S. House district, and they most failed, often without coming close to a win. There’s a fair argument that 2014 could do the same.

And you can make the point that there’s not much real policy difference between the two sides here. Fulcher is campaigning as a libertarian, small-budget critic of the federal government and President Obama; that is different from Otter, who has campaigned in the same essential ways (allowing for changes in the presidency) for 40 years, exactly how?

The “how” is more a matter of attitude than anything else. Establishment incumbents, like Otter and Representative Mike Simpson, have some record of actually governing, while means compromising with actual conditions. Fulcher and Smith can argue against compromising – they’re purists. How their governing actually would differ over the haul from Otter’s or Simpson’s is a fair question.

Take a look at the last time Idaho Republicans ousted an incumbent governor in their primary, in 1966. That year, a state senator named Don Samuelson (in his third term, compared to Fulcher’s fifth), encouraged by conservative activists in his party, took after three-term incumbent Robert Smylie (then 19 years continuously in major office, compared to Otter’s 28 as of next year). It was an assault by energetic party activists who had failed in a number of preceding contests but did well in 1966 in part over a sort of Smylie fatigue. In his memoir, Samuelson concluded flatly, “I had not beaten Smylie; he had beaten himself.”

All this was only about issues as such to a limited degree. The sales tax was a big issue that year, and Samuelson campaigned against it, but voters nonetheless approved the tax even while electing Samuelson. It was also a year full of Republican primary contests pitting conservatives and moderates, in which conservatives mostly won.

The voters in the Republican primary next May will toss Otter and Simpson for Fulcher and Smith (and other counterparts in other contests) if they are in a sufficiently anti-incumbent, purist and uncompromising mood. They’ll keep them if they aren’t. That, more than whatever the candidates and their campaigns do between here and there, is likely to make the difference.

What goes into how those voters feel between here and there will give us plenty to discus in the meantime.

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