For those who know, understand and follow Idaho politics an important variable is the calculus one has to factor into the Idaho scene derived from what is happening to the south of Idaho in the corridors of the Utah state capitol and the offices of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints.
While the days of bishops “testifying” about a brother standing for office on the Sunday before an election have long passed, or permitting the undeclared use of a stake house to make and assemble yard signs, Mormons in Idaho vote heavily on the Republican side of the ledger. Thus, the LDS vote looks monolithic, but it isn’t. It is just dyed in the wool Republican.
Nonetheless, the LDS vote can and is impacted by where and whom respected business and political leaders support. Exhibit A in Idaho would be Frank VanderSloot, the founder and chair of Idaho Falls’ Melaleuca Corporation. The Sandpoint born and raised VanderSloot is a billionaire who openly concedes he enjoys being influential on the Idaho political scene.
He is a generous donor primarily to Republican candidates and a player not only on the Idaho political scene, but the national scene as well. He served as the national chair of the Mitt Romney for President Finance committee and contributed over a million dollars from his personal fortune to the Romney campaign. They remain close.
A sub-plot being played out behind the scenes is the gubernatorial contest between developer and medical doctor “Tommy” Ahlquist and First District Congressman Raul Labrador for the favor and support of VanderSloot.
Ahlquist appears to have scored a coup with the announcement last week that Damond Watkins, the former government affairs director for Melaleuca and the Republican State National Committeeman, was going to chair the Ahlquist campaign. This though does not necessarily indicate who VanderSloot will back.
Supporters of Congressman Labrador point out that he announced his campaign for governor at three stops around Idaho, one of which was the Melaleuca facility. A spokeswoman for VanderSloot made it clear this did not constitute an endorsement, that the facility is available for rent. If Labrador paid the rental fee that answers the question, but if his campaign did not then the usual rental fee should be reported on the first public disclosure report as required.
Though a member of the LDS Church, some observers believe Labrador will not run well in Idaho’s Second congressional district due to some self-inflicted wounds. First, he questioned whether the National Lab west of Idaho Falls and a major employer in the area should be getting federal funds at the excessive rate he perceived.
Secondly, he unwisely backed a primary challenger to the popular and long-time congressman from the district, Mike Simpson, who hasn’t forgotten nor forgiven the blunder. For those two reasons alone Ahlquist might do well in the second district even if the savvy Watkins were not his chair.
Other observers think Ahlquist will not do well anywhere in Idaho. They cite a variety of factors, but they all come down to his being a wealthy, out-of-state doctor who parlayed his fees into partnering in a Utah-based development company that owns over a dozen office buildings around the west.
These critics believe Ahlquist will be susceptible to a carpet-bagger charge and to trying to buy an Idaho election. He is already running the classic “tell your story” biographical tv ad in the Boise valley with a huge enough buy that has alienated some. His pledge to spend one more dollar than what it takes to win also did not resonate.
He has hired a talented team and found an exceptional leader in Watkins, but a slick state-wide mailing and the patronizing use of “Tommy” strikes some as too cute by half. There’s little doubt that even his moniker is the result of polling and review by focus groups to gauge whether folks will be more responsive to “Tommy Ahlquist” as opposed to say “Doc” Ahlquist.
The evolving political scene in Utah may also limit the time VanderSloot will spend on Idaho matters as well.
Reportedly Mitt Romney is seriously considering a run for the U.S. Senate next year since Orrin Hatch, who will be 84 next March, is not going to run for an eighth term. There are also reports that Josh Romney, Ann and Mitt’s middle son (they have five boys), is preparing to run for governor in 2020.
With Congressman Jason Chaffetz announcing his retirement from politics, the former chief of staff to Governor Jon Huntsmsn, Jr. will be conceding the competition between the Huntsman and Romney families to the Romney’s.
The former Massachusetts governor was harshly critical of Donald Trump’s candidacy (though he made a bid to be Trump’s secretary of state - a move that puzzled everyone), but if anything has consolidated his position with the RNC which is now headed up by his niece, Ronna Romney McDaniel. Needless to say they have differing views of President Trump.
The bottom line though is that Romney’s plans could have an indirect impact on Idaho’s gubernatorial race.