A couple of weeks ago I was driving across the border into Idaho from Montana. I stopped the car and took a picture of the “Welcome to Idaho” sign. I thought: It would be cool if that sign read, just under the Idaho greeting, Paulette Jordan, Governor.
Jordan, Coeur d’Alene, is running as a Democrat in what is perhaps the reddest, most Republican state in the country. So it’s an impossible task, right?
No. Let’s do the math.
The first part of that equation is done: Running. So many talented people survey a political campaign and then, for whatever reason, pass. But the inviolate rule of politics is that you must run in order to win. So that is a huge step.
Jordan is one of seven Native American candidates running for statewide office and one of two Native women running to a lead a state, (something that has never been done before.) She will be the first of those candidates to face voters and she will need to win a contested Democratic primary on May 15. A date that’s coming up fast.
One of the most important reasons for Native American candidates is the aspirational aspect. It’s a way for young people to see a future, (one that is far more important than just politics.) During a recent trip to Fort Hall, and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, Jordan took time out to visit the students. She also met with community members where she said on KPVI 6 that the issues that “tribes push forward are good for everyone, all of humanity. So when we talk about education in tribal communities, it's the same for Hispanic communities, it's the same for every single district up and down this state.”
Jordan is running against A.J. Balukoff, who, unlike Jordan, can use his own wealth to fund his campaign. (Something he has already done to the tune of $175,000.) Four years ago Balukoff was the Democratic nominee for governor and lost by a wide margin.
Idaho has an odd primary. The Republicans limit their ballots to anyone except those who publicly claim party membership. But anyone who is “unaffiliated” or independent can pick up a Democratic Party ballot on election day. Because Idaho is such a conservative state, most voters sign up with the Republicans. Four years ago more than 155,000 voters did just that, while only 25,638 voted in the Democratic primary.
This is actually an advantage for a candidate like Jordan. She only needs to find a few thousand votes (my bet is there will be more interest than four years ago.) So, let’s say that means the primary winner will earn at least 25,000 votes. That’s a plausible number in a season where nontraditional candidates are getting a second and third look.
There is only one county in Idaho that regularly votes for Democrats: Blaine County. That’s Sun Valley, Ketchum, the Wood River Valley. Think lifestyles of the rich and famous. Hillary Clinton had a two-to-one margin over President Donald J. Trump in Blaine County. Jordan must do well here.
Votes from Idaho’s five reservations could help, too. The numbers are small, but if they are one-sided, say 100, 200, 300 votes to a handful, it could give her an edge. Especially in a primary.
Jordan should also poll well with younger Democratic voters and with Hispanics. These two constituent groups are growing in numbers and importance. Well, sort of. Idaho is a young state: There are more people under 18 than any other demographic group. And younger voters from 18 to 25 are a relatively small cohort at roughly 155,000 people. But in the last elections this group increased its turnout rates, so there is a potential upside. Hispanics now account for 12 percent of Idaho’s population and, according to Pew Research, are some 80,000 eligible voters (far more than what would be needed in a primary election.)
The math is there. It’s possible.
What about Jordan’s message? Is she connecting with primary voters? That’s a much tougher call. She has to reach voters in a state with two time zones and a distinct geographic divide. I often joke that Idaho is the only state with three capitals: Salt Lake City, Spokane and Boise. Each major city has its influence over regions of the state.
Recently Jordan’s team made a rookie mistake adding the word “ever” to an email about her being the only Democrat elected in North Idaho. This took away from an important message: Jordan won re-election to the Idaho House two years ago in a terrible cycle for Democrats. Her campaign convinced voters who would not normally vote for a Democrat. This should be said over and over as a reason why Idaho Democrats should vote for Jordan.
And after that? The toughest hill to climb come after the primary. Jordan would then need to make her case to Idaho’s deeply conservative Republican voters. But if there is ever a year to do just that, it’s this one.
But first the May 15 primary is coming fast. That’s a hurdle that Jordan needs to clear first.
Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter: @TrahantReports (Cross-posted on TrahantReports)