In choosing Brad Little and Paulette Jordan to be the Republican and Democratic – respectively – nominees for Idaho governor, the voting bases of the two parties made decisions quite a few partisan observers didn’t expect, but that are consistent with their roles as long-standing majority and minority parties in the state.
Which is to say: If you’ve got something that’s work for you, you keep doing it; and if what you’ve been trying doesn’t, you change it.
That’s of course not the only factor in why the two parties’ primaries for governor resolved as they did. Jordan had developed a real following, showing more charisma than most Idaho candidates do. Little had the advantage of being an establishment candidate opposed by not one but two serious challengers, which meant they split the opposition vote. (Would Little have won if opposed only by Representative Raul Labrador? Hard to say.) Geographic, religious, business and other elements were in play too.
But as a matter of party dynamics, there’s this to consider.
Idaho Republicans have been spectacularly successful at the polls for the last generation, since the early 90s. They have won the last six gubernatorial elections decisively – not to mention, of course, almost every other office in sight – and their governors have been mostly of a type. They have all come out of, or been closely aligned with, the state Republican organization, and mainstream conservative politics (whatever that meant at the time). Phil Batt, Dirk Kempthorne, Jim Risch (elected as lieutenant governor, but he belongs in the list) and C.L. “Butch” Otter – were all, at least when elected, solid members of the state Republican establishment. As is Brad Little.
The state government didn’t change a lot when it moved from one of these governors to another. Insiders may note personnel changes and the like, but the sensibility at the top of Idaho’s executive branch hasn’t changed much, whether you like it or don’t, in almost a quarter century. Little has linked himself to the record of the Otter Administration, made that connection plain in his campaign, and would seem likely to extend the run. He’s not a clone, of course, as none of them are, but neither would he represent a major break with the recent past. (Unless he surprises us all.)
As a matter of politics, that makes sense for the Republican Party: Stick with what’s working for you.
The Democrats are at the other end of the spectrum. They have been shut out, decisively, of the governor’s office since 1990. Following Larry EchoHawk in 1994, then attorney general, they have not nominated a sitting Democratic office holder for governor and, since Robert Huntley in 1998, not a single candidate with prior Democratic Party political activism or leadership. Jerry Brady (2002 and 2006), Keith Allred (2010), A.J. Balukoff (2014) – all men of similar age with no history of Democratic partisan candidacy or party leadership; their background was in business (with interest in public affairs), and they positioned themselves as centrists, with the aim of appealing broadly. And they all lost.
Bringing us to Jordan’s somewhat surprising rout of Balukoff on Tuesday. Balukoff had the support of almost the whole of the Democratic establishment, and the major element of the party often described as leaning in Jordan’s direction was the Bernie Sanders contingent. On reflection, her supporters may be better described as people frustrated by doing the same thing in yet another race for governor, and wanting to try something new. It may not work, but even if it doesn’t, it may generate more interest and excitement than taking another lap around the familiar track.
That’s what minority parties tend to do when they’re making a serious attempt to rejigger the calculus and shake up politics.
So there’s an argument, however you assess the virtues of the winning (and losing) candidates, that both parties- made rational choices for their nominees – by applying opposing forms of logic.