Please welcome Marc C. Johnson, a fine participant, observer and commenter on politics generally and Idaho politics specifically. He was press secretary and chief of staff to Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. His biography of Montana New Deal-era Sen. Burton K. Wheeler will be published early next year by the University of Oklahoma Press.
There are few universal rules in politics, but one rule certainly holds that no challenger wins a contest without making the incumbent the issue. Challengers who don’t take the fight to incumbents lose. Paulette Jordan, the Democratic nominee for Idaho governor, isn’t precisely running against an incumbent in Republican Brad Little, three-term governor C.L. “Butch” Otter’s lieutenant governor, but Little has all the trappings and the potential downside of incumbency.
Little is an “establishment” Republican who vanquished two conservative foes in a divisive GOP primary. He’s been around Idaho politics for years – his father was a long-serving state senator – and he is, in effect, running for Otter’s fourth term, accountable for all the bad and ensured of only modest credit for the good. Yet, seven weeks in front of the November election Jordan, the insurgent challenger, has yet to lay a glove on the incumbent. She certainly isn’t making it clear, as she must if she hopes to win (or even come close), that the election is a referendum on 12 years of the Otter-Little administration. A skillful candidate would by now have exploited some of the many missteps of the last dozen years, but beyond supporting Medicaid expansion and offering pabulum about a more humane government, Jordan hasn’t offered specifics about much of anything.
Jordan, a novice statewide candidate, is also violating Tip O’Neill’s old truism that “all politics is local,” by largely ignoring the traditional means of politicking in Idaho. Jordan has received heaps of attention from CNN and national publications have devoted ink to her resume as potentially the first woman and first Native American governor in Idaho. Yet she regularly avoids engaging with Idaho reporters and was largely missing on the summer fair and rodeo circuit. One long-time weekly newspaper editor told me recently he hasn’t seen the Democratic candidate and doesn’t expect to. He’s given up on ever getting a phone call returned. It’s a common refrain.
Jordan should have taken a page from the surging campaign of Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke who is challenging Texas Senator Ted Cruz and seems to have made that race a virtual toss up. O’Rourke, running as the underdog in a Trumpishly red state, has crisscrossed Texas repeatedly holding town hall meetings with anyone who will show up. During a recent gathering in San Marcos, according to the Texas Tribune, “O’Rourke answered questions about what he thinks about impeaching Trump, how to address the wealth gap between African-Americans and whites and whether he supports Betsy DeVos’ efforts to bring guns to campuses (‘No,’ he said).”
In contrast, Jordan recently swapped time in Idaho for an appearance on a Saturday night CNN show where she avoided discussing any specific issue. Idaho voters, she said, were “ready for true compassion and governance again.” Jordan told CNN host Van Jones that her upbringing stressed love of country, love of the land, love of all humanity, but that such attitudes hadn’t been “reflected in Idaho for the last three decades.” That is a vacuous and dubious claim at best. Going back thirty years, for example, would take us to the third term of the last Democrat to win the governorship, Cecil D. Andrus, a man who championed good schools, fought the feds over nuclear waste storage, presided over a strong economy, advocated for human and civil rights and certainly loved the land. Andrus knew that any successful Democrat has to run with a real and specific agenda.
Jordan does seem to be attempting to expand the electorate, trying to appeal to disaffected Idahoans and younger voters. O’Rourke has much the same strategy in Texas, but he adds the critical ingredients of substance and presence. In other words he shows up and is willing to confront issues, even difficult ones, head on.
I have long argued that Idaho Democrats must find a new approach to running statewide campaigns, including strategies to expand the electorate. They need to focus on younger voters who much research shows aren’t particularly wedded to either political party. They need to play to their one true strength, years of commitment to improving educational opportunities. And they must relentlessly and enthusiastically engage voters. A brief hit on CNN is no substitute for a town hall meeting in Payette, a picnic in Orofino or knocking on doors in Soda Springs.
Jordan has apparently mastered one part of a new Democratic strategy. The University of Virginia Center for Politics and Ipsos, the polling outfit, has created an online 2018 Political Atlas for every major race in the country. The Atlas measures, among other things, a candidate’s social media presence and on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram Jordan looks like a winner. One analysis gives her seven times as many Twitter followers as Little and six times as many followers on Facebook. Nevertheless respected political scientist Larry Sabato who helped invent these new measures calls the governor’s race “safe Republican.” That call is based on his detailed analysis of polling, Idaho’s electoral history, the quality of the candidates and other first hand intelligence.
A good social media presence is clearly an element of a challenges strategy, but it’s hardly enough by itself. The vast majority of Jordan’s social media followers appear to be fans from outside Idaho and therefore unable to vote for her in November. Perhaps that’s what you get when you base an Idaho campaign on profiles in The Atlantic or interviews on CNN.