Boise’s long-time mayor, David Bieter, has faced light opposition since he first was elected to the job in 2003. This year, in contrast, he faces a crowd. And, likely, a tougher contest.
In some ways, that larger crowd might work to his advantage. But there’s a real chance the shape of this year’s contest could cost him the job in this year’s elections.
Begin with this: The criticism of and opposition to Bieter, who at this point is the longest-serving mayor in Boise’s history, is greater this time around than it has been before. That includes voting sectors that traditionally have been his base, and this is a more recent development. Across issues ranging from development to construction of a new library building, a common thread running through the complaints is that City Hall has stopped listening to the citizens, and rams its agenda through without broad enough consideration, and Bieter has been the focus of those complaints. I won’t try to litigate the pros or cons of that complaint here, but the criticism is more broadly-based than it was in earlier election years.
And it has helped generate anger at city hall, maybe enough to lead to some upsets this time around.
Bieter, who has coasted to re-elections before, drew opposition early this time. His chief opponent appears to be Lauren McLean, a member of the city council and well-connected around town; she has been campaigning hard for months, and her campaign has gotten some good reviews. But there are other contenders too: Adriel Martinez, Cortney Nielsen, Wayne Richey - and two more of note, former Mayor Brent Coles, and Rebecca Arnold, president of the Ada County Highway District. Coles resigned amid scandal, and his entry drew plenty of surprised head shakes. Both Coles and Arnold took direct shots at Bieter, and Arnold warned that McLean would be more of the same kind of administration as Bieter has run. The case for how Coles or Arnold might win the mayorly seems . . . obscure. But the two of them could add to the incoming fire Bieter has to deal with.
The usual political science 101 take on crowded campaigns is that when an incumbent is running for re-election, the campaign is mostly about that incumbent. This means the opposition tends to split the anti-incumbent vote, which tends to help the incumbent prevail.
Boise, however, is one of those cities with a runoff: If no candidate draws more than half of the overall vote in the general election, the top two contenders go into a runoff election.
This year’s election could be different. While the splitting of the opposition field among many more candidates might help Bieter to win at least a plurality of the vote, it won’t necessarily help him win a majority. While re-election contests usually are more about the incumbent than the challenger, those challengers do tend to bring in some personal support, additional votes, of their own. They also can change the content of the debate in unpredictable ways.
If Bieter’s support in town still is strong enough that he can win the first contest outright - with more than 50 percent of the vote - then that’s that. But the larger number of candidates in the field likely makes that more rather than less difficult.
And incumbents who are forced into a runoff tend to lose more often than they win, because the opposition vote, which earlier was split among many candidates, usually consolidates behind the one challenger who remains.
That 2003 contest Bieter won - which didn’t include an incumbent - was relatively simple in its dynamics. This one is much more complex, and more treacherous for an incumbent to navigate.
Mark this as a race to watch in Idaho this fall.
(note: The column was edited to remove a reference to the 2003 election.)