This year’s Republican primary election has a great parallel to the last couple of Republican primaries for state offices, to some extent in 2018 and especially 2014: A decision before voters, on office after office down the ballot, between what amounts to two slates, groups of candidates both within the party but as starkly divided as Republicans from Democrats.
In those two prior elections, as in this one, for many of the major offices, you’ll see on one side Republicans who might be called mainstream conservative or establishment, and on the other those you might call insurgent or extreme or Trumpist. Or you could apply other labels, depending on where you sit, but the reality of the split should be clear to all.
The highlight, as usual, is in the race for governor. In 2014 C.L. “Butch” Otter was running for (and won) a third term, and was opposed in the primary chiefly by Russ Fulcher, now the first district U.S. representative – running respectively as the establishment and insurgent candidates. Otter won, but not by a great margin for an incumbent in a primary: 51.4 percent to Fulcher’s 46.3 percent.
Down the ballot, for offices like lieutenant governor and attorney general, and in many legislative races (and in the second congressional district, where incumbent Mike Simpson defeated Idaho Falls attorney Bryan Smith), the pattern repeated: Clear but not overwhelming wins by establishment candidates.
Four years later, the situation became both more and less competitive. Otter’s ally Brad Little, then lieutenant governor, won his primary for governor – but with just 37 percent of the vote, as the insurgent vote was split between then-Representative Raul Labrador and businessman Tommy Ahlquist. (Many Republicans maintain, for good reason, that Labrador alone might have won the primary.) Primary voters in the lieutenant governor’s race went for insurgent contender Janice McGeachin (28.9 percent of the vote) over four other options, at least a couple somewhat more mainstream, but that was hardly a mandate-worthy number. Most of the other state offices, however, didn’t see primary battles: The slates were shortened, and the insurgents didn’t press their case so much for secretary of state, controller, treasurer and others.
This year, we’re seeing full-bore slates, high and low.
One of those comes in U.S. House district two, where Smith is rematching against Simpson in what’s looking like a serious contest.
Little is opposed by McGeachin (his most serious challenger) and six other lower-profile candidates. In the battle for lieutenant governor, the seat being vacated by McGeachin, Little and House Speaker Scott Bedke have struck an alliance, while state Representative Priscilla Giddings seems to be generally aligned with McGeachin. (There’s also a little-known third candidate, Daniel Gasiorawski.)
For three of the statewide offices, there are three-way battles. In two of them, one establishment-backed candidate (incumbent Lawrence Wasden for attorney general and Phil McGrane for secretary of state) faces two insurgents (Raul Labrador and Art Macomber for AG, Dorothy Moon and Mary Souza for secretary of state). For superintendent of public instruction, there’s one insurgent (Branden Durst) and two candidates with various types of establishment support (incumbent Sherri Ybarra and challenger Debby Critchfield).
And you can find a number of variations on these themes at the legislative level as well.
In the last couple of statewide elections, the establishment candidates prevailed nearly across the board. But it’s worth noting that the insurgent side seemed to do relatively better in 2018, and would have done better had its vote for governor not been split, and had it fielded more candidates for other offices.
Bringing us back to 2022. A general sense, across many of the people who watch these races closely, seems to be that the establishment candidates will wind up doing well again. Maybe so, and maybe the split of outsider votes in races like those for AG and secretary of state will matter.
As for me, as usual, I’m making no predictions. Feels safest that way.