Governor Butch Otter, as the leader of Idaho’s Republican Party, should have clout when it comes to issues such as closed primaries. But on this issue, party loyalists are more likely to listen to former Sen. Rod Beck than Otter. Now, the governor is stuck with a voting system that could bite him on the backside as he seeks his third term in office.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Otter should have no trouble sailing through the primary and winning re-election. I’m not buying it.
With a closed primary and a probable low voter turnout, Senator Russ Fulcher has a legitimate shot at pulling off the upset. Fulcher doesn’t have Otter’s bankroll, and the media is largely ignoring his campaign. But Fulcher has one big thing on his side: People who vote in primary elections and have no hesitation about registering as Republicans. Tea party supporters and social conservatives aren’t bothered by the lack of press coverage; they don’t care much for Idaho newspapers anyway.
So Fulcher has a clear path to victory. The first step is rounding up those who supported Congressman Raul Labrador and former Bill Sali. Fulcher has served plenty of red meat to that crowd, voicing his displeasure with Obamacare and Common Core. The senator can count on help from social conservatives, who learned a long time ago that political power comes from voting in primary elections. Otter is many years removed from a DUI arrest and participating in tight-jeans contests, but religious conservatives have long memories and Fulcher is about as squeaky clean as a politician can get. Fulcher also could look to support from those advocating for term limits. All they need to know is that Otter is a 71-year-old career politician who is seeking a third term in office. And there’s nothing stopping him from going for a fourth, fifth and sixth term – unless he dies, or voters boot him out.
So don’t be too quick to write off Fulcher in this election. Otter supporters may like the numbers they see. But will their voters come out on May 20? I worked with former state Senator Sheila Sorensen’s congressional campaign in 2006 and we were pretty optimistic about the numbers we saw two months before the election. Bill Sali, the most conservative candidate in the field, was the clear winner. Vaughn Ward probably felt good about his numbers two months before the 2010 primary, but his campaign imploded and Raul Labrador – the more conservative candidate -- was the easy winner.
Those things happened when Republican primaries were “open” to Democrats, independents and anyone else who wanted to vote. Today’s closed-primary format sets up perfectly for Fulcher.
Otter’s concerns about closed primaries are legitimate. In a speech to Farmer’s Insurance agents, as reported by the Statesman’s Dan Popkey, the governor talked about voters’ reluctance to sign a paper declaring themselves as Republicans. As Otter accurately states, many people are disenfranchised with closed primaries, including state employees who are supposed to be non-partisan.
“Now when you sign this piece of paper, it says that ‘I am a Republican,’ and it’s the only way you can get on the Republican ballot,” he said.
In my view, it’s Otter’s own fault for allowing himself to be steamrolled on this issue. Sure, he made a few token statements in opposition to closed primaries, but he wasn’t putting himself on the line. After two embarrassing political defeats – the dismissal of Kirk Sullivan as the GOP chairman the killing of his gas-tax proposal to improve Idaho roads – Otter wasn’t about to take a third whipping.
“I didn’t think it was a good idea to do that,” Otter told the insurance agents. “But that’s what the party wanted to do and that’s what the Central Committee voted for, so that’s what we do.”
Now that’s what I call leadership … for a church mouse. Otter was merely employing the kind of political survival skills that have allowed him to hold high office for parts of four decades.
If he had stood up to the Rod Becks of this world and put up a real fight against close primaries – as one might expect from the party’s leader -- he would have lost big. And he knows it.