BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho’s open gubernatorial seat is shaping up to become one of the most competitive races in a state better known for its wide margins of victory when vying for a top elected office.
However, this year isn’t a typical year. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter is retiring from office, opening the door for the first time in 12 years for an open fight over the gubernatorial position.
Three top GOP candidates have rushed to replace the outgoing Otter: U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, Boise businessman Tommy Ahlquist and Lt. Gov. Brad Little.
On the other side of the aisle, two Democratic candidates are quietly fighting it out to face off the GOP contender in the November election: Boise businessman A.J. Balukoff and former state Rep. Paulette Jordan.
Most Read Nation & World Stories
- Author Salman Rushdie stabbed on lecture stage in New York
- A child abductee's journey back
- FBI seized top secret documents in Trump estate search
- Anne Heche, TV, film and stage actor, dies at 53 from injuries sustained in L.A. car crash
- Sports on TV & radio: Local listings for Seattle games and events
Each offer distinct options to Idaho’s voting base in the upcoming May 15 primary
In 2009, Otter picked Little to become lieutenant governor with the expectation he would one day become the Republican governor’s successor.
The two have long shared a close bond, with Otter often looking to Little to help tackle some of the state’s biggest issues.
Most recently, Little co-signed an executive order allowing insurance companies to sell cheap policies that don’t include key provisions of the Affordable Care Act. He’s since become the face of the effort, though the federal government has cast doubt on the legality of the move.
Little — an Idaho native who has spent the last 16 years in elected office — has positioned himself as more mild-mannered of the top three GOP candidates who has the experience needed to continue Idaho’s explosive growth.
The Republican supports reducing income tax rates as the economy grows and requiring all new tax exemptions be linked to a proportional reduction in state spending. On education, Little says he would raise teacher starting pay to $40,000, offer signing bonuses to teachers who work in rural areas and increase dual credit opportunities,
Notably, he has strayed from Otter with his support of the grocery sales tax repeal.
Little, 64, also voluntarily disclosed his assets after his opponent Ahlquist shared his income information in a state that doesn’t require such transparency. According to the documents provided by the campaign, Little listed assets valued at between about $12 million and $24 million in 2016.
First-time candidate Tommy Ahlquist is former emergency room doctor turned Boise developer who says Idaho’s political system is due for a change.
Ahlquist, 50 has cast himself as a GOP political outsider who backs term limits, financial disclosures and cutting wasteful government spending. His most high-profile promise is claiming he’ll eliminate $100 million in the first 100 days in office if he wins the gubernatorial seat.
He supports lowering the state’s top individual and corporate income tax rates to 5 percent, which would cost the state around $622 million. Like his opponents, Ahlquist supports repealing the grocery sales tax.
Ahlquist has also had the benefit of securing the one asset most candidates struggle with the most: money. Ahlquist’s team has flooded the market with ads while boasting they’ve broken most campaign fundraising records in a state known for more modest spending.
Yet Ahlquist’s newness to Idaho’s political scene hasn’t been without its bumps. For example, Ahlquist raised eyebrows surrounding his $100 million promise when he later said the slash might not actually result in a reduction to the state’s $3.5 billion budget. To date, Ahlquist has not shared what exactly will get cut or shifted.
But he was one of the first Idaho candidates to ever voluntarily disclose his assets as part of his campaign promise, revealing that he owned 25 businesses and 27 investments worth more than $5,000. However, unlike Little’s disclosure, it is impossible to determine a range of Ahlquist’s net worth under the information his campaign provided.
Labrador has long wooed the state’s far right population by being a thorn to the GOP establishment during his four-terms in Congress, casting votes that bucked GOP party leadership and becoming a leading figure for the House Freedom Caucus.
He grew up in Puerto Rico and later went on to become an immigration lawyer and elected representative in an overwhelmingly white state. He is a supporter of the free market and pusher of aggressive tax cuts — his campaign economic plan would slash taxes by nearly $1 billion in a state with a $3 billion general fund budget — with the promise that doing so will result in strong growth without sacrificing government services.
He supports repealing the state’s K-12 education standards, known as “Common Core” standards and opposes expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. He has also promised to fight to defend Idaho’s right to define marriage, but has not addressed the legal challenges he might face in fulfilling that promise.
“This election isn’t just about the next four years, it’s about the next generation,” Labrador, 50, said recently at a televised debate.
As in previous elections, Labrador has struggled to raise money compared to his GOP opponents. It’s a point not lost on Labrador, who often critiques his opponents for spending millions of dollars on campaign ads as he tries to position himself as the underdog up against special interest money.
Jordan attracted national attention with she announced she would run for governor rather than pursue a third term inside the Idaho Statehouse.
Jordan, 38, is a Democrat from Plummer and member of the Coeur ‘d’Alene Tribe. She’s received endorsements from Planned Parenthood, Indivisible and even celebrity Cher.
According to her campaign, Jordan would not only be the first woman to serve as Idaho governor if elected, but also the first Native American woman to serve as governor of any state.
The last Native American to hold a statewide office in Idaho was in 1990, when Larry Echo Hawk ran as a Democrat for attorney general.
Unlike the Republican gubernatorial primary, the Democratic race has been quieter between Jordan and Balukoff due to the two agreeing on most issues like increasing education spending and expanding Medicaid eligibility.
One area she splits from Balukoff, however, is her embrace of decriminalizing marijuana.
Balukoff is once again running to be the Democratic nominee after losing to Otter in 2014.
Balukoff’s experience working as a Boise developer and school board member has attracted praise from legislative leaders, including key endorsements from both former and present Democratic state and congressional lawmakers — even though he has never held a state elected office.
The Democrat has promised to fight for more funding for education, improvements to the state’s health care system and better protections for public lands.
Balukoff has served on the Boise School Board since 1997 and works as an accountant and businessman who co-owns Boise’s Grove Hotel and CenturyLink Arena. He is also well-known as a prominent member of the Mormon church.
The last time Idaho voters elected a Democrat to the top seat was former Gov. Cecil Andrus in 1990. Andrus, who died last year, served four non-consecutive terms.