By Betsy Z. Russell
BOISE - It’s pretty much unheard-of for statewide TV ads in an Idaho governor’s race to begin airing more than a year before the primary election, but that’s what’s happening.
Tommy Ahlquist, a Boise physician and developer who’s running as a Republican, has been running two ads since March. They’re running throughout the state, but only on cable and satellite in North Idaho, not in the pricey Spokane broadcast TV market.
“Given Tommy is not a longtime politician and is a political outsider, we felt it was important to start early to give voters every chance to get to know him,” campaign spokesman Todd Cranney said. “More important than the advertising is the fact that Tommy has been on a 97-town tour of Idaho in the first 75 days of the campaign, meeting personally with Idahoans across the state sharing his conservative vision and leadership abilities.”
Ahlquist was the third Republican to enter the race. Two others, Lt. Gov. Brad Little and former state Sen. Russ Fulcher, got in even earlier, announcing last year. Gov. Butch Otter isn’t seeking re-election after his third term ends in 2018.
Jim Weatherby, Boise State University political scientist emeritus and a longtime observer of Idaho politics, said Ahlquist’s unorthodox campaign move is a wise one.
“He’s pretty well-known in the Treasure Valley, but not outside,” he said. “This is a candidate who wants to get in there early and introduce himself and define himself, before somebody else does.”
Ahlquist, 49, a prominent developer whose high-profile projects include the state’s tallest building smack in the center of downtown Boise – on a long-vacant site that had become known as the “Boise Hole” – is making his first run for political office. He’s also an emergency room physician. He’s made it clear he’s willing to dip into his ample personal wealth to underwrite the run.
In the Boise area, the Ahlquist TV ads ran from the first week of March through April 23. Cranney said the ad campaign still is underway, though frequency may vary.
“I don’t remember a candidate doing this much advertising a year out,” Weatherby said. “They’re pretty slick ads, as compared to most ads I’ve seen over the years.”
There are two ads, both focusing on introducing Ahlquist and his background, and stressing that he’s a Republican and a conservative. The ads make few factual claims, instead focusing on Ahlquist’s background and beliefs.
Here’s a look at the two ads and their messages:
‘I Believe in Idaho’ ad
Ahlquist says, “I’m Tommy Ahlquist. I’m running for governor because I believe in Idaho, I believe in Idahoans, and I believe that working together we can build an even better Idaho. I believe in the strength of the individual, personal responsibility and the limited role of government. Like you, I have the same Idaho can-do spirit of action. That’s why I’m running for governor, with a conservative blueprint for building an even better Idaho.”
Visuals in that ad include job sites, agricultural scenes, Ahlquist talking with folks, Ahlquist at work, and a graphic at the beginning and end, to go with the “conservative blueprint” theme, that appears to be building a blueprint as it forms the message, “Tommy Ahlquist for Governor, Blueprint for an Even Better Idaho.”
Ahlquist says, “Our economy at work. Opportunity seized. Engines that fuel our growth. I’m Tommy Ahlquist. As a conservative small-business man who created thousands of high-paying jobs, I’ve seen first-hand how Barack Obama’s regulations killed job growth. As your governor, I’ll get rid of overreaching regulations and reform our tax code to spur job creation and stand up for our small businesses.”
The narrator then says, “Tommy Ahlquist for governor, a conservative blueprint for an even better Idaho.”
Visuals in this ad include agricultural and industrial sites, Ahlquist in a hospital setting and at work on a construction site and in his high-rise Boise office. The ad closes with the same “blueprint” graphic.
The messages are clear, including Ahlquist’s presentation of himself as a “doer” and his emphasis on being a conservative, stressing individual rights and responsibilities and limited government, Weatherby said.
“They’re all conservatives – it’s a question of what kind of conservative,” Weatherby said. “At this point, he has quite a record in the private sector, but none in the public sector to give an indication of what kind of conservative he’d be.”
The Ahlquist ads point to something many Idaho candidates neglect to do in statewide campaigns, Weatherby said – simply introduce themselves. When candidates in past campaigns have gone straight to attacking their opponents, he said, they’ve failed to establish their own credentials first.
“These are effective introductory ads that an amazing number of politicians miss.”
Ahlquist also has been sending out direct-mail pieces and is advertising on digital media.
“It’s obviously a more systematic approach than some candidates have followed recently,” Weatherby said. “It’s an interesting story of a Boise developer running as an outsider, but we’ve seen a developer in a big city run as an outsider before and that worked out – Donald Trump.”
‘Idaho Gives’ tops goal
The fifth annual “Idaho Gives” day on Thursday raised a record $1,373,636 for Idaho charities and nonprofits, organizers announced, beating a goal of $1.2 million – $1 for every adult in Idaho. A total of 10,563 donors gave to 628 nonprofits; the biggest haul went to Planned Parenthood, at $40,555. In second place was the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey, at $39,268; third, the Idaho Humane Society, $26,597.
Next-highest was the Idaho Foodbank, $24,056; followed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise, $18,030; and the Idaho Conservation League, $17,955. Friends of Zoo Boise collected $16,449; Boise Bicycle Project, $15,964; and Sage International School, $15,695.
Groups decry new health care bill
The health care advocacy group “Close the Gap Idaho,” along with the Idaho Medical Association and the Idaho Hospital Association, is decrying the health care bill that passed the House Thursday, saying it will have a “devastating impact” on low-income, needy and sick Idahoans. “It will throw an estimated 138,000 Idahoans off their health insurance,” the group said in a statement. “This includes not only children, people with disabilities and elderly people who rely on Medicaid, but people with employer-sponsored insurance and individuals who purchase their insurance on Idaho’s health insurance exchange.”
Brian Whitlock , president and CEO of the Idaho Hospital Association, said the bill “takes us back to a system that was broken to begin with.” Susie Pouliot, CEO of the Idaho Medical Association, said the bill “takes us in the wrong direction by causing millions of Americans to lose the health insurance they now have.”
Ybarra has challenger
Jeff Dillon, superintendent of schools in Wilder, is the first candidate to file to challenge state schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra in 2018. Dillon, a Republican, filed his preliminary paperwork for the run with the Idaho secretary of state’s office; Ybarra, also a Republican, announced in 2015 that she’d seek a second four-year term in 2018.
Dillon, 51, is a Wilder native who has worked for his hometown school district for 10 years, according to Idaho Education News. He’s been superintendent since December 2012.