Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s 16-point lead over Democrat Keith Allred masks weaknesses that show the race is far from over.
Otter leads Allred 45 percent to 29 percent in a statewide poll commissioned by The Spokesman-Review and six other Idaho newspapers. But only 44 percent of those polled said they had a favorable opinion of Otter, and 20 percent remain undecided.
Meanwhile, the poll showed Idaho’s U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick with a 10-point lead over his GOP challenger, Raul Labrador, throughout the 1st Congressional District. But in North Idaho, the numbers change to a statistical dead heat: 43 percent for Minnick and 40 percent for Labrador. That’s within the poll’s margin of error.
Political scientist David Adler, director of the University of Idaho’s James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy, said the north-south difference reflects a stronger tea party movement in the north along with “a great deal of anti-Obama sentiment.” That shows up in both the congressional race and the governor’s race, he noted, with Otter’s edge growing in the north.
When Otter spoke to a recent tea party rally in Post Falls, 1,500 people showed up. “I think that the tea party movement is stronger in northern Idaho than many people suspected,” Adler said.
When a relatively unknown challenger like Allred faces a well-known incumbent like Otter and undecided voter numbers are high, it is because those voters already have decided they don’t like the incumbent, said J. Brad Coker, of Mason Dixon Polling and Research Inc.
“Typically, undecided voters break more for challengers than incumbents,” he said.
The poll also indicated some dissatisfaction with Otter within his own party, with just 68 percent of Republicans saying they plan to vote for him. By comparison, 86 percent of Republicans said they support Sen. Mike Crapo and 73 percent say they support Rep. Mike Simpson, while 81 percent of Democrats said they support Minnick.
“It’s easier for Republicans to support a Republican senator, given their traditional, unified position on most national issues,” Adler said. “But when you deal with state issues, the kind of bread-and-butter issues that the governor deals with, then there’s greater room for argument and disagreement and discontent.”
Although Democrat Allred portrays himself as an independent in the race, Otter outpolled him 35 percent to 28 percent among people who described themselves as independents.
The poll shows incumbents leading in two other competitive contests: Minnick’s 46 percent to 36 percent lead over Labrador, and Republican state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna leading Democrat Stan Olson, 47 percent to 30 percent.
The poll shows Republicans heavily favored in two other races: Sen. Mike Crapo and U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson hold huge leads over their Democratic challengers, Tom Sullivan and Mike Crawford, whose names most voters don’t even recognize.
Otter’s margin is only six points in southeast Idaho, which Adler and other observers say is partly due to Allred’s affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“It’s fair to say that he’s getting a closer look than Democratic candidates have in the past,” Adler said. “I think (his religion) is one of Keith Allred’s niches in this race.”
Kathy Stanger, an Idaho Falls Republican and a Mormon, supports Allred. She said Allred’s faith has won him a hearing with voters he might not otherwise have received.
But Sheila Olsen, an Otter supporter, said he is walking a fine line. “With some people, there’s kind of a ‘nod-nod, wink-wink, he’s one of us,’ ” she said. “I think that ultimately backfires, because people resent something so important and sacred to them as religion being injected in any fashion into the political spectrum.”
Education is the primary issue giving Otter trouble, Adler said, with the first-ever cut to the public schools budget this year. Allred has been campaigning heavily on the topic.
Anti-incumbent sentiment is influencing races nationwide, but Adler said he doesn’t see much of that mood in Idaho.
“In most of these races, the Republican Party is doing very well and running close to their typical numbers,” he said.
Moscow resident and poll participant Jessica Cantrell, 27, said she is a party-line Republican who strongly supports Otter. She also favors Labrador, even though Minnick has voted with Republicans in Congress on issues including health care and the stimulus bill.
“None of us Republicans are very happy with the Democrats and anything they’re doing,” Cantrell said, calling the Democrats’ agenda socialist and communist. “So I’m going to go tea party and Republican candidates all the way.”