BOISE – Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has built a long political career on disdain for the federal government, stirring talk of freedom and encouraging Idahoans to be the “architects of our own destiny.”
So the 72-year-old, a millionaire rancher who ran for Congress a decade and a half ago on a pledge to tell the feds to “butt out” of the state, seems a bit puzzled about his GOP primary challenge by a state Senate leader who maintains Otter is not conservative enough.
“Did I ever believe in my life somebody would run at me from the right? No, I didn’t,” Otter said, as he paused from campaigning for a third term as governor, walking door to door in a Meridian neighborhood.
His challenger, Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher, heads a slate of Republican candidates taking on Idaho’s top GOP officeholders in the primary. The challengers say the incumbents are not true enough to the Idaho Republican Party’s platform, not sufficiently averse to the Affordable Care Act, and wrong not to dump Common Core standards for schoolkids or try to take title to federal public lands in the state.
Fulcher, who represents Meridian, calls the Affordable Care Act “the greatest expansion of government in our lifetimes,” and faults Otter for pushing for a state-based health insurance exchange. He also says that with a “broke” federal government, Idaho has the best shot it’s ever had at getting title to the more than 60 percent of the state that now consists of federal public lands, much of it grazing or forest land.
“We have an opportunity to take an asset that is a declining asset and make it productive for everybody,” Fulcher said. “It’s a very compelling legal case.”
Otter disagrees, as does Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. So do an array of experts who’ve addressed a joint legislative committee examining the transfer of federal lands to the state and who have raised both legal and financial concerns.
“You have a responsibility when you’re governing to follow the rule of law,” Otter said. “I don’t like going only 75 mph on the freeway, but that’s the law.”
He added, however, “I understand their resistance to an excessive, intrusive federal government.”
Otter maintains that Idaho’s state exchange prevented federal overreach into the state, because the feds would have run an exchange for Idaho if it hadn’t started its own. “The people that voted for the health exchange voted to keep Obamacare out of Idaho,” Otter said. “I think every Republican that voted for the state exchange would vote tomorrow to get rid of Obamacare. But every state has an insurance exchange today.”
The GOP primary race between Otter and Fulcher has attracted intense interest for many reasons, including the novelty of a high-ranking GOP state official taking on the party’s top officeholder. But it’s also highlighted the split in the state Republican Party, which has been dominated in recent years by party purists who pushed successfully to close their primary election to anyone other than registered Republicans and to fill the state party platform with positions like opposition to Otter’s new exchange; calling for a return to the gold standard; and backing repeal of the 17th Amendment so that state legislatures, rather than voters, would elect U.S. senators.
“We’re splintered – we’re fractured,” Fulcher said. But he said, “There’s not one position that I know of where I don’t line up with the Republican Party platform and the Republican Party central committee. The Affordable Care Act is an example, Common Core is an example, closed primary is an example. The attorney general and the governor were on the other side of that, so who’s the fringe? … They’re the ones that have stepped out of bounds.”
Idaho’s primary elections traditionally get low voter turnout, and that’s worsened since the closed primary was implemented two years ago. In 2012, fewer than a quarter of registered voters cast ballots. That reality has made the governor’s race potentially more competitive, despite Otter’s much greater name recognition and financial edge.
Otter says voters are being “proselytized” with tantalizing claims that fly in the face of reality and the law. “I think we ought to stand for something in this party, and I think we do – not just when it’s convenient,” he said. “It’s convenient now to be against Common Core. It’s convenient now to be against the insurance exchange.”
Fulcher says he knows it could be difficult to reverse health care reform, replace Common Core standards and, particularly, to take over federal lands.
“Just like with any goal, if you don’t put the goal out there and if you don’t put a strategy in place to go get it, you know the answer’s going to be no,” he said. “I can’t tell you how long it’ll take, but I think we’ve got a shot.”