BOISE – Idaho’s top Republican candidates for governor gave voters three distinct options to choose from Monday during their second televised debate, which included plenty of jabs at each other’s campaign tactics.
U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, a four-term congressman, pushed his aggressive economic plan to cut nearly a $1 billion of the state’s taxes, or roughly 30 percent of the state’s annual general fund budget.
“We have $3 billion in tax loopholes, some of those benefit the state, most of those do not benefit the state,” Labrador said. “You can actually do a tax shift. That’s what tax reform is.”
Labrador added that he was opposed to the state picking “winners and losers,” and said he was against the state’s current structure to help incentivize business to move to or expand in Idaho because it harmed the current businesses in the state.
Meanwhile, Boise developer and first-time political candidate Tommy Ahlquist said he would apply a business model in order to find and eliminate wasteful government spending, as well as bring fresh ideas to a state that has long been run by the political establishment.
Unlike Labrador, who said he would require all agency directors to reapply for the positions, Ahlquist said if elected he anticipated keeping both new and old agency heads to oversee the state’s agencies.
Lt. Gov. Brad Little maintained that Idaho was on the right path to continue growing and attracting new businesses, but his experience working with Otter and the Idaho Legislature was needed to ensure the state’s future success.
“Today Idaho is the envy of all the states,” Little said.
Little’s proposed tax cut plan would cost Idaho around $116 million in its first year, which includes reducing the general fund by $27.9 million to lower the top personal and corporate income tax rates by a tenth of a percent and $9 million for the business equipment property tax break. But he’d make the cuts only if state revenue continued to grow.
“We’ve had revenue over these past two years that went up $400 million, I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to give the taxpayers during these good times half of their money back,” Little said.
On education, Labrador and Ahlquist came out against state funding for preschool, though Ahlquist had previously supported such a proposal. He said he changed his mind after seeing a successful local pre-K program that was run without state funds. Little said funds should be provided to school districts for options ranging from pre-K to all-day kindergarten to summer reading programs, and local districts should decide which programs best fit their needs.
The three agreed on some points – opposition to same-sex marriage, of which Labrador said, “We will have an opportunity to litigate this again;” opposition to abortion; and support for reforms to Idaho’s foster care system.
But the debate turned sharply personal, particularly between Labrador and Ahlquist, as the candidates decried each other’s campaign tactics.
Labrador said of Ahlquist, “Tommy’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In front of the camera, he tries to say all these nice things. But behind the camera, his entire campaign has been a negative attack after attack after attack.”
When Ahlquist offered a non-committal answer to a question about whether he’d sign a bill to punish women for having abortions – which both Little and Labrador said they wouldn’t sign – Labrador said, “Tommy Ahlquist just showed why he’s not qualified to be governor of this state … he flipflops. … He one time was for punishing women, then he was against punishing women.”
Labrador said that’s “because these are issues that he has not thought about for a long time. I’ve been thinking about these issues for a long time, and I know exactly what I want to do as the governor of the state, and I don’t think you should trust and risk the future of this state on somebody who is untrained and does not really understand how these policy decisions are being made.”
Asked for his response, Ahlquist said, “I’ve heard from a lot of people that knew Raul before he went to Washington, D.C. and he was a pretty nice guy. But since coming back, who knows. This is the way he acts, and I think the people at home are going to see through who he really is.”
Labrador retorted that Ahlquist is spending big bucks to attack him in campaign ads, and “now he’s standing here on the stage trying to say that he’s a nice guy and I’m not. I think people can judge for themselves.”
The candidates also differed over Idaho’s faith-healing exemption, which prevents civil or criminal prosecution of parents who deny their children medical care on religious grounds, even if the children die.
Ahlquist said as an emergency room doctor, he’s dealt with such families. “I’ve been there,” he said. “Religious liberties are so important, and parental rights are so important.” But, he said, “You’ve got to side on the side of these kids that can’t defend themselves. … I think we need to look at that law.” He said he didn’t want his pro-life views to end at birth. “I don’t know how you fight for life up until birth and at Day 1, you don’t intervene when you can save a child.”
Little said he favored more efforts to acquaint faith-healing families with all the options. “We need to convince those people to do the right thing – it pains me when I see what’s happened,” he said. But, he said, after a pause, “I would have to look at the exact the language of the bill. … I’m going to default on religious liberty and the right of the parent, but this gets up awful close to the line to where that needs to be looked at.”
Labrador said, “I would not change it. I believe in religious liberty.” He said he’s not bothered that Idaho is one of just a handful of states with such exemptions on the books. “We believe in freedom,” he said. “I would not interfere with a parent’s right to make a decision like that. I believe that they get to decide.”
In between talking about policy positions, the candidates took time to critique each other’s attack ads.
“Probably one of the most disturbing ones was I was driving my 15-year-old daughter a couple of weeks ago and she pulled up an ad that was being run by one of my opponents with me dressed in a Ku Klux Klan outfit saying that I was a dirty, filthy racist,” said Ahlquist.
Labrador quickly responded that while the claim came from one his supporters, he did not support the ad and neither was his campaign involved in the ad.
“My campaign had nothing to do with that blog and I actually asked him to take down that picture because I found it to be offensive,” said Labrador, who then accused Ahlquist of lying about Labrador’s support of President Donald Trump and his immigration stance.
Little said the biggest lie that’s been spread about him so far during the campaign was by Ahlquist’s campaign that he was not a conservative and that he raised taxes.
“Over and over, I’ve voted time and time again to reduce the tax level in the state of Idaho,” he said. “I’ve governed, whether I was serving the Senate or as lieutenant governor, with the lightest possible hand of government.”
Staff writer Betsy Z. Russell contributed to this report.