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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Plenty at stake in local contests for state’s voters

Betsy Z. Russell The Spokesman-Review

BOISE – Half a million Idahoans are expected to vote on Nov. 2, with the state’s strong tradition of voter turnout in presidential election years.

But with a noticeable lack of high-profile statewide races – and the state’s long tradition of backing GOP candidates for president – those additional voters will perhaps be making the most difference in little-heralded races for the state Legislature and county offices. The results could hit close to home, affecting everything from taxes to schools to law enforcement.

“It’s very important when 100 percent of your Legislature is being elected, two-thirds of your county commissioners being elected,” said Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. “There are reasons to vote all the way up and down the ticket, but some of ‘em don’t drive turnout as much as others.”

The November election marks a first for Idaho in its lack of a contested U.S. Senate race. Instead, first-term GOP Sen. Mike Crapo’s name alone will appear on the ballot.

An engineer from Jerome, Scott McClure, has registered as a write-in candidate, but the Democrat didn’t send in his declaration until more than a month after the primary election. He would have needed 1,000 write-in votes in the primary to get on the ballot.

McClure said he’s waging his write-in campaign because “there are too many issues facing this state and this nation to allow such an important position as a seat in the U.S. Senate to go uncontested.”

There are contests for both of the state’s congressional seats, but in both cases, the Democratic challengers are being vastly outspent by the better-known Republican incumbents. Two-term Rep. Butch Otter, Idaho’s former longtime lieutenant governor, faces Eagle, Idaho, businesswoman Naomi Preston in the 1st District, which includes North Idaho.

In the 2nd District, Rep. Mike Simpson, a dentist and former state House speaker, is being challenged by former state Sen. Lin Whitworth, of Pocatello, whose campaign slogan is “Send a working man to Washington!”

None of those contests has generated the kind of big-bucks, high-profile media campaigns and rhetorical battles that have captured attention in past elections.

“We don’t have any initiatives, we don’t have any constitutional amendments,” Ysursa said, and none of Idaho’s statewide offices is up for election this year. “So we don’t have a great statewide issue or campaign or whatever where a lot of money’s going to be spent on voter outreach.”

However, there’s still plenty at stake. County commissioners can influence land use in high-growth counties and make other important decisions affecting residents’ lives.

“And then there is the 2005 Legislature,” said Boise State University political scientist Jim Weatherby, “who will be confronting major budget, tax and water decisions.”

Sixty-eight of the 105 seats in the Legislature are being contested in the November election. The other 37 are unopposed, though many of those were hot races back in the May primary.

At least some turnover in the state Legislature is guaranteed – 16 incumbents aren’t in the running, either because they chose not to seek re-election or they were defeated in the primary.

That’s helped set up some wide-open contests. Among them:

Democrat Steve Elgar, Republican Eric Anderson and Libertarian Frank Reichert are facing off for the House seat formerly held by retired Rep. John Campbell, R-Sandpoint.

Democrat Mike Gridley and Republican Marge Chadderdon are going head-to-head for the seat formerly held by Rep. Bonnie Douglas, D-Coeur d’Alene, who lost to Gridley in the primary.

And former Kootenai County Commissioner Frank Henderson is mounting a political comeback run against Democrat Lyndon Harriman for a House seat in District 5, after defeating Rep. Charles Eberle, R-Post Falls, in the primary. Also in that district, the retirement of Rep. Hilde Kellogg, R-Post Falls, has set up a three-way race among Republican Bob Nonini, Democrat David Larsen and Constitution Party candidate Rose Johnson.

There are other notable races around the state. In Lewiston, Rep. Mike Naccarato, a Democrat, is taking on Sen. Joe Stegner, a Republican, in a showdown between two high-profile local politicians. In St. Maries, GOP Rep. Dick Harwood faces a strong challenge from prominent local Democrat George Currier.

Though the balance of power between the parties in the Idaho Legislature isn’t likely to shift – Republicans hold a huge majority, which is unlikely to be dented even if Democrats pick up some seats – individual races can affect the outcome of issues that divide lawmakers, from education to taxes.

“It’s quite a range of issues,” Weatherby said. “Here may be an opportunity for them to get their message out more clearly than in years in which the airways are filled with statewide races and initiative campaigns.”