BOISE – Idaho GOP Gov. Butch Otter won a rare third term Tuesday over Democratic challenger A.J. Balukoff after a hard-fought race, while the race for state superintendent of schools was too close to call at press time.
First-time Republican candidate Sherri Ybarra narrowly led Democrat Jana Jones, a former chief deputy state superintendent, in early returns in the superintendent’s race, the state’s closest race.
Ybarra, a political unknown who won a four-way GOP primary with just 28.7 percent of the vote, ran a stumbling campaign that lurched from one gaffe to the next. She acknowledged that her campaign website plagiarized material from her opponent’s. When news surfaced that she’d never voted in an Idaho election since moving to the state in 1996, she said she’s running for state superintendent, in part, to “repay” Idaho for that lapse in civic participation.
But Democrats have faced long odds in Idaho elections in recent years, with the GOP controlling every statewide office since 2006, the entire four-member congressional delegation since 2010, and more than 80 percent of the seats in the Legislature.
“It says a lot about the power of an ‘R’ behind a candidate’s name,” said Jim Weatherby, Boise State University professor emeritus and longtime observer of Idaho politics. “What is the future of the Democratic Party, if they can’t take advantage of relatively weak candidates like Ybarra?”
Most of the attention in Idaho focused on the governor’s race, with Otter seeking to become the first governor since 1962 to win a third consecutive four-year term. Both Balukoff and Libertarian challenger John Bujak pressed Otter hard over a series of scandals during his two terms, from a failed private prison experiment to a costly contract mess involving a high school broadband network.
Balukoff, a prominent Boise businessman and longtime chairman of the Boise school board, also went after Otter on education and the economy, while Otter said a third term would let him finish leading the state out of the crippling recession that hit shortly after he took office in 2007.
“Yes, we’ve had some setbacks,” Otter said in the final debate of the campaign. But he maintained he can turn things around in a third term, and cited a task force plan to improve schools.
Balukoff, who spent more than $3.2 million of his own money on his campaign, said, “It was worth it – we’ve been able to change the conversation. We’ve raised education to a good level of discussion.”
In other statewide races, Republicans were ahead. Lt. Gov. Brad Little rolled up a big lead over Democratic challenger Bert Marley in his bid for a second full term. A rare open race for Idaho Secretary of State – a position long dominated by two popular, long-serving Republicans – pitted controversial former Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney against freshman Democratic state Rep. Holli Woodings of Boise, a high-tech company co-owner who ran an energetic statewide campaign; early returns showed Denney ahead.
Denney is a longtime state representative who was the first House speaker ever to be removed from the post by his caucus; for the past two years, he’s chaired the House Resources Committee and campaigned for a state takeover of federal public lands.
Idaho state Treasurer Ron Crane, a four-term incumbent who was unopposed four years ago, was challenged this time by Twin Falls CPA Deborah Silver, a Democrat who pointed to critical state audits and said a professional could manage Idaho’s funds better than Crane. Crane, who disputed the state auditors’ findings, served 16 years in the state Legislature before being elected treasurer; early results had him well ahead in his bid for a fifth term.
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