BOISE – It took until Wednesday morning at 7, but GOP newcomer Sherri Ybarra eked out a slim win in the race for Idaho state schools chief, completing a Republican sweep of all statewide offices that echoed results in Idaho elections since 2006.
Democrats picked up one seat in the state Legislature thanks to upsets in Moscow and Lewiston, but GOP dominance of the Idaho Statehouse remained otherwise unchanged: 80 percent of seats went to Republicans, down from 81 percent.
“It was a good election for Republicans, and they got their voters out,” said Jim Weatherby, Boise State University professor emeritus and longtime observer of Idaho politics.
Two factors stood out: the success of independent attack ads in pumping up unfavorable views of previously little-known Democratic candidate for governor A.J. Balukoff, and the Idaho Republican Party’s traditional and continued organizational success in turning out its voters on Election Day.
Balukoff “was an unknown,” Weatherby said, “and he was defined by his opposition as a liberal Democrat who loved Obama and wanted to raise taxes.” That’s despite the fact that he’s a former longtime independent, a Mitt Romney supporter, a successful Boise businessman and a longtime school board chairman.
GOP Gov. Butch Otter won a rare third consecutive four-year term – the first Idaho governor to do so since Robert Smylie in 1962.
“It says something great about Republican principles, and how enduring, how survivable they are, even when we have major differences in the party,” he told Boise TV station KTVB late Tuesday. “It’s still those principles that people of Idaho want to be governed by.”
Otter won his third term with 53.5 percent of the vote, up from the surprisingly low 51.4 percent he received from his own party in the primary, amid splits between tea party supporters and establishment Republicans. In final, unofficial results, Balukoff had 38.6 percent; Libertarian John Bujak had 4.1 percent. Three other candidates each trailed with 2 percent or less.
The Republican Governors Association sent out a news release late on election night congratulating Otter on his win and claiming some of the credit, saying it was “a key investor in Gov. Otter’s re-election victory, spending $1.2 million on paid media,” including three TV ads targeting Balukoff.
Balukoff spent more than $3.2 million of his own money on his campaign; Otter raised and spent more than $2 million.
Ybarra’s race was much closer. She defeated Democrat Jana Jones, a former chief deputy state superintendent, by 5,715 votes, a razor-thin 50.7 percent to 49.3 percent margin. She did that despite Jones having outspent the little-known Mountain Home educator by nearly a 3-1 margin, and despite a campaign that was marked by a series of embarrassing gaffes.
“She goes in with some serious questions, I think, in people’s minds about how effective she can be, and how effectively she can navigate her way in proposing a schools budget and being effective in persuading legislators to support her and her position on education in Idaho,” Weatherby said.
Ybarra said she plans to work with current GOP Superintendent Tom Luna to transition into the job that she’ll start Jan. 1.
Both Ybarra and Lawerence Denney, the winner of the race for Idaho secretary of state, emerged from tough four-way GOP primary elections. Plus, Denney had a long and controversial record in Idaho politics.
“It seemed to be that Republicans united and the party organizational effort to get out the vote succeeded,” Weatherby said.
Denney defeated Democratic state Rep. Holli Woodings, D-Boise, with 56.2 percent of the vote.
Other GOP candidates for major Idaho offices rolled up larger margins to win re-election. Lt. Gov. Brad Little took 62.8 percent of the vote; state Treasurer Ron Crane, 61 percent. Sen. Jim Risch got 65.3 percent; 1st District U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador polled 65 percent.
There were no upsets in Panhandle legislative races. A challenge from Democrat Anne Nesse to Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene, that was deadlocked in early returns opened up to a 55.3 percent to 44.7 percent victory for Sims by the end of the night.
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