BOISE – The Republican Governor’s Association launched an attack ad in Idaho on Wednesday against A.J. Balukoff, the Democratic candidate for governor, decrying him as “a typical politician” and “wrong for Idaho.”
The description is “very wide of the mark, and a script written by somebody who apparently doesn’t know the state or A.J. Balukoff very well,” said Jim Weatherby, Boise State University professor emeritus and a longtime observer of Idaho politics.
Balukoff, a Boise businessman who’s prone to wearing bow ties, has served 17 years as an unpaid, elected member of the Boise School Board, but other than that has never held political office. He’s running against one of Idaho’s longest-serving politicians, GOP Gov. Butch Otter, who’s held public office since the 1970s.
“People complain about negative ads, but they are effective and they do influence people’s votes,” Weatherby said. “This negative ad, however, starts out with a characterization of A.J. Balukoff that I suspect a lot of Idahoans would know is inaccurate. He is far from being a typical politician.”
The RGA, which also is running ads against Democratic candidates for governor in several other states including Hawaii and Kansas, made an ad buy in Idaho “in the six-figure range,” according to spokesman Jon Thompson. The Idaho ad is running statewide on cable and broadcast TV, but is not running in the pricey Spokane broadcast TV market.
Otter is seeking a third term as Idaho governor; if he succeeds, he’d be only the second Idaho governor in history elected to three consecutive terms. Balukoff has challenged Otter’s record on education and the economy; he’s cited his own success as school board chairman in the Boise School District, one of the state’s best-performing districts, and as a businessman who owns major pieces of Boise’s downtown, including a portion of its Idaho Steelheads hockey team.
The RGA ad attempts to paint Balukoff as a politician who just wants to raise taxes, making several claims that are exaggerated, out of context or just plain wrong about Balukoff’s positions. It debuts as national pundits have suggested Idaho’s governor’s race is in play, despite big leads for Otter in earlier polls.
“The insertion of money from the national party clearly demonstrates that the Washington, D.C., power base of the national GOP recognizes that Butch Otter is in danger of losing the governor’s office,” said Mike Lanza, spokesman for Balukoff’s campaign.
This week, Politico dubbed the race a “wild card” in a story on states where incumbent governors could lose. Two weeks ago, the “Sabato Crystal Ball,” the respected election analysis and forecasting site operated by University of Virginia Professor Larry Sabato, moved Idaho’s governor’s race from the “safe Republican” category to “likely Republican,” citing divisions among Idaho Republicans, Otter’s less-than-stellar 51 percent win in the GOP primary and Balukoff’s “deep pockets.”
Balukoff has been running his own political ads, including in the Spokane market, but so far, they’ve all been positive ads, touting him rather than attacking Otter. The RGA is the second independent group to run an attack ad against Balukoff; earlier, the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry funded one attempting to tie Balukoff to President Barack Obama and brand him a “liberal.”
Balukoff, who wasn’t affiliated with either party before he decided to run for governor as a Democrat, actually voted for Mitt Romney.
“It is interesting, and makes you wonder what is going on here,” Weatherby said. “Balukoff looked like a long shot, but now they’re bringing out heavy guns taking direct aim at his campaign. … He’s certainly getting attention here, and might stimulate some more donations to his campaign – including from himself.”
The RGA ad offers three examples of how it says Balukoff wants to raise taxes: That he “supports a new statewide property tax,” “supported expanding the sales tax” and “even wanted to use your tax dollars to fund political campaigns for politicians.”
Balukoff has been critical of the 2006 tax shift championed by then-Idaho Gov. Jim Risch that raised the sales tax while shifting basic school operations funding off the property tax, saying it destabilized funding for Idaho schools. But he’s not calling for a new statewide property tax, which Idaho law doesn’t allow; property taxes in Idaho are assessed locally.
Instead, Balukoff has said repeatedly that Idaho needs to re-examine its priorities for spending the tax money it already collects. He points to Otter’s budget proposal this year, which called for $70 million for rainy-day funds, $30 million for unspecified tax cuts and $2 million for a new wolf control board. “I think public education is a higher priority than any of those, so there’s over $100 million that we could re-deploy,” he said.
The sales tax claim stems from Balukoff’s support for an initiative in 2006 that sought to raise Idaho’s sales tax a penny to 6 percent and devote the extra money to schools; it failed, because just months before the election, Risch and the Legislature, in a special session, raised the tax to 6 percent to fund property tax relief.
The claim about public financing for campaigns is even more obscure, citing a 1999 newspaper report that Balukoff was on the board of a group that looked into promoting an initiative for public financing of campaigns, but decided not to press forward with the measure.
“That’s a real overreach to be charitable, if not out and out distortion,” Weatherby said.
The RGA also cites a portion of a publication from a Moscow, Idaho research group to back up its claim that expanding Medicaid in Idaho would cost the state “millions.” “That surely is a misreading,” Weatherby said. Studies by two state task forces have determined that if Idaho expanded Medicaid, as states have the option to do under the Affordable Care Act, it would save hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s because federal taxes that Idahoans already pay would be tapped to fund the additional coverage; now, Idaho pays for indigent residents’ catastrophic medical bills directly with local property taxes and state general tax funds.
The ad is accurate in claiming that Balukoff supports Medicaid expansion. “It would provide health insurance to about 104,000 Idahoans too poor to qualify for subsidized health care, and save the lives of an estimated 600 Idahoans every year,” Balukoff wrote in an April newspaper guest opinion piece.
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