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Idaho Gov. Otter forms new PAC, aims to influence state races

BOISE – Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has formed a new political action committee, Otterpac, and plans to donate to GOP campaigns from the state level down to party precinct committee posts.

It’s a move that could help Otter, long a formidable campaign fund-raiser, stay relevant in Idaho electoral politics even as a lame-duck governor with no race of his own on the horizon. He has three years left in his third and final term as governor.

Otterpac can accept unlimited contributions from corporations, which precludes donating to any congressional candidates. Otter said instead he’ll likely focus on Idaho legislators, especially those who “ have been good partners and supportive.”

“I’m not going to go out and take revenge,” he said. “This is more a positive attitude, and a positive effort. You want to continue to support those people that have supported you.”

The PAC’s first big fundraising event is coming up the Saturday evening before the start of the next legislative session in January. Tickets to the gala “Annual Governor’s Dinner” start at $500 a plate and sponsorships run as high as $10,000. Otter has held similar political fundraisers over the years for his campaign and for the Idaho Republican Party; this year, the event will benefit Otterpac.

“This really is a precedent-setting endeavor,” said former Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who said no other outgoing Idaho governor has created such a PAC.

Otter said he considered forming a PAC earlier, but Ysursa dissuaded him.

“When he discussed it with me earlier, he was still an active candidate,” Ysursa said.

That meant limits applied to what people or businesses could donate to his campaign – $5,000 for the primary and $5,000 for the general election – but wouldn’t apply to the new PAC.

“If you’re an active candidate, and people are giving money to this fund and to a candidate fund, where do you draw the line for limits?” Ysursa said. “That was the main problem.”

Otter compared the move to “leadership” PACs formed by members of Congress. Those allow members to collect contributions, even from donors who already reached the limit on campaign contributions, and use the money to help other campaigns.

Boise State University political scientist Jaclyn Kettler said such PACS can “help allies, improve their own power within the institution, or help for a future run for leadership or for higher office.”

But Otterpac is something different. Kettler said it reminds her of Ohio’s hotly contested county precinct party elections three years ago, when top state office-holders got involved because the outcome was thought to dictate which direction the party would take.

There’s been a notable split in the Idaho Republican Party since 2008, when Otter’s favored party chairman, Kirk Sullivan, was defeated by a candidate backed by anti-Otter forces aligned with the tea party and Christian conservatives. Those groups have been battling the governor ever since.

In 2014, a group of dissident GOP officials launched a campaign against Otter in favor of his tea party-backed primary challenger, Russ Fulcher. At the time, Otter said the primary election was “about the heart and soul of the Republican Party.” He won with 51.4 percent of the vote.

Though federal election laws ban direct corporate contributions, Idaho allows them. Corporations are subject to the same giving limits as individuals in Idaho – $1,000 per primary or general election for a legislative seat, and $5,000 per primary or general for statewide offices. Either individuals or corporations can give unlimited amounts to PACs, but the PACs themselves can only give the specified limits to campaigns.

However, PACs can spend big money by running independent campaigns for or against a candidate, much as SuperPACs do at the federal level.

“Some would say this is the dark side of the First Amendment,” Ysursa said.

Otter said the new PAC’s ability to reach down to the precinct level will depend on how much money it raises.

“I have no expectation,” he said. “I hope I can raise enough to help those folks that have helped me in the Legislature.”

Asked if Otterpac would ever donate to a Democrat, Otter answered without hesitation: “No.”

He and First Lady Lori Otter launched Otterpac together in November. Both are pictured on the PAC’s website, otterpac.com.

“It’s a team effort, and she can be great help,” the governor said.

He said it was the first lady who brought him a graphic artist’s rendition of a cartoon otter logo for the new PAC, something he’s never used before in any of his 25 campaigns, 24 of which he won.

“It is so cute,” Otter said. “Where’s that been 25 elections ago? I might have won the one that I lost. I could have been 25 instead of 24-and-1.”

Otter said when he was first running for governor in 1978, a Canyon County supporter, Pete Hackworth, advised against making his namesake animal into a campaign logo.

“He said, ‘Don’t use the otter as your deal, because it looks like a rat,’” Otter recalled.

“I said, ‘No, rats have this long, hairy nose, and otters have a cute little mustache and a flat face,’” he said. “I thought at the time it was good advice. But that logo looks nothing like a rat.”

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