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Idaho governor hopefuls go on the attack as May 15 primary nears

This image is from a current Tommy Ahlquist for governor ad that targets Ahlquist’s leading rivals for the GOP nomination for governor of Idaho, Raul Labrador and Brad Little. (Screen shot)

BOISE – Candidates for governor of Idaho have been filling the airwaves with campaign commercials, and as the May 15 Idaho primary election approaches, many have gone on the attack.

Adding to the negative messaging run by the candidates themselves are virulent ads run by outside groups, including a new one that features close-ups of an attacking, fork-tongued snake as it describes two of the candidates – Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little and Boise businessman Tommy Ahlquist.

That ad is being run by the “Protect Freedom PAC,” which is operated by Sen. Rand Paul and is backing 1st District congressman Raul Labrador for governor.

Most of the claims in the negative ads are based on a kernel of truth, which is then exaggerated and twisted into something that sounds politically unpalatable – and in the end, leaves a false and negative impression.

“Negative ads have some effectiveness, so we’re going to continue to see them,” said Boise State University political scientist Jaclyn Kettler. “I think most citizens just view them with some frustration, even if they do manage to pick up some information – at the very least that there’s an election happening.”

In the past month, Labrador, Ahlquist and Little all have run multiple TV commercials referencing their competition, many of them positive about the candidate and his proposals and qualifications, but others focused at least in part on tearing down their opponents.

“Brad Little’s desperate, unable to defend his record of raising your taxes and increasing his pay,” says a recent Tommy Ahlquist ad. The tax-raising claim is pinned to a 2003 vote Little cast in the state Senate to temporarily increase Idaho’s sales tax by a penny for two years to avoid cutting school funding; then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne kept lawmakers in Boise for a record-long session that ran into May to address the funding problem.

Little doesn’t set his own pay; lawmakers set the pay for the part-time lieutenant governor position, which has increased substantially in recent years, but still is just $44,206 – 35 percent of the governor’s salary.

A Little ad targeting Ahlquist says, “It’s Tommy who’d raise taxes on everything from farm equipment to haircuts. That’s what you’d expect from a Democratic donor who didn’t vote for Trump.”

While Little’s campaign cites a radio interview Ahlquist gave, in which he favored cutting taxes and also eliminating some exemptions, Ahlquist didn’t specify which exemptions, and didn’t advocate for doing away with current sales tax exemptions for services and farm equipment.

And while Ahlquist in the past has donated to some Democrats – including A.J. Balukoff when he challenged GOP Gov. Butch Otter four years ago – Ahlquist has given much more to Republicans, and voted for Otter that year; he said Balukoff was a personal friend.

Ahlquist says he wrote in Marco Rubio for president rather than voting for Donald Trump.

After the Idaho First PAC, a pro-Ahlquist PAC whose major donors include Ahlquist’s father, John T. Ahlquist Jr., ran an attack ad claiming Labrador had never sponsored a bill in Congress that became law, Labrador hit back with an angry news conference, calling the claim “shameful” and declaring, “This is a complete and utter lie.”

Labrador pointed to three bills he sponsored that became law: the Shauna Hill act, a measure allowing military education benefits for dependents to be transferred if the original recipient dies; a grazing bill; and a measure transferring land to Idaho County for a shooting range.

As is common in Congress, all three bills, after being introduced separately, were rolled into larger omnibus measures before passing; Labrador actually voted against two of the three larger measures, citing opposition to other pieces that were included.

After Labrador’s news conference, the Idaho First PAC came out with a new version of its ad showing that if you search for Labrador’s name in the congressional website for enacted bills, none comes up listing him as the lead sponsor – but that’s because of the omnibus bills.

“Those types of embellishments are common,” Kettler said.

“A lot of the research shows that citizens don’t like negative ads. They report not wanting to watch them.”

But, she said, “Generally citizens seem to learn from negative ads and take away information and remember information from negative ads, maybe because they’re more interesting or exciting or more attention-grabbing.”

Lots of studies have looked into whether negative ads are so annoying that they decrease voter turnout as citizens turn away in disgust, but Kettler said, “There’s not a clear finding that negative ads decrease turnout.”

Ahlquist, a wealthy developer and physician who started running positive ads more than a year ago in his first-time run for political office, was the first to turn negative last month. “Going negative first can provide some benefits, that you kind of get to set the agenda of issues that you want to focus on,” Kettler said.

Little has now responded, and Labrador has begun to as well, though he has only two ads of his own so far – one a positive ad touting him for governor, and the other a “contrast” ad accusing Ahlquist of lying about Labrador’s record.

Surprisingly, Ahlquist is spending the most by far on advertising in the campaign so far – especially when the Idaho First PAC ads are factored in – and Democratic candidate A.J. Balukoff is in second place, while Little is third and Labrador fourth. Balukoff has run three positive ads and no negative ones.

“He wants to set a good example – he doesn’t want people to feel discouraged about politics,” said his campaign spokesman, Andy Bixler. “That temptation obviously is there for everyone, but we’re not going to take it.”

Balukoff’s rival in the Democratic primary for governor, former state Rep. Paulette Jordan, a Coeur d’Alene Tribe member, has not run TV ads, but released one positive ad online, opening with a shot of her on horseback. Kettler said, “She may still be trying to get things off the ground, but at some point you run out of time.”

All three GOP front-runners are conservative Republicans who have taken stands against Obamacare and called for cutting taxes. But with all running to the right in a closed GOP primary – in which only those willing to say they’re registered Republicans can vote – “you get this,” Kettler said, “Well, ‘they actually supported some tax increase,’ or ‘they’re not as active in opposing Obamacare as they should be.’ ”