BOISE – Democrat Paulette Jordan breaks the mold of the typical Idaho candidate.
She’s the first woman to win her party’s nomination for governor of a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the top seat in almost 30 years. And if she pulls off the upset against Lt. Gov. Brad Little in November, Jordan, a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, will be the first Native American governor of a U.S. state.
It won’t be easy. It’s tough being a Democrat in Idaho, grappling with a lack of legislative influence inside the Statehouse and consistently losing against far-right statewide and congressional opponents. The last time Idaho voters elected a Democrat for governor was in 1990.
Former four-term Gov. Cecil Andrus was white and male – key characteristics in a state that has the second-highest Mormon population outside Utah. On social issues he appealed to conservative voters by being pro-gun and anti-abortion.
Jordan, 38, promotes better gun control and advocates for expanding Medicaid. She’s a former two-term state representative with a long history of working on the tribal council. She’s drawn national media attention and progressives have billed her as a new face of the Democratic Party.
In the May 15 Democratic primary, Jordan crushed her 74-year-old opponent A.J. Balukoff by securing nearly 60 percent of the vote. Jordan’s supporters broke election turnout expectations, forcing county clerks to rapidly print ballots the day of the primary to keep up with demand.
When results were finally announced later that night, Jordan stood in front of an adoring crowd, dancing and singing along to music at a party she hosted several blocks down from the Idaho Democratic Party’s more demure gathering.
But questions swirl around her campaign’s ability to pull off an upset over Little in November.
During the final weeks building up to the primary, Jordan’s campaign imploded with the loss of key staffers who left despite their initial strong allegiance to the candidate. The departures came at a time when she had no endorsements from current or former Democratic lawmakers.
Distancing herself from simply being a party loyalist could pay off in Idaho, said Jaclyn Kettler, a Boise State University political scientist.
“In a state that values independence and individualism, that makes sense,” Kettler said. “Not being beholden to a party can be an attractive thing to a voter when evaluating a candidate.”
The numbers are also stacked against Jordan. While roughly 65,000 Idahoans voted in the Democratic primary, more than 194,000 voters cast a ballot in the GOP’s primary that only allows registered Republicans to participate.
Jordan downplayed those concerns in a recent interview with The Associated Press, saying people are ready for fresh solutions to Idaho’s longstanding challenges.
“My goal is to create one Idaho,” Jordan said. “I’m not going anywhere. My children are here, and when I say my children, I consider all children in Idaho my children. Striving for a better future is not a partisan issue.”
Jordan listed two top priorities if elected: improving education – particularly by boosting teacher pay for K-12, creating a universal preschool program and reducing the costs of college tuition – and expanding access to health care throughout the state.
However, just how Jordan plans on implementing or funding those efforts remains unclear.
During the primary campaign, Jordan pointed to the legalization of marijuana as a possible way to spike tax revenue to help cover the costs of her proposals. The benefit would be twofold, she argued, because it would create a new revenue source while also freeing up funds that have increasingly gone to Idaho’s growing prison population.
Yet when asked post-primary about how she would convince a Republican-dominant Statehouse to approve recreational marijuana, Jordan put the onus on lawmakers and not herself to make it happen.
“Let them say no to alternative medicine,” Jordan said.
When told that the Statehouse has repeatedly refused to consider recreational or medicinal marijuana proposals and instead has passed a resolution vowing never to do so, Jordan responded “Well, let them do it again.”
Jordan did not offer an alternative to how she would pay for higher teacher pay or expanding health care access.
Her battle becomes even more challenging with her opponent mirroring some of her priorities.
On health care, Little has said he’ll support the will of the people if a proposal to expand Medicaid in Idaho qualifies for the November ballot and passes. On education, Little has said he supports increasing teacher pay and won’t sign off on tax cuts if they threaten education spending. The two also agree that the state’s current 6 percent sales tax on groceries should be repealed.
Jordan bristled at the suggestion that she and Little share policy positions, and she criticized his involvement in health care issues.
As lieutenant governor, Little had little control over passing legislation.
Jordan says he “could have done more” to advocate on expanding Medicaid.
“He had an opportunity to bring health care to Idaho, now it’s my turn,” she said.
Yet even if Jordan fails to win the top elected seat, her potential and the excitement surrounding her campaign has sparked some fear among Idaho Republicans.
During the state GOP convention on June 30, the shadow of Jordan’s campaign haunted the event with delegates repeatedly warning that her star power could sway other seats.
“I’m a little worried about down ticket races with Paulette Jordan,” said Bryan Smith from Idaho Falls during a speech to GOP delegates. “If we’re not careful, the governor’s race will suck all the oxygen out of the room and we’ll lose down ticket races.”
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