Idaho Republicans on Tuesday will choose their gubernatorial nominee. In a crowded field of seven candidates three have risen above the rest to warrant serious consideration. Of those three, Brad Little most deserves voters’ support.
Little is the current lieutenant governor, serving in his third term. He’s the heir apparent to retiring Gov. Butch Otter. During more than 15 years serving in Boise – he was a state senator before becoming lieutenant governor – Little has earned a reputation as a pragmatic consensus builder who gets things done. He has worked with the Legislature for years and knows how to collaborate. That reputation helped him secure endorsements from business and real estate organizations, not to mention most Republican elected officials and former Gov. Phil Batt.
He remains connected to the Idaho outside of Boise, too. Little is an active rancher who has a good feel for the issues facing the rural parts of the state. He supports expanding agricultural education programs at all levels and continuing to market the state’s agricultural products abroad. He also has deep understanding of the critical issues of water management and aquifer recharge.
Tempered support for tax cuts and health care reform – as opposed to wild slashing – round out his platform and will serve the state well.
Little’s two main rivals for the nomination are Raúl Labrador and Tommy Ahlquist. Both have argued that Idaho needs to break from the past. That argument might hold more water if Idaho were suffering under Otter and Little.
That’s not to say that Labrador and Ahlquist aren’t worthy of voters’ consideration. Each has an impressive résumé and brings interesting ideas to the table.
Labrador, a four-term congressman and co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus, has a commendable commitment to government transparency, but his strident anti-tax philosophy would be a detriment to the state. For example, he would eliminate tax incentives, harming the state’s ability to compete for employers.
Ahlquist is a former emergency room doctor who is now a businessman and developer. This is his first run for public office, leaving him without a firm public record by which voters can judge his fitness. For example, he promises to identify $100 million of wasteful spending in his first 100 days. Why not tell voters now what he’d cut?
Labrador and Ahlquist also are overly focused on proving their far-right credentials on social issues. That’s nice in a conservative state, but fighting over wedge issues like abortion, LGBTQ rights and immigration won’t solve challenges in education and economic development.
Meanwhile, two of three Democratic candidates are viable contenders for that party’s nomination. A.J. Balukoff’s long commitment to and focus on greater resources for education belongs on the campaign trail leading up to November if only to help frame the conversation. His chief opponent is former state Rep. Paulette Jordan. She has a compelling story, but the fact that not one of her former Democratic colleagues in the capitol has endorsed her is telling. Most have endorsed Balukoff, with a handful remaining neutral.
Under Idaho law, parties may open their primaries to all voters. The GOP chose not to do that, so only Republicans can vote in that primary. Democrats opened their ballot to voters of any party. Voters can only choose one.
Some electoral realism is helpful when thinking about the Idaho gubernatorial primaries. Idaho remains a very red state. Otter has served three terms as governor and likely would have been a heavy favorite if he’d sought a fourth. The state has supported the Republican presidential candidate the past five times, with the narrowest winning margin being 25 percentage points by John McCain in 2008. Whomever Republicans nominate will be the immediate frontrunner, so they need to get it right.
Little is the best Republican option to lead Idaho for the next four years.