Then there were three.
Last week, former state Sen. Russ Fulcher dropped out of the 2018 Republican race to be Idaho’s next governor. Instead, he jumped into the race for Congressman Raul Labrador’s congressional seat. Many had expected the two to split the conservative vote in 2018’s GOP primary.
That leaves Labrador, Lt. Gov. Brad Little and Boise businessman Tommy Ahlquist pursuing the Republican nomination. So far no major Democratic candidate has yet announced so I will focus on the Republican primary.
According to the latest Dan Jones Poll for Idaho Politics Weekly, Labrador is currently drawing 22% of GOP voters while Little is at 18%. Ahlquist trails with 8%. That leaves 52% of all Republicans either undecided or with another candidate. That leaves plenty of room for the candidates to move up.
The three-way race could shake out in multiple ways. One possibility is on the basis of ideology.
For instance, will Labrador now wrap up the conservative vote and romp to victory next May?
Or, will he and Ahlquist – who had been tacking right himself with a call to cut state spending by $100 million --- leave Little in a position to consolidate a winning coalition of those who are more moderate?
Perhaps the outcome will be that Ahlquist will carve out a sufficient position as the candidate who is sort of in the middle -- less conservative than Labrador but more so than Little?
Another possibility is that the race will be driven more by regional appeals and targeted niches. I am a bit intrigued by where each candidate seems to be targeting.
For instance, Brad Little is a rancher by background and knows Idaho agriculture well. He’ll connect strongly with those in Idaho’s rural areas. But, what some overlook is that no one else in the race has spent as much time with Idaho’s local officials or local business people. Otter’s support is likely a net positive with the anti-Otter vote split between Labrador and to some degree Ahlquist.
As to Tommy Ahlquist, he has been trying to position himself as a strong conservative, trying to carve into the same audience that Fulcher and Labrador focused on. He is also well known in the Boise development scene and seems to be targeting East Idaho specifically. As a physician, he has unique potential to reach deep into Idaho’s medical community.
Labrador will run strong in North Idaho and will likely hit every conservative event between now and next May. His point of weakness is those areas of East Idaho impacted by the Idaho National Laboratory. He is perceived as an opponent of the INL, although he is working to minimize this by asserting his support for the INL.
Money will play a key role. Each candidate will need sufficient resources to get their message out.
Labrador’s fundraising potential in a statewide race is still an open question. In 2016, he only generated a bit more than half a million dollars for his congressional race, much from national sources. Can he raise $1 million-plus for a statewide race?
Little raised roughly 70% of what Labrador did in all of 2016 in just the last half of 2016 alone – mostly out of Idaho.
Ahlquist has already pledged $5 million of his own personal funds for the race and will likely try to tap his business relationships.
A final thought . . might Fulcher’s exit tempt one or more additional Republicans to jump into the race? Atty. Gen. Lawrence Wasden has often been mentioned. Is there anyone else who will be tempted?