Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador has the best name recognition for next year’s gubernatorial sweepstakes, and plenty of flash to boot.
Boise Developer Tommy Ahlquist is attempting to buy name recognition with his aggressive television advertising, and the strategy might work. Former State Sen. Russ Fulcher of Meridian, who ran a surprisingly close primary race to Gov. Butch Otter three years ago, has been there before.
Arguments can be made for any one of those three winning the GOP nod in next year’s primary election, which in the Gem State is tantamount to winning the election. But don’t under-estimate Lt. Gov. Brad Little, or over-estimate the importance of issues. If issues were the main draw in elections, Gov. Butch Otter would have been bounced out by Fulcher in the last primary – and certainly the general election when the mainstream media was more aggressive in reporting on the administration.
Little, a longtime Emmett rancher, has some advantages over his opponents. He has more “Idaho” in him than a sack of potatoes and he can ride into any rural community on a horse – one that he owns.
He wouldn’t be the first governor to win based on his Idaho roots. Cecil Andrus got a lot of mileage from being an Orofino lumberjack and Phil Batt (who is backing Little) was a Wilder farmer. Otter, who has spent his political career as a toast of rural communities, has never made a secret of preferring the small town of Star over the big city of “Worshington,” as he calls it. Any animosity toward Otter seemed to go away with a firm handshake, slap on the back and booming laugh.
Otter had the distinction in rural Idaho of being “one of us,” which explains why he was elected to three terms as governor. Little doesn’t have the gregarious personality of Otter, but he looks perfectly comfortable wearing a cowboy hat, jeans and a western shirt. He looks the part of a “one of us” kind of candidate, and that’s something that especially Labrador (who is from Puerto Rico) and Ahlquist (Utah) cannot entirely pull off in all corners of the state.
In my conversations with Little, he makes it clear that he’s running for “governor of Idaho,” which goes well beyond cowboy country. But he adds, laughingly, that he isn’t going to run away from the analogy about his Idaho roots and the political benefits that go with it.
“I’m not embarrassed by the fact that our grandkids are sixth-generation Idahoans,” he said. “It’s going to come down to retail politics.”
In a fund-raising letter earlier this year, Little commented about “wide-open land, the big sky, the fiercely proud and independent people, this amazing quality of life and our bright and shining future. One way or another, I’ve been fighting for Idaho all my life. I’m a third-generation rancher, and my grandparents and parents instilled a proud stewardship of the land. Our sons, their wives and eventually our grandchildren will continue that tradition. We don’t need the big-government bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., telling us what to do.”
That’s nice political red meat for the small-town coffee shops. But Little, who has served in high levels of state government, is not one who says “no” to everything. He has been on the front line of promoting business development, technological advancement and the need for education improvements.
“Some people may disagree with this, but we need to get wages up to help employers get the higher-skilled workers they need, and that means upgrading our education system,” he says.
Little may not be the most conservative in the race. Labrador, no doubt, will bring his version of “draining the swamp” to Idaho, Ahlquist will continue to parade his “conservative blueprint” to all corners of Idaho and Fulcher will argue for more state control of public lands.
But if the race comes down to who Idahoans perceive as being more “one of us,” then Little could end up being the one to beat in next year’s primary.