When I talk with pundits about next year’s governor’s race, I hear a lot of opinions about Boise developer Tommy Ahlquist’s chances. Most of them are negative.
The old sages say he’ll never gain enough name recognition to win … that his polling numbers are low … that he does not have enough government experience … that he really is a Democrat running as a Republican. Blah, Blah, Blah.
But Ahlquist has two wild cards on his side – charisma and plenty of money. Ahlquist is in this to win, and he’s a hard-driving guy who usually gets what he wants.
Ahlquist, who last week launched his tour of 44 counties in 44 days in Meridian, showed plenty of charm in his address to the crowd. Granted, some of it was staged. Supporters were told that the event would be filmed and were asked to cheer enthusiastically. But as Ahlquist started hitting more home runs than Yankee slugger Aaron Judge, the crowd reaction became genuine.
“On March 1st, we announced our run and the career politicians and political insiders laughed. They made it very clear that they did not think we had a chance,” Ahlquist said. “But we knew better. We believed that our state was ready for new ideas and a fresh approach.”
As he was speaking, I started imagining Bill Clinton’s voice to Ahlquist’s words – and this is not a slap to Ahlquist. As a reporter in Arkansas during the late ’70s and early ’80s, I had occasion to cover Clinton during two runs for governor (1978 and 1982). Ahlquist’s speech practically was a mirror image of what Clinton talked about back in the day – short on specifics, but long on personal appeal.
No Republican in Idaho, including Ahlquist, would want to be compared to Bill Clinton in any way. But in this case, it’s a compliment. Few people in the history of American politics were a match for Clinton in his ability to rally a crowd to his side. During Clinton’s years as governor, he ran as a conservative – knowing that Arkansans never would go for a “liberal blueprint” for the state.
“Too often in life, and especially in politics, we jump right into the HOW … so let me start with the WHY,” Ahlquist told the Meridian crowd. “Why? Because we have incredible families in this great state. Why? Because Idaho is built on values and heritage of hard work, and we deserve a governor who works as hard as we do. Why? Because Idaho families deserve to be put first.”
He masterfully weaved in stories about an Idaho entrepreneur being held back by government mandates and a fourth-generation dairyman from the Magic Valley who is “tired” of skyrocketing health insurance costs.
“We need a governor that comes from the real world and knows what it’s like to sign the front of a paycheck, not just the back of a paycheck,” he said. “No more last, or near the bottom, in high school graduation. No more being OK with 1,350 homeless students in the Nampa school district. No more being near the bottom in the country in median wage. No more losing our kids to other states because they cannot find good paying jobs right here in Idaho. … Some say it can’t be done. But we must, and we will.”
On education, he says, “I promise you that when I am governor, every single day I will focus on education from dawn until dusk and we will not stop until we lead the nation in education,” he said.
Much of Ahlquist’s rhetoric doesn’t seem to fit with the “conservative blueprint” he’s touting – it was more like something stolen from Barack Obama. But from a crowd standpoint, a speech that has high ambitions generally gets a better reaction than one that promotes gloom and doom, and saying “no” to everything.
“Together, we will build an even better Idaho … an Idaho that doesn’t accept mediocrity … an Idaho where families prosper and businesses thrive …an Idaho with new ideas and a fresh approach,” he says. “Together – we must and together we will,” Ahlquist said.
I’m not sure about this, but I thought I heard someone in the audience saying, “Yes, we can.”