For a political old-timer such as myself, it’s always interesting to attend a campaign function for Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who is hoping to become our next governor.

When he holds a campaign event, such as a pizza luncheon recently in his Boise campaign headquarters, I see a smattering of kings (past and present) and various kingmakers – a much different crowd than what appears at rallies for Congressman Raul Labrador and Tommy Ahlquist. And with the Little crowd, there’s never a shortage of opinions about the race in general and strategies for winning.

It’s easy to scoff at establishment candidates and their supporters. But it’s a mistake to underestimate them. A lot of high-powered people who have been around politics for a long time are backing Little. It’s music to their ears when the candidate talks about how his political life has been influenced by icons such as former Gov. Phil Batt and the late Sen. Jim McClure.

It’s true that the establishment candidates don’t always win. But they don’t always lose, either, and those backing Little are trying to make sure they don’t let this one slip away.

Little, who boasts about being a third-generation Idahoan running against two outsiders, says his path to the nomination is simple: “Get more votes than my opponents.” He really doesn’t care where he gets those votes. Some of his supporters tell me that this primary race will be decided in rural areas, where Gov. Butch Otter traditionally has been strong – and where understanding of water issues is far more important than where politicians go to church on Sundays.

I’m wondering at what point Little, or his surrogates, goes after Labrador – or Ahlquist, if he shows signs of gaining in the polls. Little, a mild-mannered Emmett rancher, may not like the idea of negative campaigning, but he’s never been in a race like this one. He has taken some low-level swipes at Labrador and Ahlquist, saying the two “outsiders” don’t understand what Idahoans want. Privately, Little doesn’t shy away from criticizing Labrador and his plan to upend state government as we know it.

As Little sees it, Labrador draws a parallel between Washington politics and Idaho, which is a “fatally incorrect supposition. Our income tax revenue in Idaho in two years is up 27 percent, which is almost a 14 percent increase per year. Our total tax revenue is up $436 million, and we are giving half back with our tax bills. There’s a certain segment that wants to give all of it back and slash government, but even some of my most conservative friends recognize that we need to improve education and do other things.”

At some point soon, Little will need to hit harder, because handling Labrador with kid gloves probably won’t work. Labrador, who has done his part to shake up Washington, plays hardball politics with the best of them. Little will need to pound away, through his advertising, about the threat Labrador poses with his agenda that goes beyond conventional conservatism. Little may not like negative campaigning, but it has been known to work. And mixing it up with Labrador will show that Little is a fighter.

For now, Little offers a softer sell. “We want to create an atmosphere in Idaho where our kids and grandkids have the best opportunity to stay here, or for those who have left, to come back. I want the same things as somebody who moved to Idaho a year ago. They moved here for a reason, and they want their kids to stay here. That’s why we need an education system worthy of the people here, and the people we want to have in the future.”

Little gets his share of applause for his pitches. But it hardly deflects criticism about the ballyhooed Otter-Little executive order on health care apparently falling flat on the federal level. Ahlquist was quick to pounce, calling the executive order a “political stunt” to help Little’s campaign. And Little’s nice-guy approach doesn’t discourage Labrador from criticizing the  “cronyism” he says has been operating during the Otter-Little years.

Labrador and Ahlquist will continue taking their shots up to the May 15 primary, and Little needs to respond in kind. Little already has won over the choir. Now, it’s a matter of making his case with everybody else.

Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.