It was a colorful and at times comical debate Wednesday between the four Republicans running for governor — or “a cowboy, a curmudgeon, a biker and a normal guy,” in the words of candidate, biker and political gadfly Harley Brown.
The candidates — incumbent Butch Otter, state Sen. Russ Fulcher and perennial candidates Walt Bayes and Brown — spent much of their time talking about the prospects of managing federal lands. They talked at some length about the Republican Party, and the rift illustrated by the gubernatorial primary.
And they spent relatively little time talking about public education, the largest piece of the state’s budget.
Wednesday night’s debate, aired on Idaho Public Television, was the only showdown between the four candidates, and it comes six days before the GOP primary.
On the federal lands issue, Fulcher said it now makes sense for Idaho to demand a transfer of lands to state ownership. A “bankrupt” federal government may be willing to turn over jurisdiction of lands to the states — since it would derive tax revenues from the economic activity on state-managed lands. And the state, meanwhile, would break the cycle of low-paying service jobs.
“We’ve been squeezed out from what God gave us, our resources,” said Fulcher.
Otter voiced caution, saying a transfer of lands would also leave the state responsible for the cost of fighting fires.
“I wish them well,” said Otter, in an apparent reference to Fulcher and other conservative Republican candidates pushing for the transfer. “Only I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Bayes, running largely on an anti-abortion platform, was more direct.
“We’ve got a bunch of Eastern idiots running everything.”
The Otter-Fulcher primary heads a full slate of intraparty battles pitting the GOP’s establishment against a crop of conservative challengers. Fulcher has been endorsed by U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador — a foil to Otter when he served in the Legislature. Fulcher also has the backing of several conservative legislators. He also is endorsed by the Republican Liberty Caucus of Idaho, a group backing a slate of what it calls “pro-liberty, pro-business, limited-government candidates.”
Both leading candidates addressed the tensions within the party. Otter said the origins of the fight came from the closed GOP primary — championed by conservatives such as Fulcher.
Fulcher, meanwhile, chided Otter for abandoning the GOP platform, and for abandoning GOP principles by supporting a state health insurance exchange and the Idaho Core Standards. “Who’s really on the fringe?” Fulcher asked.
Fulcher didn’t elaborate on his plan for public education, beyond restating his objections to Common Core. “We must put education under the control of our parents and our teachers.”
Otter hailed the “great recommendations” from his education reform task force — a list of 20 planks that includes Idaho Core Standards. And he again vowed to learn from the voters’ 2012 rejection of Propositions 1, 2 and 3.
“I’m the first to admit we had a good product but a poor process with Props 1, 2 and 3,” said Otter. “I’m going to pay a lot more attention to the process.”
Otter agreed to appear Wednesday after insisting that Idaho Public Television agreed to include Bayes and Brown on the platform.
“Please remember that Butch Otter demanded these two candidates are included in this debate so he wouldn’t have to answer questions,” Fulcher campaign staffer China Veldhouse Gum said on Twitter during the debate.
Public TV took the unusual step of airing the debate on a 30-second delay, for fear that Brown would use obscenities during the airing.
Brown didn’t curse, but he came close.
“I don’t like political correctness,” Brown said at one point. “Can I say this? It sucks. It’s bondage.”
Watch for yourself: Click to the debate at Idaho Public Television’s website.
Twitter reactions: Wednesday’s debate was all the buzz on the Idaho Twitterverse. Hit the highlights here.
More reading: Otter heads into the primary homestretch with a big fundraising advantage. Details on Kevin Richert’s blog.