Analyzing the wide open superintendent’s race

Tom Luna, Meridian, 10.1.13
Tom Luna

After a wild week in politics, rumors surrounding the state superintendent’s race are flying through the Statehouse.

On Monday, two-term incumbent Tom Luna surprised Statehouse observers by saying he will not run for re-election and will step down when his current term ends.

From that moment forward, speculation exploded. To help cut through the rumors and rhetoric, we’ve assembled a list documenting who’s in, who’s out and who’s teasing a run. (As of Thursday afternoon, anyway.)

Who’s in?

  • John Eynon. A former Constitution Party officer in Idaho, Eynon left his third-party position and filed as a Republican. Eynon, a Cottonwood teacher, is running on an anti-Common Core platform, suggesting the new academic standards in English language arts and math are “…the Democrat Party platform.”
  • Randy Jensen. The principal of William Thomas Middle School in American Falls has filed paperwork to run as a Republican. During his formal campaign announcement on Jan. 24, Jensen pledged to be “the No. 1 kid advocate” and voiced support for the recommendations from Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education.
  • Jana Jones: An Idaho Falls Democrat with 40 years of education experience, Jones was nearly elected in 2006. Jones, a former chief deputy superintendent of public instruction, earned nearly 49 percent of the vote in a narrow general election loss to Luna.

Who’s out?

  • Luna: Ending months of speculation, Luna announced Monday that he won’t seek re-election, saying he wanted to take some of the politics out of the process of implementing the task force’s proposals.
  • Roger Quarles: The fallout from Luna’s announcement continued Tuesday, when Luna’s chief deputy resigned. But on Thursday, Quarles told Idaho Education News that he plans to return to his old job at Boise State University and won’t run for superintendent.
  • Melinda Smyser: On Monday, Luna said he had spoken to the Parma Republican about a possible run; she was one of his earliest supporters and worked on his first two campaigns for superintendent. But the former state senator quashed rumors Tuesday, saying she is happy working for U.S. Sen. Jim Risch.

Who’s testing the waters, contemplating a run, firing up the social media machine or otherwise weighing their options?

  • Steven Thayn. The Emmett Republican, a member of the Senate Education Committee and the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, had already ruled out a run. But he changed his mind when Luna stepped aside. “I’m considering it,” Thayn told Idaho Education News, adding that between 15 and 30 people have encouraged him to do so.
  • Jeff Thompson. The third-term House member, who sits on JFAC with Thayn, told Idaho Education News late Wednesday that his constituents and supporters have convinced him to consider a run. The Idaho Falls Republican doesn’t sit on an education committee, but he has helped set and carry the public school budget on the House floor each of the last two years.
  • Steve Smylie. The Boise Republican and former House member had decided to step out of the political arena, but after Monday’s news, he attempted to gauge support by surveying his Facebook friends about a run. “…Should I reconsider?” Smylie asked, noting he would likely need $100,000 and 200,000 votes to win the job. Smylie ran for the job in 2006, narrowly losing to Luna in the Republican primary.

With Luna, out of the race, the consensus among pundits and politicians is that the race is wide open.

What’s more, the next schools chief may not live anywhere near the state’s population center: Boise and Ada County.

“It suddenly makes eastern Idaho a hotbed for leadership opportunities in education in the state,” said David Adler, director of Boise State University’s Andrus Center for Public Policy.

Based on what is known now, he said, November’s general election could pit Jones (an Idaho Falls Democrat) against Jensen (a Republican from American Falls). Adler floated this potential matchup out hours before Thompson, an Idaho Falls Republican, added his name to the list.

“It makes it a very interesting race – apparently a wide-open one,” said longtime political analyst and BSU professor emeritus Jim Weatherby.

The filing deadline is March 14, with the Republican primary set for May 20.

Disclosure: Idaho Education News reporters are Boise State University employees.