Less than 13 months before Election Day, the race for state schools superintendent seems frozen in time.
Republican incumbent Tom Luna is sending public signals that he plans to seek a third term. But Luna has made no formal announcement, and his campaign fundraising has been sluggish.
Meanwhile, no other candidate has come forward — either on the Republican or Democratic ticket — perhaps because other prospective candidates are waiting for Luna to make the first move.
Luna is in no hurry to make that first move.
“If I had to make the decision today, there is no doubt in my mind I would run again,” Luna told Idaho Education News last week. “But it’s still early.”
Interpreting the signs
This isn’t the first time Luna has indicated his 2014 intentions.
In April, Luna said he would be more likely to run if Gov. Butch Otter also seeks a third term; Otter hasn’t formally announced his plans, but recently hired business lobbyist Jayson Ronk to manage his campaign. In late July, Luna said he would like to run again.
The fundraising signals, however, are mixed.
In the first six months of 2013, and in the aftermath of the repeal of his Students Come First education laws, Luna raised only $4,750. By comparison, Otter raised $215,368.95 for a prospective third term, although that sum includes a $131,000 writeoff of personal campaign loans, and Lt. Gov. Brad Little raised $38,818.16.
But Luna’s $4,750 in contributions suggest that he still has support in key GOP circles; some of these contributions came from Little and five members of GOP legislative leadership, including House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill. And Luna actually raised even less money, a scant $3,500, in the first half of 2009, in the runup to his first re-election bid.
Luna ended the first half of 2013 with a $24,500 campaign debt, but that’s not an unfamiliar spot. That’s exactly where he stood, to the dollar, in midyear 2009.
The parties’ waiting game
There is “a lot of interest” in the superintendent’s race, Idaho Democratic Party spokesman Dean Ferguson said this week.
But that interest hasn’t translated into a campaign announcement, and there are several reasons for that. Ferguson is “absolutely sure” that some prospective Democratic candidates are waiting on word from Luna — because they specifically want to run against him. Meanwhile, said Ferguson, other would-be candidates have to decide whether they have the “personal bandwidth” for a statewide campaign.
For Idaho Democrats — who haven’t won a statewide race since 2002, when incumbent state superintendent Marilyn Howard withstood a challenge from Luna — this is a key race. It reflects their best chance for a breakthrough, said Jasper LiCalzi, a professor of political economy at the College of Idaho.
“If they can’t get a quality candidate to run for this, I can’t see who’ll they’ll get to run for anything else,” he said.
At this point, said Ferguson, the Democrats aren’t ready to name names. Nor are they ready to talk about whether they’ve done polling on the superintendent’s race.
The same goes for Republicans. Executive Director Trevor Thorpe did not respond to questions about internal polling or other potential GOP candidates. As for Luna’s plans, Thorpe said, “That’s a decision for the superintendent and his family.”
Last week, as Luna proposed a 5.9 percent budget increase for K-12 in 2014-15, he hinted that he’d like to see the reaction to his proposal before discussing his political future.
But there can be a strategic advantage to holding off. It’s easier for an incumbent to crank up a political apparatus quickly, LiCalzi said; meanwhile, potential opponents may be held at bay. And if Luna decides not to run, he said, a Republican heir apparent would likely benefit from a later announcement.
Democrats have “plenty of time” to put together a campaign, Ferguson said. Whether Luna runs or not, voters will be engaged in the superintendent’s election. “You’re already entering a race that has high interest,” he said. “People are going to come to you.”
Four years ago, Luna cranked up his re-election campaign and fundraising efforts slowly, but decisively outraised and outpolled Democratic challenger and former Boise district superintendent Stan Olson. Incumbents generally enjoy a fundraising advantage, but this time around, Luna will have to convince potential donors that he can win.
“It’s going to be harder to raise money this time,” LiCalzi said.
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