Analysis: With a GOP rout, history repeats itself

Elections have a way of repeating themselves.

But the 2014 Idaho election was in no way a repeat of 2012.

Two years ago, in a historic series of referenda, Idaho voters rejected Propositions 1, 2 and 3 — the unpopular education overhaul that is State Superintendent Tom Luna’s political legacy, and a big piece of Butch Otter’s gubernatorial resume.

On Tuesday night, Idaho voters swept Republicans back into state offices, including Otter and Luna’s successor-elect, Sherri Ybarra.

It may be premature to say 2012, and the campaign to overturn the propositions, was a one-off. It certainly looks the part, however.

The governor’s race

Otter has spent the past two years insisting — almost defiantly — that the propositions were a good product, thwarted by a bad process. That’s a risky political tack. In essence, Otter was telling voters, at every opportunity, that they were wrong about the product.

Adding to the risk: Democratic challenger A.J. Balukoff made the propositions a talking point in his campaign. Using the “Luna Laws” terminology, the phrase that stuck during the 2012 election, the Boise school board member introduced himself to voters as an early opponent of the propositions. His hired campaign spokesman was Mike Lanza, the Boise parent who was a key player in the push to repeal the propositions.

And Balukoff, a successful Boise businessman, tapped into reservoirs of personal wealth to repeat his message. He spent at least $3.2 million of his own money to run against Otter.

Balukoff’s challenge ended not in an upset, but with a thud.

Otter won in 39 of 44 counties, gradually pulling away as numbers rolled in from GOP strongholds such as Kootenai and Canyon counties.

Otter won with 53.5 percent of the vote — better than the 51.4 percent he managed in May, when Otter survived a tough GOP primary that had many pundits questioning the unity of the party and the strength of the GOP brand. Those questions, evidently, were premature.

Balukoff won only Ada, Bannock, Blaine, Latah and Teton counties — the only pockets of the state that are more or less reliably blue. His well-funded media campaign didn’t seem to catch fire elsewhere. He pulled in 169,527 votes statewide, about 21,000 votes more than Keith Allred four years earlier. That comes to one vote for every $153 Balukoff put into his campaign.

In short, Idaho voters had a chance to punish Otter for his support of the propositions. And had no interest in doing so.

The superintendent’s race

While Luna’s name didn’t appear on the ballot, his specter certainly loomed over the open superintendent’s race.

The campaign wasn’t as clean a referendum on Luna’s propositions; while Ybarra famously did not vote in the November 2012, she also said she opposed the propositions. Still, the race gave Democrats a chance to run on the Luna legacy — and in Jana Jones, they had a superintendent’s candidate who had narrowly lost to Luna in 2006.

The superintendent’s race reflected Democrats’ best chance for a win Tuesday night, and their best opportunity to capture a statewide office for the first time in 12 years.

Jones came close again, ultimately losing by 5,723 votes. But it could be argued that Jones’ showing Tuesday was more disappointing than her 11,158-vote loss to Luna eight years earlier. Luna in 2006 had experience and the name identification from his unsuccessful superintendent’s run in 2002. Ybarra, meanwhile, certainly played the part of a first-time candidate, winning despite a campaign that could charitably be described as underfunded and error-filled. Critics panned Ybarra as inept and fundamentally dishonest, and the charges didn’t stick.

Democrats have little to take away from Tuesday night. They will net one more seat in the Idaho House, but that still leaves Republicans in control of 80 percent of both legislative chambers.

A vote for the status quo?

A Jones win would have given Democrats a voice on education issues — although her challenge would have been to gain traction in a GOP Statehouse. A narrow Otter win would have at least served notice of voter unrest, on education and other issues.

The results instead represent a mandate on the status quo, which could loom large in the ongoing debate over a controversial tiered teacher licensure plan. Otter enthusiastically supports the plan, despite teacher opposition, and Ybarra has called it a step in the right direction.

Elections do repeat themselves.

Tuesday represents a throwback to 2010, and the Tea Party surge that resonated nationally and statewide, said China Gum, a conservative political consultant who has worked with Rep. Raul Labrador and gubernatorial candidate Russ Fulcher. I’d go back further in time. This was also a throwback to 1994, the year of Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, when Idaho Republicans reclaimed the governor’s office that had eluded them for 24 years — and, by 2018, will have been in Republican hands for 24 years.

One thing is clear. This was not 2012 all over again.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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