Analysis: Idaho’s unexpected and unusual race for attorney general

(UPDATED, 10:48 a.m., with corrected information on Tom Arkoosh’s educational background.) 

Three months ago, the attorney general’s race wasn’t even a race.

Now it could be the most spirited race on the Nov. 8 statewide ballot.

Republican Raúl Labrador — a former congressman, gubernatorial candidate and state party chair — comes into the race with well-established GOP credentials. Tom Arkoosh entered the race on the Democratic Party ticket in July, replacing a placeholder candidate. A longtime independent, Arkoosh voted in May’s Idaho GOP primary — the same election that saw Labrador unseat 20-year incumbent Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.

Arkoosh makes no secret of his respect for Wasden. While painting Labrador as an ideologue, Arkoosh has secured endorsements from a long list of prominent Republicans who share Arkoosh’s concerns about the GOP nominee. Labrador, meanwhile, has made no secret of his plans to bring a conservative mindset to the state’s top legal office — and work with Republican lawmakers who openly distrusted Wasden.

The outcome of the race could have immediate implications for Idaho education. And perhaps lasting implications in Idaho politics, beyond this election.

The education debate

The product of Gooding public schools — and, later, Harvard University — Arkoosh was able to take classes such as advanced chemistry as a young student. “It prepared me to go to an Ivy League school, and frankly, it got me into an Ivy League school,” Arkoosh said in a recent interview.

The courses are gone in Gooding. And for Arkoosh, that void underscores a constitutional question: Is the state meeting its mandate to provide “a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools?”

Much of Arkoosh’s legal experience is in water and natural resource issues, and he admits he would face a “learning curve” on educational law. But he sees the “thoroughness” clause in the Constitution as his reference point.

Arkoosh criticizes legislators for ignoring a 2005 Idaho Supreme Court ruling that ordered the state to assume the responsibility to build and maintain school facilities that meet the constitutional mandate. On Aug. 29, Arkoosh wrote Gov. Brad Little, urging the state to create a fund to bankroll new schools and pay off existing bond issues — perhaps to the tune of $250 million a year for a decade. Three days later, lawmakers signed off on Little’s plan to fold an additional $410 million a year into education, money that might or might not go into construction.

And an education savings account — or a voucher program — would only take public money away from a public school system that is already not uniform, Arkoosh said.

Attorney general’s candidates Tom Arkoosh, left, and Raul Labrador square off during an Idaho Public Television debate on Oct. 3. (Aaron Kunz/Idaho Public Television)

Labrador did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. But in an Oct. 3 Idaho Public Television debate, the two candidates carved out sharply different positions on school choice — and how they would approach the issue if elected.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said a voucher system for private schools must extend to religious schools. But Idaho’s “Blaine Amendment,” which prohibits the use of public dollars for religious education, would preclude an Idaho voucher system, Arkoosh said. “I believe that is a dead issue, and it should be a dead issue.”

Labrador bristled at the suggestion that he supported a voucher system. He said legislators simply want to allow money to follow kids into private or religious schools — a framework that essentially mirrors a voucher system. Labrador doesn’t believe the Blaine Amendment precludes such a bill, and pledges to work with lawmakers on language that would comply with the Constitution.

“This is the key to the difference between us,” Labrador said. “(Arkoosh is) going to stand up and tell the legislators that what you’re doing is wrong and what you’re doing is unconstitutional. My job is to work with the legislators, is to help them draft it in a way that can be defended in the courts.”

Management styles

The attorney general is the elected head of one of the state’s largest and most influential law firms, with 226 full-time positions, including 132 attorneys’ positions. The attorney general oversees deputies assigned to state agencies, such as the State Department of Education and the State Board of Education. The attorney general’s office also provides legal opinions to legislators — on education and a myriad of other topics.

And the next attorney general will have the chance to assemble his legal team. After 20 years with Wasden at the helm, office turnover is a given, regardless of who wins the election. The turnover has already begun: chief deputy Brian Kane, the author of numerous high-profile opinions on Wasden’s behalf, left this summer for an executive director’s job with the National Association of Attorneys General.

Arkoosh acknowledges the challenges of assembling and keeping a legal team — when attorneys can easily make more money by moving into the private sector. He says it’s important to inspire a legal team and respect their professionalism, something he doesn’t think Labrador will do. “You want independent, good lawyers, and you can’t threaten their jobs if they have an opinion.”

During the debate, Labrador said he has heard from numerous attorneys who want to work for him, calling it an “embarrassment of riches.” And he says he will assemble a team of lawyers with a variety of viewpoints, to help inform his decisions.

But Labrador didn’t back down on a couple of comments that have drawn fire.

He said that — after his staff has debated over an issue, and a decision has been made — Labrador would expect his team to get behind the policy. A staffer who can’t get on board should not work in the office, he said. “That’s good leadership. That has nothing to do with politics.”

But Labrador didn’t flinch from an earlier remark. While pledging to not put politics ahead of the law, he said the attorney general’s office is inherently a political office. And he seemed surprised that the comment even stirred up attention.

“I thought I was saying that the sky was blue.”

A high-stakes political showdown

It’s a fascinating political race, and the dollars tell part of the story.

After winning a divided three-person primary, there are a number of signs that Labrador is shoring up support in traditional Republican circles. His recent campaign donors include Gov. Brad Little, state Treasurer Julie Ellsworth, former state schools superintendent and state GOP chairman Tom Luna and House Education Committee Chairman Lance Clow.

Labrador’s donor list is relatively light on corporate contributions, compared to mainstream Republicans such as Little. But Labrador recently received $2,500 from K12 Management Inc. — a Virginia-based online education vendor also supporting GOP state superintendent’s candidate Debbie Critchfield.

Labrador continues to draw from the conservative camp that helped secure his nomination; his donor list also includes Idaho Freedom Foundation board chairman Brent Regan and Freedom Foundation board member Doyle Beck.

Add it all up, and Labrador is winning the money race; since entering the campaign last fall, he has raised close to $930,000. Playing catchup, Arkoosh has raised $289,000 since July.

While Arkoosh is a newcomer to the Democratic ticket, much of his money has come from prominent Democrats — such as Boise state Sens. Melissa Wintrow and Janie Ward-Engelking and former Boise Mayor Dave Bieter. However, his donor list includes some crossover Republicans, such as retiring state Rep. Fred Wood and former legislators Joe Stegner and Leon Smith.

GOP defections are a big part of Arkoosh’s campaign calculus. Arkoosh has touted a host of prominent GOP endorsements — from lawmakers such as Wood, Stegner and retiring state Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, former Gov. Phil Batt and former First Lady Lori Otter. Another Republican supporter, Jim Jones, is a former state Supreme Court justice who served as attorney general from 1983 through 1991. (Jones’ predecessor in the a.g.’s office, David Leroy, is publicly backing Labrador.)

The Labrador-Arkoosh race didn’t create a split within the Idaho GOP. But it has made that split more public.

That’s what happened on Oct. 11, when Arkoosh held a Statehouse news conference to tout GOP endorsements. Among them was former Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, a longtime Wasden loyalist. “What we’re looking for in this office … is a good lawyer, not a good politician,” said Ysursa.

Within hours, state GOP chair Dorothy Moon called out the “former, retired and defeated Republicans” in Arkoosh’s camp. “These former Republicans are partisan defenders of Joe Biden’s radical policies, including federal ownership of Idaho land; critical race theory; and destroying the opportunity for Idaho’s girls to compete in women’s sports.”

However divided, the Republican brand remains durable. A statewide GOP candidate hasn’t lost in 20 years. If that trend holds and Labrador wins in two weeks, that could reposition him for another run for higher office — such as, perhaps, governor in 2026.

But first comes an unexpected and unusual attorney general’s election.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.

Disclosure: The Idaho Land Fund has contributed to Raul Labrador’s campaign. J.B. Scott — the founding chairman of the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, which funds Idaho Education News — is affiliated with the Idaho Land Fund.

 

Kevin Richert

About 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 KIVI 6 On Your Side; "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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