Analysis: Six storylines from primary election day

Just like the campaign that preceded it, the 2018 Idaho primary night was turbulent — and startling.

Let’s break down the results, and the ramifications, with six trendlines.

Little’s establishment win. Brad Little’s win in the Republican gubernatorial primary is in keeping with his personality and his politics. Little got in the race early, nearly two years ago. He steadily raised money and built on his statewide brand (think in terms of events such as Gov. Butch Otter’s monthly “Capital for a Day” barnstorming trips). He lined up backing from a who’s who of big-name Republicans — including Otter and former Govs. Dirk Kempthorne, Phil Batt and Jim Risch.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Brad Little works the room at the GOP’s election night gathering.

Little generally stayed out of the mud — but not entirely, as witnessed by his late TV ad blast that painted U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador as soft on immigration. The primary was long and ugly — but often, Little seemed to try to distance himself from the fray, and the open feuding between Labrador and Boise developer and physician Tommy Ahlquist.

Little’s win wasn’t always pretty, or populist. He did, after all, loan his campaign a tidy $800,000 in the home stretch. But he does enter the general election with a strong base of mainstream GOP backing, and the advantage of running in a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1990.

Jordan’s insurgent win. On the Democratic side, Paulette Jordan’s victory could scarcely be more different than Little’s.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Paulette Jordan addresses supporters after her win Tuesday night.

She did not get “establishment” endorsements — those went to longtime Boise School Board member A.J. Balukoff, the party’s 2014 nominee. She didn’t shrink from her storyline — as a member of the Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe, Jordan seeks to become the first Native American governor in U.S. history. And she drew a young and energetic supporter base. In some ways, her victory Tuesday had its roots in 2016, when Idaho Democrats overwhelmingly favored Bernie Sanders in the presidential caucus.

Then again, Balukoff was a Sanders delegate at the 2016 Democratic convention. File that tidbit under irony.

Jordan’s win might have been a surprise, but it shouldn’t be a stunner. The demographics of the Idaho Democratic Party are shifting in front of us — a shift that favors a candidate such as Jordan over a candidate such as Balukoff. Tuesday was a defining moment several years in the making.

What next for Jordan? Her primary race drew considerable national media buzz and her campaign attracted national-level endorsements. Both are likely to continue as the general election unfolds. But Jordan’s biggest challenge may be at home. The Jordan-Balukoff primary became bitter and personal — not between the candidates themselves, but between their more social media-active supporters.

Jordan celebrated her victory not at the traditional Democratic Party gathering, but at her own event down the street. Social niceties aside, Jordan figures to have a big job ahead of her: bringing establishment Democrats into the fold alongside her supporter base. In a general election, her margin for error is pretty much zip.

(Click here to review where the gubernatorial candidates stand on education and budget issues.)

The preliminary round. The two state superintendent’s primaries played out according to the conventional wisdom — a play-in of sorts.

Incumbent Sherri Ybarra had by far her easiest election night Tuesday. Jeff Dillon’s campaign never seemed to kick into gear, as the challenger juggled a statewide race with his day job as Wilder school superintendent. That all showed in the GOP primary.

Cindy Wilson cruised to an easy win in the Democratic primary, receiving only a token challenge from Boise retiree Allen Humble.

The expected Ybarra-Wilson matchup should be fascinating. So far, Ybarra looks like a much more savvy campaigner than she was in 2014, when she survived a series of missteps en route to a narrow, surprise victory. Wilson brings a strong resume to the race. She’s a career educator, most recently at Boise’s Capital High School, although she is retiring from the classroom to focus on the fall election. Having served on Otter’s 2013 K-12 task force, and now on Otter’s Board of Correction, Wilson will be hard to paint as a partisan.

The recent history bears repeating. It’s been 16 years, but this is the last statewide race the Democrats won. Since then, Democrats have come very close in this race, in 2006 and in 2014. The playoff round should be much more competitive than the opening round.

(Click here for a refresher on where the candidates stand on key topics.)

Gender politics. Jordan. Wilson. Lieutenant governor’s nominee Kristin Collum. Secretary of state’s nominee Jill Humble (Allen Humble’s wife). First Congressional District nominee Cristina McNeil. Every race is different, of course. But all of these women defeated male opponents Tuesday night, as Idaho Democrats nominated a candidate slate of historical significance.

This wasn’t just a Democratic phenomenon. Republicans nominated three women to statewide races: Ybarra, lieutenant governor’s nominee Janice McGeachin and treasurer’s nominee Julie Ellsworth.

Upset central … Six incumbent legislators lost in Tuesday night’s Republican primaries — all in Eastern Idaho.

Julianne Young of Blackfoot ousted House Education Committee chairwoman Julie VanOrden of Pingree, while Chad Christensen of Idaho Falls unseated House State Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher of Iona, a 30-year Statehouse veteran. Also losing were three members of the Legislature’s conservative bloc — Sen. Tony Potts of Idaho Falls, Reps. Ron Nate of Rexburg and Karey Hanks of St. Anthony — and Rep. Jeff Thompson of Idaho Falls.

… and the fallout. The VanOrden and Loertscher losses carry the biggest ramifications, as they open two high-profile and highly coveted committee chairs. Because of Statehouse retirements, House leaders were already looking at four vacant chairs — Commerce and Human Resources; Environment, Energy and Technology; Local Government; and the big one, the co-chair’s spot on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. (The Senate already has two vacant chairs, for JFAC and State Affairs.) Let the jockeying begin.

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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