Analysis: The politics of the pratfall

A sporadic voting record. Overstated claims about political endorsements. New revelations about her academic credentials. Questions about her divorce and remarriage. A flap over wording lifted from an opponent’s campaign website.

Sherri Ybarra’s campaign has demonstrated a knack for making headlines — few of them good. The Republican state superintendent’s candidate has become the talk of Idaho political circles, with critics questioning her honesty and her ethics.

But will these blunders affect the outcome in just eight days?

IPTV debate
Jana Jones, left, and Sherri Ybarra at an Idaho Public Television debate Oct. 21.

“It becomes a pattern and I think that’s a big issue,” said Jasper LiCalzi, a professor of political economy at the College of Idaho in Caldwell.

The pattern seems to show no signs of abating. On Monday, Betsy Russell of the Spokane Spokesman-Review published an article questioning Ybarra’s claim that she has won an educator of the year award in 2005 and 2006 — saying Ybarra has never won the state’s prestigious teacher of the year award, nor has she been nominated for the award by her Mountain Home School District.

Let’s sort out the politics of the pratfall.

Can missteps define an election?

Ybarra’s missteps may resonate more in this particular election, for a couple of reasons.

The first reason relates to the very nature of the job. While the state superintendent is Idaho’s elected education leader, this is also an administrative post. The winner must oversee a State Department of Education with a staff of about 140. The two candidates have been jockeying to convince voters that they are best suited for this administrative role, with Ybarra citing her experience at the district level, and Democrat Jana Jones touting her background as deputy state superintendent.

Second, there is the fact that Ybarra is a first-time candidate. She was a political unknown in February, when she announced for the open superintendent’s race. She was a mystery in May, when she was the GOP’s surprise nominee. Voters may be watching Ybarra’s campaign to get a sense of how she might handle the administrative task of the job.

Questions about Ybarra’s campaign may reinforce the basic questions voters have about the candidate, said Jim Weatherby, a retired political science professor at Boise State University. “Who is this woman? How well do we really know her?”

Are some errors more likely to stick?

The pundits handicap the fallout differently.

  • The fact that Ybarra skipped voting in at least 15 elections may carry extra weight, said Weatherby, since she has made the “ironic” argument that she is running for a $102,667-a-year job to atone for this oversight. The voting story won’t sway Ybarra supporters, said David Adler of BSU’s Andrus Center for Public Policy, but it may raise questions with undecideds. “When did she get religion and decide to throw herself into politics? … Independent voters might be wondering about that.”
  • There is a “substantial difference” between the doctorate Ybarra said she expected to receive in August, and the educational specialist’s degree she actually did receive, said Adler. But this issue might be confusing to many voters.
  • Voters may instead be able to relate to Ybarra’s sketchy explanation about her marital history — even though this has little to do with the superintendent’s job. Making matters worse was her comment to the Idaho Statesman: “My brain doesn’t operate in the past.” Said Weatherby: “That’s the quote of the election, I think.”

How should Jones play it?

LiCalzi’s advice is simple. “Keep giving her rope.”

He gives Jones points for her handling of the website wording issue. After the story broke in September, Jones offered backhanded praise — complementing Ybarra for owning up to an act of plagiarism.

“That was really smart of her part. That is such as powerful word, especially when it comes to education.”

Jones, soft-spoken by nature, has run a campaign true to her character. During debates, she has managed to work in a few digs at Ybarra. Last week, said Weatherby, Jones “successfully” challenged Ybarra’s claim that she had the support of the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. (Ybarra actually has endorsements from seven of JFAC’s 20 members.)

In a national race, mistakes of the magnitude seen in this race would be seen as “red meat,” said Adler. But when two candidates are trying to demonstrate the maturity and the competence to oversee K-12 in Idaho — and when Jones is trying to show an ability to work across party lines — she is probably wise to take a low-key approach.

So what happens on Nov. 4?

Idahoans have seen campaigns self-implode before.

In 2010, Vaughn Ward seemed to enjoy the backing of mainstream Republicans in the 1st Congressional District. But his primary campaign collapsed under the weight of bad headines. Some of his lowlights are oddly similar to Ybarra’s: Ward plagiarized from a President Obama stump speech, and failed to vote in the 2008 president’s election, while heading John McCain’s campaign in Nevada. It can certainly be argued that 1st District incumbent Raul Labrador, now a regular on the national talk show circuit, would never have reached Capitol Hill if not for Ward’s blunders.

So, yes, errors can affect election outcomes.

But this race is a general election, not a GOP primary. And that may or may not save Ybarra.

Some Idaho voters pride themselves on independence, and not voting a straight ticket. They may be looking for a Democrat they can support, LiCalzi said, and might look to this race. Consequently, he said, the superintendent’s race gives Idaho Democrats their best shot at a big win next week.

But if Republican get-out-the-vote efforts work as they have in the past, Ybarra may win regardless.

“This will be a real test of the power of the ‘R’ behind her name,” said Weatherby.

Fact checking

As the election approaches, Idaho Education News is fact-checking Sherri Ybarra’s background and campaign.

  • On Oct. 21, we asked the Ybarra campaign for a detailed report on the candidate’s background — including employment and marital history, both inside and outside the state. We have received no response.
  • On Oct. 24, we filed a public records request with the Mountain Home School District, asking about Ybarra’s salary and work attendance during the campaign — and whether Ybarra has taken paid or unpaid leaves of absences to run for office. We have received no response.
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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