Money matters. But it doesn’t guarantee anything.
In the May 17 primary elections, fundraising allowed some successful statewide candidates to dominate the airwaves.
A few challengers ran spendy races and unseated Statehouse incumbents.
But some sitting lawmakers lost, despite huge fundraising advantages.
The currency of campaigning made a difference. Except where it didn’t.
The post-primary fundraising reports tell a complicated story of a confounding election.
Where the money mattered
Let’s start at the top of the ticket — with a strong correlation.
Every statewide Republican primary winner also won the money race, sometimes by lopsided margins:
- Brad Little raised more than $2.2 million; his nearest rivals, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin and Eagle Republican Ed Humphreys, raised less than $1.2 million combined. Little’s last-minute donors included several past and current Republican legislators and a variety of supporters from the education arena: retired West Ada school Superintendent Mary Ann Ranells, retired Twin Falls Superintendent Wiley Dobbs, and former West Ada school trustee Phil Neuhoff.
- Debbie Critchfield raised more than $325,000 — more than six times as much as any Republican has raised for a state superintendent’s primary in 20 years. Former legislator Branden Durst and incumbent Sherri Ybarra raised less than $110,000 combined. Critchfield raised money from across the ideological spectrum, and that continued in the campaign’s final days. She received a late donation from Dean Mortimer of Idaho Falls, the former chairman of the Senate Education Committee. And while the Idaho Education Association has endorsed Democratic state superintendent’s candidate Terry Gilbert, IEA public policy director Matt Compton gave Critchfield a $500 personal donation.
- Phil McGrane raised nearly $500,000 in the secretary of state’s race. Rep. Dorothy Moon and Sen. Mary Souza raised slightly more than $350,000, combined.
House Speaker Scott Bedke and former U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador outraised their opponents in the lieutenant governor and attorney general’s primaries, albeit by narrower margins.
In particular, Little and Critchfield put their money into some big last-minute ad buys. In May, Little spent more than $400,000 with Arlington, Va.-based Fp1 Strategies. Critchfield spent more than $75,000 with Strategic Media Services, also based in Arlington.
While Critchfield is a former State Board of Education president, she has never run for statewide office — so she entered the state superintendent’s race at a disadvantage in name ID. Advertising helped, but Critchfield campaign manager Tyler Hurst said the fundraising is part of a larger narrative. He says his candidate traveled the state to line up supporters — who liked what they heard and kicked money into the campaign — but he says Critchfield continued to campaign aggressively even as her ads went statewide.
“I think our campaign was very aggressive in meeting as many people as we possibly could,” he said. “We never wanted to sit back and rely on broadcast media.”
Where the money (sometimes) mattered
In Idaho’s northernmost legislative district, Bonner County Republican Central Committee Chairman Scott Herndon spent more than $100,000. Herndon ousted Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, who lost despite spending more than $120,000.
On the other side of the state, former legislator Britt Raybould spent nearly $100,000 to defeat Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg. Also in Eastern Idaho, Joshua Wheeler of Ammon spent nearly $95,000 and ousted Rep. Chad Christensen, R-Iona.
None of these results were stunning. Nate and Christensen, two of the House’s hardline conservatives, were targets for mainstream Republicans. Similarly, hardliners wanted to oust Woodward, a moderate in a Senate that has long chafed many Idaho conservatives. In these cases, the money is consistent with three high-profile — and ultimately successful — Republican primary challenges.
But these uncommonly costly legislative primaries might remain the exception, rather than the rule.
Idaho Education News examined fundraising in 25 legislative primaries — including the 20 races where incumbents lost — and found no clear patterns.
One extremely well-funded incumbent lost. Sen. Fred Martin, R-Boise, spent more than $150,000 and lost to Rep. Codi Galloway, R-Boise, who spent barely $30,000.
And fundraising advantages did nothing to save incumbents such as Reps. Jim Addis and Paul Amador of Coeur d’Alene, Rep. Ryan Kerby of New Plymouth, Rep. Terry Gestrin of Donnelly, Sen. Peter Riggs of Post Falls and Sen. Carl Crabtree of Grangeville. All told, at least nine incumbents lost to challengers who have never served in the Legislature — and won despite raising less money for their campaigns.
So, what happened?
A sign of things to come
In a way, the 2022 legislative elections was a one-off.
The once-a-decade legislative redistricting changed the geography. Many incumbents had to run in very different legislative districts. Some lawmakers — such as Sen. C. Scott Grow of Eagle and Senate Education Committee Chairman Steven Thayn of Emmett — were thrown into head-to-head GOP primaries. (Grow won.)
But even so, the upheaval was stunning. Nearly a fifth of the state’s 105 sitting lawmakers lost in a single night. The defeats cut across geography and ideology and defied expectations.
Money was one factor, in some cases. However, outside political groups might have played a bigger and more far-reaching role.
Several outside groups put together statewide lists of legislative endorsements: Take Back Idaho and The Idaho 97 Project backed mainstreamers over hardliners such as Nate and Christensen, while Idaho Freedom Action and the Conservatives: Of PAC went after moderates such as Woodward and Crabtree. And several GOP central committees put out local endorsements. The Kootenai County Republican Central Committee ran the table and backed successful challengers to Addis, Amador and Riggs.
“There was a lot of grassroots work going on on both sides,” said Mike Satz, executive director of the Idaho 97 Project.
Since both sides can claim some successes last month, expect more of the same in future elections.
“I think that’s something they can definitely use to keep mobilizing,” Boise State University political science professor Jaclyn Kettler said.
These groups have ample reasons to focus on legislative races.
It’s easier to have an impact in a legislative race, where a few hundred votes can make a difference. While it might be easier for everyday voters to form their own opinions about statewide candidates, they might not take the time to learn about their legislative candidates — relying instead on third-party endorsements.
And then there are the stakes. The Idaho Republican Party remains split. House and Senate GOP caucuses are deeply divided between mainstream and conservative members. A few primaries could swing the balance of power.
“The real battle in the moment is over the Legislature,” Satz said.
Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday.