Democrats wrap up harmonious convention

MOSCOW — Now what?

By sheer convention metrics, Idaho Democrats did what Idaho Republicans failed to do a week earlier. They concluded their business Saturday afternoon with a party platform and united leadership.

Larry Kenck, Democratic convention, 6.21.14
Idaho Democratic Party chairman Larry Kenck presides over the party’s convention Saturday in Moscow. Democrats approved the party’s platform on a unanimous vote.

They had plenty of laughs at the expense of a GOP that remains divided after its failed convention. “I am honored to be the chairman of this party,” state Democratic Chairman Larry Kenck said, stopping just short of naming Barry Peterson, who says he retains the chairmanship while other Republicans say he no longer has any claim to the position. “I am not the other guy.”

Now what? To a person, Democrats acknowledge that a harmonious convention does not guarantee a successful election. As the state’s minority party, they know the odds are against them.

But they also think a change in the air. They believe independent and Republican voters open to considering other options. “This time, people are willing to listen,” said state superintendent’s candidate Jana Jones.

Jana Jones fundraiser
Jana Jones chats with supporters at a reception Saturday evening.

Jones is no stranger to statewide politics, or state Democratic conventions. In 2006, she lost narrowly to Republican Tom Luna. It’s the closest a Democrat has come to winning statewide office since 2002, when Marilyn Howard defeated Luna to earn a second term as superintendent.

This time, Jones enjoys the advantages of running with experience in a statewide race. She holds a 70-to-1 fundraising edge over Republican nominee Sherri Ybarra — and Jones says she is “very” surprised by Ybarra’s meager fundraising to date. As for her own campaign, Jones says her fundraising is on schedule. “Our focus is on what we can do and what we need to do to get the job done.”

This weekend’s convention was short on fireworks, longer on candidate and volunteer training. Outreach was a recurring theme.

Rep. Mat Erpelding — a Boise Democrat and one of only a handful of legislators under age 40 — headed a panel on connecting with younger voters. The Idaho Democratic Women’s Caucus hosted a Friday luncheon. Friday afternoon was devoted to a panel discussion on engaging minority populations; speakers included one Democratic legislator, state Rep. Sue Chew of Boise, and one would-be legislator, Paulette Jordan, a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe running in North Idaho’s District 5.

Balukoff announcement
A.J. Balukoff

If outreach is part of the Democrats’ equation, so too is voter crossover. Gubernatorial candidate A.J. Balukoff believes his party has issues to run on — education, the economy and government accountability — if they can connect with voters.

“It’s so easy (for voters) to use party labels as a substitute for doing their homework,” he said.

Democrats realize, in order to win at a statewide level, they need to draw crossover votes. One delegate drew laughs during Friday’s floor session, when he described himself as “a former Republican, before the crazies took over.” Democrats are clearly hoping to make hay on the Republican infighting.

“We’re going to be reaching out very aggressively to Republicans who feel alienated by their party,” said Betty Richardson, a longtime Democratic activist managing Nels Mitchell’s run for U.S. Senate.

For Richardson — who attended her first Democratic convention in 1972, as an 18-year-old — the nexus is clear. If a majority party cannot govern itself, Idahoans should question whether that party can govern the state. But the challenge is making the GOP’s intramural battles resonate with voters in November, five months after convention season.

The Democrats’ tone was different this year, said House Minority Leader John Rusche, a Lewiston Democrat and 10-year Statehouse veteran. One-liners aside, he says delegates are focusing more on what they stand for. “People feel less need to punch the Republicans in the nose.”

Still, Rusche is measured about the Democrats’ prospects.

Boise Democrat Holli Woodings holds up a campaign shirt made especially for her 3-year-old daughter, Mary. On Friday, Woodings announced her candidacy for Idaho secretary of state.
Holli Woodings

He believes Jones can win, based on her administrative experience. He believes state Rep. Holli Woodings can win the secretary of state’s race, based on the “baggage” accumulated by Republican nominee Lawerence Denney, a former House speaker who has publicly sparred with a number of members of his own caucus. Rusche is not sure about the governor’s race, and he’s making no predictions about the Legislature, where Democrats control only 20 of 105 seats.

“I think there’s opportunities for us,” he said. “I think there’s some risks for us.”

The top of the ticket faces challenges as well.

Woodings, like Jones, holds an edge in the money race so far; Denney has outraised Woodings, but all but depleted his campaign account en route to a win in a four-way GOP primary. While she’s pleased with her fundraising so far — with most donations coming from individual supporters — she says she isn’t at her fundraising target yet. And that, she says, could be a key to her race. “The challenge is just in making sure the message gets out to enough people.”

Balukoff, a Boise businessman and 18-year Boise School Board veteran, acknowledges that he isn’t well-known outside the Treasure Valley, and hopes to launch an advertising campaign in July.

Recent polls from Republican-leaning Rasmussen Reports found Gov. Butch Otter with a 14-point advantage over Balukoff, and Sen. Jim Risch ahead of Mitchell by 25 points.

Richardson dismisses the results — she says pollsters oversurveyed Idaho Republicans and undersurveyed Democrats. But she realizes the odds are imposing.

“It’s uphill for Democrats,” she said, “(but) the hill may be a little less steep.”

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