Democratic challenger A. J. Balukoff is trying to use his education credentials to knock off a Republican governor who showed signs of vulnerability in the primary.
November’s general election will pit two-term Republican incumbent Gov. Butch Otter against Democratic challenger Balukoff, an 18-year Boise School District trustee.
For 20 years, Idahoans have elected only Republicans to the state’s highest office. But some pundits and members of Balukoff’s team feel there is an opportunity to break the streak this year.
On Tuesday, Otter lost to challenger Russ Fulcher in Ada, Canyon and Kootenai counties – the state’s three most heavily populated counties. In Bonneville County, the state’s fourth-largest by population, Otter beat Fulcher by only 103 votes, less than 1 percent.
“I expected (Otter) to do better than he did,” said longtime Idaho political pundit Jim Weatherby.
David Adler, director of Boise State University’s Andrus Center for Public Policy, agreed.
“That likely indicates the depth of concern among some very conservative voters in the GOP,” Adler said. “It represents vulnerability and poses for Otter some important decisions about the general election.”
Otter won all four of those counties comfortably in the 2010 primary, when his closest opponent was outspoken eastern Idaho veterinarian and elk rancher Rex Rammell. Otter went on to beat Democrat Keith Allred in 2010’s general election.
Nevertheless, Otter did win a 51.4 percent majority in Tuesday’s four-way Republican primary race, when he faced a tougher, savvier opponent in Fulcher than the polarizing Rammell.
Fulcher finished second with 43.6 percent of the vote.
On the Democratic ticket, Balukoff easily dispatched a challenge from Terry Kerr, winning 65.3 percent to 34.7 percent in a race where far fewer voters turned out.
On Thursday morning, Otter said his positions are in line with Idaho Republicans who voted against him Tuesday. He participated in a Republican “unity rally” the day before as part of an effort to mend any divisions that flared up during the primary.
“(Other candidates and their supporters) all wanted a better education system and more money for education,” Otter said. “I’m with them.”
As for campaign strategy, expect Otter to run on his promise to fund and implement the 20 recommendations issued last year by his bipartisan Task Force for Improving Education.
Otter said this year’s budget puts the state slightly ahead of schedule – to the tune of an additional $13 million – when it comes to a five-year implementation timeline.
“You’ve got to have a good education system in order to have a good economic attraction for businesses that – No. 1, if they’re here want to grow or No. 2, want to move into Idaho,” Otter said. “Education and economic development go hand-in-hand.”
Look for Balukoff to support the task force recommendations. But look for Balukoff to challenge Otter’s ownership of the voter-repealed Propositions 1, 2 and 3, and decry the state of education funding under Otter’s administration.
“Obviously, we’re working hard to draw what are clear distinctions between A.J. Balukoff and Gov. Otter, especially in education,” Balukoff spokesman and education adviser Mike Lanza said.