How did Sherri Ybarra pull off the upset?

Sherri Ybarra stunned Idaho’s political world Tuesday, winning the Republican primary for state superintendent of public instruction.

Her victory was unexpected — even in a race involving four political newcomers. Ybarra declared no public endorsements, she raised less than $3,000 and she did very little traveling around the state.

Meanwhile, Andy Grover finished last in the race after securing endorsements from 18 school district superintendents and newspapers such as the Idaho Statesman and Spokane Spokesman-Review. He raised nearly $40,000 and logged 9,000 miles on his car to attend more than 40 events.

“Her victory wasn’t a result of a highly effective campaign, and that’s not a criticism because she would say the same thing,” said GOP Superintendent Tom Luna, who did not seek a third term, leaving the primary race open to candidates with little name recognition.

While Grover and fellow candidates John Eynon and Randy Jensen all did some politicking, Ybarra did almost none. She participated in debates but she didn’t travel the state, she didn’t attend GOP Lincoln Day festivities in her hometown of Mountain Home, and told Idaho Education News in an email: “I typically don’t answer questionnaires/surveys.”

“She didn’t make it to has many events as the other candidates,” said Trevor Thorpe, executive director of the Idaho Republican Party. “I’m not sure what she did, but now that she’s made it through a very uncertain primary, we will help her with whatever she needs.”

Ybarra won Ada and Bonneville counties and essentially tied Grover in Canyon County, his home. (Click here  for county voting results in statewide races.)

“There were four names on the ballot, and most people didn’t know who they were, so it could be she won because her name is Sherri Ybarra. Voters saw in Sherri their first-grade teacher,” said political veteran Ken Burgess, a partner with Veritas Advisors, a political consulting firm. “She performed tons better than I thought she would.”

Burgess had helped on Grover’s campaign.

Most of Ybarra’s financial donations came from acquaintances in Mountain Home, so a $100 contribution from longtime Republican player Dan Goicoechea stood out. Goicoechea is the chief deputy state controller serving under Brandon Woolf, also a primary winner on Tuesday.

“She’s the only one who is different and female and a real teacher,” Goicoechea said. “She asked me to contribute and I liked her so I did.”

Goicoechea only recently met Ybarra when she reached out to him with questions about the Land Board. The state superintendent and controller hold two of five seats on the Land Board; K-12 education is by far the largest endowment beneficiary that hinges on Land Board policies.

“I was very impressed with her and she really has her head on straight,” said Goicoechea, who is serving under his third Republican controller. “Do not underestimate that woman.”

Ybarra made it clear from the start of the election that she is a lifelong educator and not a politician.

“I’m guilty of not being a polished politician,” she said in May.

Ybarra would not return calls or emails on Wednesday but said on her Facebook page: “I am excited to meet many more people and look forward to solving the issues in education.”

Evidently, Republican voters were not bothered by Ybarra’s recent voting record. She did not vote in the 2012 GOP primary, and she did not vote in November 2012, when Idahoans rejected Luna’s Propositions 1, 2 and 3.

“As a responsible Republican, I take responsibility for that flaw in judgment,” she said at a City Club of Boise forum.

Ybarra may have been helped, however, by publicly opposing the propositions. Grover was the only candidate who endorsed the propositions and he finished last.

“Grover was tied to Luna,” Goicoechea said. “She is different.”

Read our May 6, in-depth profile on Ybarra.

Jennifer Swindell

Jennifer Swindell

Managing editor and CEO Jennifer Swindell founded Idaho Education News in 2013. She has led the online news platform as it has grown in readership and engagement every year, reaching over two million pageviews a year. Jennifer has more than 35 years of experience in Idaho journalism. She also has served as a public information officer for Idaho schools and as a communication director at Boise State University. She can be reached at [email protected].

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