The two candidates for superintendent of public instruction are employing vastly different campaign strategies as they set their sights on November.
In her role as challenger, Democratic nominee Cindy Wilson is on the road eight days out of every 10, running up the miles on her car, taking meetings with most anyone, accepting debate invitations and running a robust social media and online campaign.
Republican incumbent Sherri Ybarra has promised that she’s not a typical politician and won’t behave as one. She has been keeping a low profile, and said she will prioritize her day job as state superintendent.
Last week, Wilson was on the campaign trail in McCall and Moscow. This week, it’s off to Blaine and Teton counties.
Last week, Ybarra was at the Land Board and in meetings with Gov. Butch Otter and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill. Ybarra has no campaign events scheduled until Oct. 5.
Wilson’s campaign strategy is to meet with anybody, accept any debate and interview invitation and ask every Idahoan she meets what is going right in their schools and what needs improving. Through Wilson’s campaign website, anybody can request a meeting or schedule a house party or speaking appearance. Wilson said she’ll even agree to one-on-one meetings.
“Having that discussion back and forth about what matters to people in their community is extremely important,” Wilson said. “I always ask ‘what kind of customer service do you want out of the State Department of Education?’”
After winning the May primary, Wilson retired from her job as a social studies and political science teacher.
“What I knew and what I used to teach is No. 1, the incumbent always has the advantage and No. 2 the dominant political party always has an advantage in the campaign,” Wilson said.
Debate and campaign schedule
Ybarra and Wilson squared off during an Idaho Association of School Administrators candidate forum this month.
Ybarra has committed to participate in one other debate, while turning down at least two others.
Both Ybarra’s team and Wilson’s have confirmed they will participate in an Oct. 12 “Idaho Debates” forum to be broadcast on Idaho Public Television.
Beyond that, it’s not clear if any other debates will materialize.
Ybarra declined an invitation from the Idaho Falls City Club to participate in a candidate debate. Wilson accepted that invitation. Ybarra also declined to commit to a Oct. 9 debate hosted by Idaho Education News.
“We invited Sherri Ybarra, but her staff indicated that her calendar was full and could not find any dates before Election Day to join us,” said David Adler, vice president of the Idaho Falls City Club’s board of directors.
Ybarra’s official SDE work schedule often has open days — there are two this week (Wednesday and Friday).
Ybarra only lists one upcoming campaign event — an Oct. 5 meet and greet at an Eagle dive bar.
“Right now, Superintendent Ybarra is focused on supporting Idaho schools as they start the new school year,” said CheRee Eveland, a local event and party planner working with Ybarra’s campaign. “When events are scheduled or take place, we will post them on our Facebook page. We look forward to seeing you all over the state.”
Idaho Education News has sent Ybarra and her campaign five requests to participate in a candidate forum scheduled for Oct 9. Ybarra and her campaign team never answered those invitations.
Wilson accepted the EdNews invitation and expressed disappointment that Ybarra didn’t agree to the Idaho Falls and Idaho EdNews debates.
“I think the more we have the candidate exchange ideas and sharing goals for the State Department of Education, I think the better it is for public.”
Ybarra’s campaign website is static and lists no campaign events or updates.
Ybarra has 20 followers on her Facebook page, compared to Wilson’s 1,342. Wilson also has 760 followers on Twitter, while Ybarra does not appear to have a presence there.
Wilson has also raised significantly more money for her campaign than Ybarra. Heading into the general election, Wilson had almost $37,000 in her campaign war chest, compared to Ybarra’s $6,200.
Familiar territory for Ybarra
A low-key approach is nothing new to Ybarra, whose campaign did not respond to interview requests for this article.
In 2014, she was outspent and suffered several campaign gaffes and still went on to win a crowded Republican primary and a close general election that year.
“I obviously think Sherri has done a really good job as superintendent and think she’s going to win re-election,” said Frank Terraferma, executive director of the Idaho Republican Party.
Terraferma conceded that May’s primary elections, especially higher up the ticket, were somewhat divisive. But he said the state’s dominant political party is consolidating support behind the slate of GOP candidates.
Terraferma didn’t have any specific debate or townhall appearances to promote for Ybarra, but said “I’m sure there will be debates with all media outlets, for the governor and probably on down.”
Looking ahead, Terraferma said the GOP is gearing up for its traditional election year barnstorming bus tour with statewide candidates. The GOP hasn’t released specifics dates or participants for the bus tour, but Terraferma said details will be unveiled as the events get closer.