Superintendent race: the next chapter

Sherri Ybarra
Sherri Ybarra

Sherri Ybarra ran in the Republican primary — and scored a surprising victory Tuesday — as an unabashed non-politician.

In order to win in the Nov. 4 general election, the state superintendent’s candidate may need to do some of the dirty work of politics: raising money and building coalitions within the GOP.

Ybarra, a Mountain Home school administrator, earned the opportunity by defeating three other educators and first-time candidates in the Republican primary. She captured 38,603 votes — just 28.5 percent of the total vote, but enough to secure a comfortable 5,663-vote win over runnerup Randy Jensen, an American Falls principal.

Now Ybarra moves on to face Democrat Jana Jones, who comes into the general election with two tangible advantages: She has run a statewide election before, and she has a decided early edge in fundraising.

Ybarra’s second round

Ybarra was unavailable for an interview this week. In a statement Wednesday, she said, “I look forward to running a strong campaign focused on the issues and I’m committed to Idaho voters who put their trust in me and understand that the most important quality in a candidate is whether they can do the job or not.”

Her successful primary campaign essentially defied logic. Even in a race pitting a group of political newcomers, Ybarra’s nonpolitical approach was an outlier.

According to the most recent round of campaign finance reports, Ybarra raised only $2,850.14, largely in her hometown of Mountain Home; her three Republican opponents raised a combined $61,262.25. Ybarra also spent on a shoestring; the largest share of her $2,449.66 budget was $387.50 to Emily Walton, a Boise political consultant better known for working with Democratic candidates such as state Rep. Holli Woodings, a secretary of state’s candidate.

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Ybarra was a regular at candidate debates and forums, but remained something of an enigma to fellow Republicans. Said Meridian state Sen. Russ Fulcher, an unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate, in an interview with the Idaho Statesman: “Holy cow. Ybarra for superintendent? I was on this campaign trail start to finish. And she might be a fine person, but she was not engaged. She was not engaged heavily in this campaign.”

One challenge facing Ybarra in the next five months is fundraising.

“That’s one of the tough chores of a politician that very few of them like,” Boise State University professor emeritus Jim Weatherby said. “Some of them just instinctively don’t like to ask for money.”

But with the GOP’s nomination comes some advantages. As the standard-bearer for the state’s dominant party, some money will come looking for Ybarra, said Weatherby.

Ybarra will also need to work on fleshing out her positions, said Weatherby. Ybarra seemed to sidestep some delicate questions; during a May 8 Idaho Public Television debate, she hedged on whether she would support a tax increase to fund education.

But five days later, in a KTVB debate, Ybarra also took Cottonwood teacher John Eynon to task on Idaho Core Standards; Ybarra backs the standards, and Eynon made his opposition the centerpiece of his candidacy. That exchange suggests Ybarra is “growing and evolving to some extent,” said Weatherby.

Jones’ second run

Jana Jones Headshot 2
Jana Jones

While Ybarra and her Republican opponents were introducing themselves to voters, Jones toured the state getting reacquainted and raising money.

Jones ran for state superintendent in 2006, losing to Republican Tom Luna by 11,158 votes out of 443,184 votes cast. No Idaho Democrat came closer to winning statewide office that year, or any year since. Voters do remember that she ran eight years ago, she said, and that helps with name identification. She also hopes the experience of 2006 will give this year’s campaign added focus — helping her identify likely supporters and get out the vote.

Jones is also encouraged by her early fundraising. She has raised $52,404.31 since Jan. 1, more than any of the Republican candidates, and points out that almost all of the money came from individual donors. Running uncontested in the primary, she was able to keep $17,795.33 on hand through May 4, compared to Ybarra’s $370.34.

Jones was chief deputy to state superintendent Marilyn Howard, the last Democrat to win statewide office; Howard is now Jones’ campaign treasurer. Jones believes Idaho voters want a change from Luna’s eight years in office — and believes even Republicans sent this message Tuesday, by rejecting Melba district superintendent Andy Grover, the lone superintendent’s candidate who endorsed Luna’s Propositions 1, 2 and 3.

Jones plays up her on-the-ground experience in the State Department of Education, and says it positions her to implement changes from the beginning. “It’s not an easy job.” And she insists, despite her department background, that she is the best candidate to make changes. “Just because you’ve been there doesn’t mean you’re going backwards.”

A race to the middle?

The Idaho Republican Party split into two factions for the 2014 primary, but Ybarra isn’t easily pigeonholed. She wasn’t the GOP’s “establishment” candidate — that mantle essentially fell to Grover, the best-funded superintendent candidate. She wasn’t the choice of the conservative Republican Liberty Caucus of Idaho, which supported Eynon.

But this is exactly what makes Ybarra an intriguing candidate. Gender and a strong education background worked in Ybarra’s favor, said David Adler, director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at BSU. So did Ybarra’s ability to stay outside the GOP’s intraparty fray. “She successfully straddled the two wings of the GOP, which requires some dexterity.”

Both candidates will try to marginalize their opponent. Ybarra will try to paint Jones as an “insurgent” who will have little success maneuvering in a Republican Statehouse, said Adler, while Jones will try to paint Ybarra as a member of a party that has failed to adequately fund schools. But he expects both candidates to run toward the center.

Ultimately, the race may hinge on whether Jones can re-energize the Idahoans who crossed party lines to defeat Luna’s Propositions 1, 2 and 3 in 2012. Unlocking this support could help Jones raise money from national groups, said Adler. ‘”That was obviously a very powerful coalition.”

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