This year's Republican primary election is a key test of the internal battle within the party for which ideological group will control the state party -- those who advocate Tea Party type positions and those who are the more traditional "mainstream" Republican. It's a race playing out nationally, but has become particularly acute in Idaho -- at all levels, from battles for precinct committees (which ultimately control the state party machinery) to state and national offices.
It's reached a point where there is open warfare between the strongly conservative state party chairman, Barry Peterson of Elmore County, and the "merely" conservative two-term incumbent Gov. Butch Otter.
In this race, if you are an advocate of Tea Party politics and positions, you will have candidates at almost every level that will please you. If you are more of a "traditionalist" Republican, not as far to the right as the Tea Party, you also will have your candidates.
We'll start with the Republican ballot, which is typically the most hotly contested these days and usually tells us who is going to win in November (as a rule of thumb in Idaho, anyone with an "R" beside their name wins in the fall).
At the national level, you've got incumbent Jim Risch against Jeremy Anderson, who has run a very weak campaign. Risch has done a decent job and has become the "go to" guy on military issues for most of the delegation. He's firmly in the corner for Idaho and Mountain Home AFB and is up to speed on the issues.
The Second District congressional race, pitting "mainstream" GOP incumbent Mike Simpson against Tea Party candidate Bryan Smith is being watched nationally in the battle for control of the party. The race has gotten downright nasty on both sides and millions are being poured into the campaign with Smith picking up funds from PACs affiliated with the Tea Party or stronger right-wing positions, and Simpson getting huge support from the National Chamber of Commerce, which has been working for election of more moderate candidates. If Simpson is re-elected, and he's historically done a good job for this district, he will begin moving into some of the rarefied heights of power in Congress. It's a clear choice between a Tea Party candidate and a traditional Republican candidate.
For governor, Butch Otter is seeking a third term, and though there's little about Butch that can ever be called "traditional," he is clearly the more moderate of the candidates. He's facing off against perennial candidates Walt Bayes and Harley Brown and the Tea Party favorite, Russell Fulcher. Of all the candidates, Butch is clearly the one with the most experience for the job and perhaps (Fulcher supporters would disagree here) the best "feel" for the hopes and desires of average Idahoans. If he wins the primary he's almost certain to win re-election in the fall. A Fulcher victory, however, might give the Democrats a slim hope in November.
For lieutenant governor, incumbent Brad Little is being challenged by Jim Chmelik. Little has done a decent job in a position that doesn't have a lot of responsibilities beyond land board votes and he's part of Otter's "team," so Otter supporters will probably be comfortable voting for Little as well.
For state secretary of state, the retirement of Ben Ysursa ended essentially four decades of that office being held by a Basque. Some people thought it was a constitutional requirement that a Basque hold the job. With Ben gone, four people are vying for his seat. Evan Frasure is a high school government teacher. Lawrence Denny and Mitch Toryanski are legislators who want the job (which handles elections, business filings, etc. -- it's a technically demanding job). Ben and his predecessor, Pete Cenarrusa, had always developed excellent, highly trained and responsive staffs. So, when Ben tapped one of his staff members, Phil McGrane, as his choice to succeed him, it's a recommendation well worth listening to.
For state controller you've got incumbent Brandon Woolf, who is essentially in Gov. Otter's camp, against Todd Hatfield, who is more likely to fall in Barry Peterson's camp, so the philosophical divide here offers a clear choice for voters, based on where the voters stand on strongly conservative v. moderately conservative ideology.
For attorney general, incumbent Lawrence Wasden is being challenged by Chris Troupis. Wasden's done a good job as AG, has represented the state and its people well, and clearly deserves to be returned to office.
For superintendent of public instruction, the retirement of Tom Luna has left the field wide open and four candidates, all of whom are probably qualified, with only nuances of difference between them, are running for the office. Of all of them, we know Sherri Ybarra the best. She's an administrator now with the Mountain Home School District, was a former principal where she turned a failing school into a top-performing school, and has worked in the trenches as a teacher. We've been impressed on our staff here with her intelligence, her ideas and her energy and we think the people of Elmore County would be well served to offer her their full support for the job.
Ironically, this is one race that isn't a Republican lock in the fall, with Jana Jones, who nearly beat Luna four years ago, running again for the Democrats. The winner of this GOP race is going to have a battle on their hands.
At the legislative level, the only Republican challenge in District 23 (Elmore County, most of Owyhee County and eastern Twin Falls County), is a strong challenge being made by Steven Millington against seven-term incumbent Pete Nielsen. This is an interesting race.
Millington, a highly successful retired businessman, is strongly conservative, no question about it, but he thinks legislators should stick to legislative issues and there he is most concerned about protecting water rights and improving support for education.
Nielsen, on the other hand, has a stump speech that sounds more like he's running for Congress than the legislature, with a lot of federal issues making up the planks in his platform. Pete, in recent years, has come out in favor of repealing the 17th Amendment, i.e. your right to vote for United States Senator (wanting to return that decision to the legislature alone). He also wants the 16th Amendment repealed and the Federal Reserve, the nation's central bank, eliminated. He wants to see a state militia created, separate from the Idaho National Guard, and he wants the state to have the right to pay its bills (and employees) in silver or gold (since the right to coinage is reserved to the federal government, presumably this would be in the form of dust or ingots).
He is not considered a friend of education by most local educator leadership, with whom he makes little contact during the legislature, nor does he spend a lot of time asking city and county officials about their concerns on legislation that affects them.
Yet, having said all that, Pete is popular among voters (he has a wonderfully engaging personality) and he clearly stands as a well-recognized flag bearer for the Tea Party right wing of the Republican Party.
So this race is a clear choice between a conservative and a very conservative candidate.
At the county level, the two commissioner posts currently held by Bud Corbus and West Wootan are up for election.
Corbus is facing Courtney Ireland in the First District race. During the public forum, Ireland showed a less than stellar grasp of the limitations of county government, assuming the commissioners had more power than they actually have. Corbus, on the other hand, has worked hard at the job and probably deserves re-election. He served as the county's point man on the battle to keep the roads open to Atlanta when Boise County didn't want to spend money to maintain them, and the final compromise, which was put together with the help of state Sen. Bert Brackett, was a workable deal. He also was a key player in the county's efforts to help fight last year's fires and coordinate the rehabilitation effort. He's a keeper.
The Second District commissioners race sees incumbent Wes Wootan facing off against perennial challenger Doug King and newcomer Robin Ellis. Wootan has been an adequate, but not stellar, commissioner, and has been justifiably distracted with some family medical issues. King makes a good point that his job takes him all over the county meeting people. But the candidate we like the best is the newcomer, Ellis, a former deputy sheriff whom we think has an excellent "feel" for the communities of this county and outstanding common sense. Some good choices available here, but we think Ellis stands above the other two in his potential to be an impact-maker at the county level.
In the two contested judicial races, we see no reason to replace Joel Horton on the Supreme Court and Jonathan Medema, we believe, has a slight edge in our view among four qualified candidates to replace retiring district judge Mike Wetherell.
The Democratic ballot is quick and easy, with only three contested races.
For U.S. senator, you have Nels Mitchell running against William Bryk. Mitchell at least lives in Idaho, which, like many states across the country, doesn't actually have a serious residency requirement (see, for example, Hillary Clinton as a senator from New York). Bryk lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is running for senate in not only Idaho, but also Oregon and Alaska this year (after having failed in similar attempts in previous elections in Wyoming and Indiana). We think the choice here is clear.
For governor, Terry Kerr, who doesn't like to answer questions from the press about his candidacy, is running against frontrunner A.J. Balukoff for the right to lose against presumptive Republican candidate Butch Otter in the fall. Despite some issues during Otter's second term involving departments under him, it's unlikely any issues will stick long enough to prevent his re-election.
Unchallenged is former congressman Richard Stallings, who is returning to the political scene after a long time off and should make a better showing in the fall than most Democrats have in years in the Second Congressional District.
The key race for Democrats this primary is the right to challenge Ron Crane in the fall for state treasurer. Crane is vulnerable due to the scandal of the legislative audit over how he handled the state's investment portfolio. Running for this office is W. Lane Startin, a free-lance writer and publisher/CEO at Tenstar Media LLC, and Deborah Silver, a practicing accountant. As a rule of thumb, while it's not required in the state constitution, an accountant sounds to us like a better choice for treasurer than a writer/publisher.
Finally, there's the local GOP precinct races. Like most readers, we know some of the candidates, but not all. This race has gotten nasty. If the candidates had been issued knives, there'd be throats slit in alleys all over town. We're staying out of this one, as the members of each precinct are likely to know the candidates, who are their neighbors, better than we do.
On the one hand, you have -- very loosely -- an informal grouping of candidates like Geoff Schroeder, Arlie Shaw, Tim Corder, Bud Corbus, Rich Sykes, Mark Bryant, Megan Blanksma, Ron Scherer and Alan Crane, working for seats that are otherwise being held or challenged by Barry Peterson, Jace Prow, Christopher Pentico, Larry Heinen, Larry Jewett, Judith Lords, Monty White, Christy Zito and John Barrutia.
Depending on where you stand between moderates or Tea Party positions, there's some pretty clear white hat-black hat choices here, and as much as precinct committeemen are usually an afterthought, these races are being watched by the rest of the state where similar efforts to determine who is going to control the party are playing out in other counties. This is one where you should listen to the candidates when they come to your door.