When Butch Otter was elected governor of Idaho 12 years ago, he was a doctrinaire libertarian and a self-described “brash young revolutionary.” As he prepares to leave office, he’s spoken publicly about the changes in his own attitude, recognizing the importance of government in areas such as education and health care.
Over the same period, much of his state has moved in the opposite direction, growing more skeptical about government’s role. Nonetheless, Otter’s lieutenant governor and preferred successor, Brad Little, took the GOP nomination on Tuesday and will most likely serve as Idaho’s next governor.
Little is almost a classic business-oriented conservative, looking to cut taxes and the size of government — but willing to invest in education and health care.
“He would have been kind of a midstream, mainstream Republican 20 or 30 years ago,” says Randy Stapilus, a columnist and author of Governing Idaho: Politics, People and Power. “Now, there are significant numbers of Republicans who consider him not pure enough.”
Little’s family has been a major force in ranching in the state since the 19th century, with his grandfather having been described as “the sheep king of Idaho.” Little succeeded his father in the state Senate. Otter appointed him as lieutenant governor in 2009, after Jim Risch was elected to the U.S. Senate.
“I believe Little won because the economy is doing well and the state is on a solid fiscal ground — solid bond ratings, balanced budgets with a prudent rainy day account, and a public employee retirement system that is almost completely funded,” says Gary Moncrief, a political scientist at Boise State University. “It was hard to run an anti-government campaign when in fact the state government seems to be working pretty well, within the constraints of conservative policy environment in a state like Idaho.”
Polls show that most residents of Idaho believe the state is on the right track. Nonetheless, a clear majority of Republican voters were willing to support more hardline conservatives.
But Little prevailed against a split field.
He took 37 percent of the vote, outpacing his chief rivals, Congressman Raúl Labrador, who won 33 percent, and doctor and developer Tommy Ahlquist, who finished third with 26 percent.
The “outsider” candidate won on the Democratic side. State Rep. Paulette Jordan — the first woman nominated for governor by either major party in the state — easily beat A.J. Balukoff, who was the party’s nominee against Otter in 2014 and had most of the “establishment” support.
Jordan’s candidacy has already attracted considerable national attention, in part because she would be the first Native American elected governor of any state.
But the odds of that happening are vanishingly low. Idaho is one of the nation’s most staunchly Republican states, with only 12 percent of state voters registering as Democrats.
Much of the Republican vote split along regional and even religious lines. Labrador performed well in his congressional district in the north, while Ahlquist performed better in the eastern part of the state, which has a strong Mormon vote. (Ahlquist is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.) Little did best in the agricultural areas in his native southwest, while performing well enough in metropolitan Boise.
“A lot of people in the state think they’re doing pretty well,” says Jaclyn Kettler, a Boise State political scientist. “Little symbolizes a continuation of what they’ve had. He doesn’t have as many negatives as Labrador or Ahlquist.”
The GOP primary race was nasty, with the contestants referring to each other as “liars” and “snakes.” The contest cost roughly $10 million, with frequent attack ads launched from all sides.
“I’ve been around elections for 45 years, and this is the most negative gubernatorial primary I’ve ever seen,” former GOP Secretary of State Ben Ysursa told the Idaho Press-Tribune.
Little gave as good as he got.
His campaign ran an ad that went so far as to describe Labrador as “liberal” on immigration. That was a stretch since Labrador is one of the leading hardliners on the issue in Congress. Labrador is a founding member of the ultraright House Freedom Caucus. He suggested that if voters approve an expansion of Medicaid this fall, the legislature should overturn them. Last year, he drew controversy for saying, “Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.”
Ahlquist cast himself as an outsider in the mold of President Trump, but his more moderate past was used against him. Based on a 2003 vote in the state Senate, Ahlquist sought to cast Little as a supporter of tax increases and salary hikes for politicians, but Little has consistently supported Otter’s frequent tax cuts and pledged more to come. During the campaign, Little pledged to cut both personal and corporate income tax rates, while offering a break on business equipment property taxes.
Little said he would only cut taxes, however, if the state economy continues to grow. While pledging to shrink government, he also said the state must invest in key areas.
“We have to be competitive in what we pay our professional educators,” he said during his victory speech on Tuesday. “We have to invest in our infrastructure.”
Little’s stances on issues such as health and early childhood education won him support not only from Republican officials but also from business groups.
“The independent effort on behalf of his candidacy was immense, well organized, and innovative,” says Justin Vaughn, director of the Center for Idaho History and Politics at Boise State.
Idaho is the nation’s fastest-growing state. It will have to cope with the numerous demands that come with growth, including funding schools, even as its population ages, driving up health care costs. The state, as an entity, has limited resources. Idaho has the 48th lowest total state and local tax burden in the country. While personal income has grown by 40 percent since 2008, general fund revenue is up by less than 25 percent.
Otter, the former government critic, ended up devoting a bit more to education year after year, Kettler notes. Little said during the campaign he would continue to support schools, refusing unlike his opponents to block spending on early childhood education.
Following a three-term governor, the 64-year-old Little is as close to an experienced incumbent as a newcomer can be. That was something his opponents sought to portray as a knock against him, but it should serve him well, assuming he wins in the fall.
“Little knows his way around a ranch but is also soft-spoken and exceptionally wonky,” Vaughn says. “He’ll have no trouble staffing his administration with a high-quality, experienced team and will hit the ground running once inaugurated.”
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