Building a perfect storm
What would it take for Democrat Paulette Jordan to win the governorship in November over Republican Brad Little?
You might inquire in response, why ask? Little is heavily favored to win, right? And yes he is; and none of what follows should be interpreted to the contrary. But likely is not the same as certainty. Just ask all those prognosticators about their 2016 presidential estimates.
In a batch of conversations around South Idaho this last week, with some well-informed people in both parties, a common perspective emerged, which might be useful to consider as the campaign season unfolds.
First, the most favorable estimates of a Jordan win put it at about 10 percent: One chance in ten. Others figure the prospect at around five percent. No one went much lower than that, which means a consensus view that she has a small but not insignificant chance of winning.
They gave her a better chance than other recent Democratic nominees. Most people I talked to (opinions were not divided along party lines) thought Jordan was likely to get either the best percentage for governor, or nearly the best, of any Democratic nominee since Cecil Andrus in 1990. Most estimated percentages for her in the low to mid-40s; several thought percentages around 45 or 46 were plausible. That would imply a seriously close contest.
Why? One reason is that she’s a strong campaigner. More than most Idaho candidates, she has presence and draws immediate attention where she goes, and voters tend to respond to that — and react to the response.
The people I talked to in both parties had strong favorable opinions of Little - his character, knowledge of issues and of the state, skill as a leader, and overall probability that he’d be a good governor - except when it came to his role as a campaigner. There his skills were less obvious; he’s not the natural campaigner the current governor has always been. We’re now entering a space in the cycle where that may matter.
Both Jordan and Little emerged from contested primaries. But most people - not everyone but most - thought Little was at greater risk of losing some of his own party’s base because of dissatisfaction with the outcome of the primary. Specifically, the thought was that a number of backers of losing contender Raul Labrador, many of whom likely spent most of campaign season thinking their man would win the nomination, may be disgusted enough to not vote. If the election is otherwise close, that could matter. (There was some argument that dynamic could hinder Jordan too, but most thought that less likely.)
2018 may be a Democratic sweep year. That’s not a certainty, and political waves don’t splash the same everywhere; the waves in Idaho probably would be more like ripples than a tsunami. It would not, for example, come anywhere close to turning the Idaho Legislature Democratic; but a shift of five or six seats (out of 105) toward the Democrats might be a realistic prospect. That could slosh upward, adding a little more to the Jordan column.
Aside from national trends, there’s a local issue that could matter: The Medicaid expansion ballot slot. That might have the effect of drawing out a significant number of Democratic-leaning voters, and become a real factor in races that otherwise are close.
There’s also a strategic risk Little has to watch out for. His message and approach logically would involve staying relentlessly positive, making the affirmative case for the current administration and sticking with the course. He’s mostly been hewing to that tack up to now - excepting a few shots fired at competitors in the primary - and it’s the smart thing to do. But … if polling shows the race tightening closely toward the end, if voters are simply in a very dissatisfied mood, there would be a temptation to improve his position by going harshly negative on Jordan - to drive up the base and change the conversation and weaken whatever momentum she has. That would be a mistake and probably would backfire. Little probably won’t go there (it’s certainly not in his native temperament). But if the race tightens, the temptation would arise, and I’ve seen any number of campaigns that have given in to it, usually to their eventual regret.
A Jordan win would take a perfect storm in an alignment of stars. The odds are against. But don’t ignore this race; the raw materials for an upset may be widely scattered but they do exist.
Former Idaho newspaper reporter and editor Randy Stapilus is the author of “The Idaho Political Field Guide,” the editor of the Idaho Weekly Briefing, and a blogger at www.ridenbaugh.com. A book of his Idaho columns from the past decade, “Crossing the Snake,” is available at www.ridenbaughpress.com/.