Friday, December 16, 2005

Another money primary for Idaho voters

Guest opinion by Marty Trillhaase

Marty Trillhaase is the editorial page editor for the Post Register in Idaho Falls.


Next year's gubernatorial primary — at least on paper — looked like yet another of Idaho's classic campaigns.

Two political giants — Lt. Gov. James Risch and Congressman Butch Otter — were angling for the Republican nomination. If it came off, their contest would have been just as combustible as the legendary 1966 primary contest between Don Samuelson and Robert Smylie, the 1978 campaign featuring Otter, Vernon Ravenscroft and Allan Larsen, and the 1994 race among Phil Batt, Chuck Winder and Larry Eastland.

It would have exposed some of the fundamental differences within Idaho's majority party on such issues as education funding, taxation, federal mandates and water policy.

Idaho voters won't get this choice. The decision has been made for them. Last week, Risch announced he would stay put, running for re-election to the No. 2 spot.

Chalk up another victim of the money primary. That's the emerging political phenomenon in which the candidate who raises the most money early and organizes the soonest not only wins the election, but scares his rival entirely out of the race.

Surely that was Otter's strategy. There may be another explanation — but Risch hasn't offered one.

Ever the pragmatist, Risch couldn't have seen much daylight in his quest to become governor.

Virtually from the minute he won re-election to the House last year, Otter has been running for governor.

His campaign finance report won't be due for a couple more months, but as a member of the U.S. House majority, Otter's primed to shake the national money tree. Risch is wealthy, but Otter could easily match him and likely outspend him — with other people's money.

Otter lined up key endorsements — Batt, former Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa, House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, Senate Pro Tem Bob Geddes and U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson — and campaign operatives throughout Idaho. No doubt they preferred Otter — but the party leaders also wanted to avoid a bruising primary battle that might leave the GOP nominee in the fall election vulnerable in what is shaping up as a mean season for Republicans, at least nationally if not in Idaho as well.

It's nothing new for political parties to anoint their favorites. It still didn't stop credible primary opposition. In 1972, Jim McClure had to get past George Hansen and Smylie to win Len Jordan's Senate seat.

Eighteen years later, Larry Craig had to beat then Attorney General Jim Jones to succeed McClure.

Even though Batt was the GOP's favorite in 1994, nobody deferred to him in the primary.

So what's changed?


Campaigns are becoming more expensive — television advertising rates are rising. Candidates rely on more professional staffs — the days of volunteer campaigns are practically over. Nobody runs for office without pollsters and consultants — and they cost big bucks.

Those who can afford those costs run.

Those who can't, don't.

That's what happened last year when Mike Crapo became the first Idahoan to win a U.S. Senate seat without opposition.

And the money primary also appears to be working on the Democratic side. Jerry Brady, the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial candidate, launched his second campaign early enough to earn a sizeable fund-raising edge over potential rivals.

State Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, isn't entirely out of the way yet — but he lacks Brady's personal wealth and he'd be getting a late start on fund raising.

So with six months before the primary — and more than three months before the formal campaign begins — Idaho's race for governor is pretty much set. It's between two millionaires who played the money primary to their advantage.

This is something new — and it's not a good trend.

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