Election Central

Issues in Fulcher-Otter race set up prospect of Idaho tea party ticket

Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher completed his listening tour last week, but began this week in campaign mode on the tea party circuit.

Though Fulcher, R-Meridian, hasn’t yet said whether his exploratory effort will turn into the real thing and a race against two-term incumbent GOP Gov. Butch Otter, he hit on another issue that holds promise in the May 20 primary.

Speaking Monday night at North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene, Fulcher took on Common Core K-12 standards backed by Otter and GOP Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and approved by the 2011 Legislature.

“The responsibility for Idahoans’ education needs to be kept here in Idaho,” Fulcher said. “So I have a problem with the Common Core as it’s currently being laid out.”

That won a shout-out from an audience member at the “1st Annual MP2 Economic Tour,” according to a report by Jessica Robinson of Northwest Public Radio. MP2 stands for Motivating People to be More Productive.

Fulcher appeared with three of the GOP’s most vocal tea party-backed foes of Otter’s state-run health insurance exchange, Rep. Vito Barbieri and Sen. Steve Vick of Dalton Gardens and Sen. Steve Thayn of Emmett. Announcing his exploratory campaign in October, Fulcher said Otter had “lost touch,”and cited the exchange as Example No. 1.

Common Core offers another way for the Senate’s No. 4 Republican leader to distinguish himself. Fulcher was on the Senate Education Committee that unanimously approved the State Board of Education rule to adopt Common Core. So look for him to explain how the specter of Big Brother education prompted his change of heart. Sure, he was for it before he was against it, but Fulcher’s deft enough to turn that to his advantage.

The chairmen of the Legislature’s Education committees, Rep. Reed DeMordaunt of Eagle and Sen. John Goedde of Coeur d’Alene, reaffirmed their support for Common Core last week, a sign of a serious push to reverse the 2011 Legislature’s approval of the reforms. DeMordaunt and Goedde said Common Core’s standards “are critical in making sure every child is prepared for success after high school.”

Thayn may take a run at Superintendent Luna, whose support of Common Core has puzzled and even enraged his tea party base. With a crowded primary for secretary of state including former House Speaker Lawerence Denney, Todd Hatfield’s tea party run against Controller Brandon Woolf and the prospect of  challengers for Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and Lt. Gov. Brad Little, 2014 could pit a tea party ticket against establishment incumbents.

If the insurgent message sells, it would boost all the challengers.

Fear of such a ticket has unnerved incumbents. Among the reasons Secretary of State Ben Ysursa struggled so publicly about his decision not to run for a fourth term was considerable pressure from Otter to remain on the ticket as the most popular vote getter of his era.

In January, Otter may provide the tea party another catchy issue if he endorses Medicaid expansion. Though it could save local and state taxpayers $1 billion over a decade, the fight could define the 2014 session leading up to the primary and boost exposure for Fulcher, Thayn, Denney and other insurgents.

On Friday, the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry wrote Otter urging that Idaho take the federal dough for low-income health care. The Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell reported word of IACI’s support Monday. The business group’s sturdy backing of the health insurance exchange was critical in helping Otter get the bill through deeply divided GOP caucuses in the House and Senate early this year.

Otter, IACI and the GOP’s governing wing may be happy to have such clear issues to help business-friendly voters decide. The result could leave the tea party a fringe annoyance and send its outliers back to their former neighborhoods in the Libertarian and Constitution parties.

But sharp distinctions raise the profile of largely unknown challengers. The result could be campaigns pitting money, organization and name ID against passionate activists with a message of change in uncertain times.

Predicting the outcome of such an election would be a foolish enterprise. Hang on for the ride.


Dan Popkey came to Idaho in 1984 to work as a police reporter. Since 1987, he has covered politics and has reported on 25 sessions of the Legislature. Dan has a bachelor's in political science from Santa Clara University and a master's in journalism from Columbia University. He was a Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association and a Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan. A former page in the U.S. House of Representatives, he graduated Capitol Page High School in 1976. In 2007, he led the Statesman’s coverage of the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news. In 2003, he won the Ted M. Natt First Amendment award from the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association for coverage of University Place, the University of Idaho’s troubled real estate development in Boise. Dan helped start the community reading project "Big Read." He has two children in college and lives on the Boise Bench with an old gray cat.

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Posted in Election Central, Idaho Politics