Election Central

Playing hardball: Otter backs challenger to Sen. Pearce in another center-right showdown

In a rare move, Gov. Butch Otter has endorsed first-time candidate Abby Lee over Senate Resources and Environment Committee Chairman Monty Pearce, an eight-term GOP lawmaker from New Plymouth. Pearce is backing Sen. Russ Fulcher’s challenge to Otter.

The endorsement in District 9, announced this week by Lee, is another example of the high-stakes battle between the moderate and conservative wings of the Idaho Republican Party in the May 20 primary.

“It’s no surprise,” said Pearce, 65. “Butch is wanting people to agree with his viewpoint. He’s supposed to be a conservative but he’s kind of lost his conservative credentials. All he has is the talk left — that’s all he’s got is the talk — because he forgot the walk.”

Lee, 42, of Fruitland, is director of public information for Treasure Valley Community College and a doctoral candidate in public policy and administration at Boise State.

The district includes all of  Adams, Washington and Payette counties and a slice of northern Canyon County.

A rancher with family ties to the John Birch Society, Pearce, 65, is a high-octane conservative with a long record of opposing Otter initiatives.

He fought road tax and fee increases in 2008 and 2009; played a key role in blocking the 2012 appointment of Joan Hurlock to the Idaho Fish & Game Commission; loudly argued against Otter’s 2013 state-run health insurance exchange; opposes Common Core education standards; and promises to vote against any expansion of Medicaid. Pearce also backs repeal of the sales tax on groceries, an idea advanced by Fulcher in the 2014 session but killed by GOP legislative leaders.

The race could even feature a gender politics wrinkle. After her nomination was rejected 19-16, Hurlock said Pearce told her she’d be a better fit for another appointment, such as the Board of Nursing. At the time, Pearce declined comment on whether he offered such advice, but still calls her “pro-wolf.”

In the endorsement statement released by Lee, Otter said, “Please join me in supporting Abby Lee for the Idaho State Senate. Abby is intelligent, hard-working and focused on bringing solutions to the Legislature. Abby understands and is willing to fight for the conservative values that are so important to District 9. I hope you can join me in supporting Abby Lee in the May 20th Republican Primary.”

Two years ago, Otter endorsed Sen. Bert Brackett of Rogerson over Sen. Tim Corder of Mountain Home, who were pitted against one another because of new district lines. Also in 2012, Otter endorsed Canyon County Commissioner Todd Lakey over Rep. Bob Schaeffer of Nampa for an open Senate seat.

But endorsing a challenger to a 16-year-veteran lawmaker with the experience and connections to make Otter pay should he win a third term is a bolder and more unusual move.

“I supported Butch for two elections,” Pearce said. “I’ve been a strong supporter, but I can no longer support him. He needs somebody that’ll support him and apparently Abby will.”

Replied Lee: “I believe the governor endorses me for the reasons he stated and because I am interested in being a part of finding solutions to complex issues. We need to remember these issues are important to all Idahoans, not just the governor.”

The candidates are making frequent joint appearances and are scheduled for events in New Meadows on Saturday, Council on Monday and Weiser on Tuesday.

Though Lee doesn’t have to file a campaign finance report until May 13, Pearce said, “She seems to have quite a bit of money.”

With no other candidates on the ballot, the winner of the primary will be elected in November.

Two years ago, Pearce had a tough primary against Matthew Faulks, winning with 56 percent of the vote. Pearce won the general election over Democrat Alma Hasse with 71 percent.

Among the issues in the campaign was a Senate ethics investigation into Pearce’s failure to timely disclose oil and gas leases on his land. Pearce was cleared of any conflict of interest, but said he should have disclosed sooner.

Lee revived the issue in her submission to Idaho Statesman Voter Guide, saying Pearce’s history compromises his effectiveness on economic development. “Ethics complaints against my opponent following a vote on natural gas leases in 2012 have impaired his ability to represent these interests,” she wrote.

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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