First-time candidate Phil McGrane got the boost he needed Tuesday in the crowded race for secretary of state — the endorsement of the man who personifies integrity in the administration of Idaho election law, campaign finance and lobbying disclosure.
Three-term Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said McGrane is the best choice among four Republicans “to carry on the office’s reputation” for “fairness, efficiency and service.”
Ysursa didn’t shy from invoking the name of his mentor and predecessor, Republican Pete Cenarrusa, who died in September. Cenarrusa served as Idaho’s chief election officer from 1967-2003 and was a member of the House from 1951-67, with five years as speaker. For 28 years, Ysursa worked for Cenarrusa before succeeding him as the most popular elected official of his generation.
“I kind of have an attachment,” Ysursa told a Statehouse crowd of about 100. “And so, I am very concerned — let’s say very interested — in who my successor is going to be and in Pete’s successor.”
Like Ysursa, McGrane is a lawyer. In 2005, he began work in the Ada County Clerk’s office and has been chief deputy clerk since 2010. Unlike his opponents, McGrane’s campaign lives or dies on his claim to the Cenarrusa-Ysursa tradition.
“I’ve learned from Ben and I hope to carry out what he has done to pave the path forward of Pete Cenarrusa and Ben Ysursa to ensure the integrity of our systems well into the future,” McGrane said.
At 33, some Republicans call McGrane “The Kid,” a moniker better suited to something Cenarrusa did in his youth — box for the University of Idaho.
Former GOP Sen. Mitch Toryanski of Boise also stakes claim to the Cenarrusa legacy. Cenarrusa’s widow, Freda, who remains influential Republican circles, has endorsed Toryanski. But Toryanski also has both won and lost tough Senate races, a experience foreign to McGrane.
The other two Republicans are still more seasoned. Rep. Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, served 16 years in the House, including six as speaker. Former Sen. Evan Frasure of Pocatello spent a decade in the Senate before losing to Ysursa in the 2002 GOP primary. The winner will face Democratic Rep. Holli Woodings in November.
McGrane’s current boss — Ada County Clerk Chris Rich — says Ysursa’s endorsement seven weeks before the May 20 election resets the race.
“There’s been a ton of people sitting on the fence waiting on this one to fall,” said Rich.
Among those on hand Tuesday were Lt. Gov. Brad Little; former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig and his wife, Suzanne; Idaho Association of Counties Executive Director Dan Chadwick; lobbyists including Roger Seiber, Jerry Deckard, Jane Wittmeyer and her husband, Brent Olmstead; veteran GOP fundraiser Al Henderson; and Jim and Eva Gay Yost, who have clout in the Phil Batt wing of the party.
After the formal event, Ysursa returned to his office. Entering, he peeled a “Phil McGrane” sticker from his lapel. “Gotta take this off when I come in here,” he said, tossing it in the trash.
Ysursa admitted he’d choked back emotions during one of the final speeches of his career. “It’s still tough,” he said, pointing to a photo of him and Cenarrusa. “I got that guy there staring at me.”
The race for a job held by just two men in the course of 47 years is the exactly the sort of contest where endorsements matter, Ysursa said in a short video clip shot at his famously cluttered desk.
“I believe endorsements matter in ‘lesser races’ — lesser statewide officials,” he said. “Certainly, my office, the secretary of state’s office, does not get the notoriety or the media attention that a governor does or a (U.S.) representative or U.S. senator.
“So, a lot of folks want to know from me — I was getting the inquiry — who’s the best person for the job? I think endorsements do matter from an official who has been involved as long as I have and knows the ins and outs of the office and people rely on that judgment to some degree.”