Kind of Blue

A former Harvard prof tries to get the red out of the Idaho governor’s mansion.

Statewide elections in Idaho aren’t typically nail-biters. Idahoans have voted for every Republican presidential candidate save one since 1952, and 19 of its 30 governors since it became a state in 1890 have been Republican. Both U.S. Senators are members of the GOP, and both state congressional bodies are Republican-controlled.

Given the state’s rosy-red history, it’s difficult to understand why Idaho’s Democratic Party is so enthusiastic for this fall’s gubernatorial matchup. But the boys in blue are pinning their hopes on Keith Allred, a proud fifth-generation Idahoan from a luxurious Boise suburb. Allred is running as an independent on the Democratic ticket, hoping for the upset.

A former professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Allred entered Idaho politics almost immediately upon moving back to Idaho by founding The Common Interest, a non-partisan citizens’ group of Idahoans dedicated to fighting special influences in government.

The tactics and ideology of the group he founded exemplify Allred’s own political stance: Running his campaign around the idea that he isn’t your average politician, Allred says he is “driven by the independent-minded pursuit of practical solutions that rise above special interest and partisan politics.”

But in addition to history, Allred is up against a formidable opponent in incumbent Gov. Butch T. Otter, elected in 1996 by a scant (for Idaho gubernatorial races) 8 percent. In the latest Rasmussen poll, conducted in May, Otter had a 55 percent favorable rating compared to 42 percent who disapprove.

Gary Moncrief, a political science professor at Boise State University, doesn’t really see Allred bucking the trend. “The last I saw, Allred was trailing by 20 points. That sounds pretty much like business as usual in Idaho,” Moncrief says.

The same Rasmussen poll puts Otter ahead of Allred in a head-to-head matchup, 54 percent to 32 percent (with 9 percent undecided). But although Otter’s lead is sizable, it’s an improvement over the 32-point deficit faced by Allred in the first polling back in March.

Despite the numbers, Allred seems confident he can close the gap. “Pundits from afar show Idaho as dominated by the Republican Party and then they write it off as a safe race. But we keep gaining support and seeing people’s attitudes change, and that’s what gives us the leg up,” he says.

The Allred campaign also points to fundraising as further of proof of their success. In the 30-day post-primary report, Allred reported raising $118,861 to Otter’s $95,969. Otter, however, had more cash on hand to begin with and outspent Allred by nearly $80,000.

Allred’s non-partisan ideas are winning him more than just contributions, however. He’s attracted support from places and people who normally would not be turning out to aid a Democratic candidate. Sharon Parry, an Idaho Falls city councilmember, switched from coordinating Otter’s campaign in 2006 to co-coordinating Allred’s efforts in Bonneville County. Laird Noh, a former County Chairman and GOP Legislator of the Year, also signed onto the Allred campaign as an honorary co-chair last year.

Opposition to Otter (and support for Allred) comes from numerous sources, including some who say he pays too much attention to special interest groups. But the sorest point is the nearly $128 million in budget cuts he made to education in 2009.

Jonathan Parker, executive director for the Idaho Republican Party, isn’t worried about losing these supporters or about the criticisms Otter has faced. “Otter did what most households would do when the budget is down, and that is cut expenses,” Parker says.

One of Otter’s more visible actions during his tenure as governor was to publicly oppose the Obama health care reform act by signing the Idaho Health Freedom Act, which blocked the federal government from mandated health care and instructed the Idaho Attorney General to seek injunctive relief if necessary. The upshot of the legislation was Idaho joining 12 other states in suing the federal government on March 22.

“We’re not taking [Allred] for granted, Otter is taking him very seriously. But at the end of the day, we’re confident that he will be re-elected,” Parker says.

Moncrief says historical and current trends make Allred’s chances slim.

“I do think Allred has a shot,” Moncrief says, “ but clearly this is an uphill endeavor. It’s a bad year for Democrats everywhere. And of course Idaho is about as conservative a state as there is.”

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