BOISE, Idaho (AP) — To win the Idaho Republican Party primary and secure his position as the favorite to retain the state’s top job, Gov. Butch Otter had to overcome a challenge from the far right — and the far out — that had the state GOP calling for unity Wednesday.
State Sen. Russ Fulcher came “surprisingly close” to defeating the two-term incumbent by courting conservative voters who thought their principles were being compromised, said David Adler, director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University.
The election — which gained national attention from a debate that featured longshot candidates who discussed Armageddon and bigoted jokes — was one of several that showed how deep the rifts in the state’s Republican Party have grown in recent years. All but one of the five mainstream GOP legislative candidates endorsed by Otter lost to conservatives aligned with Fulcher.
A day after Otter’s victory, leading Idaho Republicans stood on the steps of the capitol and proclaimed their commitment to uniting the party heading into the November general election and beyond.
“It is time for us to come back together as a party,” said former House Speaker Lawerence Denney, who won the GOP primary for secretary of state.
“We can disagree on very, very few issues,” he said. “But we can disagree and still agree on the majority of things.”
Denney, who has served in the statehouse for nearly 20 years, was favored by tea party activists and promised to focus on taking control of Idaho’s federally managed public lands — a pledge that establishment candidates considered impractical.
“This election suggests the tea party exerted quite a bit of influence,” Adler said. “They almost defeated a gubernatorial incumbent.”
Conservatives also won primaries for legislative seats in northern Idaho, most notably ousting Sen. John Goedde, the Senate education chairman, and Sen. George Eskridge, a seven-term lawmaker, from office.
This momentum could shift the state party even further to the right, going more conservative on a range of issues from abortion to taxes. It also calls into question how effectively Otter will be able to lead from his mainstream position.
“The intent of this campaign by this establishment was to take back the party that they have gradually lost control of since 2008,” political analyst Jim Weatherby said. He added that the state party will be shaped by local officials, not just the governor.
Otter won 51 percent of the GOP primary vote, with Fulcher carrying 44 percent. Fringe contenders Harley Brown and Walt Bayes captured 5 percent between them after taking attention away from Otter and Fulcher and drawing a widespread audience online with their unconventional positions and statements.
Brown shunned political correctness as “bondage” and bragged about his love of insensitive jokes that “hit everybody.” Bayes, for his part, called the federal government, “a bunch of Eastern idiots” and said the Supreme Court was “going to hell.”
Otter had insisted on the participation of Brown and Bayes. Fulcher, however, said it was a political stunt.
The governor will face Democrat A.J. Balukoff in November. Balukoff won his primary with more than 65 percent of the Democratic vote.
“Gov. Otter’s narrow primary win over a relatively unknown, extremist opponent affirms what I’ve been hearing as I travel all over Idaho,” Balukoff said in a statement. “People like Butch well enough personally, but after almost 40 years as a career politician, it’s time for him to retire to his ranch.”
Balukoff hopes to seize on the GOP rift, but he’ll have challenges prevailing in a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic governor in nearly 20 years and where nearly every statewide office is held by a Republican.
Otter also received a boost from the upstart movement that threatened his post: Fulcher announced his support for the governor at Wednesday’s press conference.
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