Two years ago at this point, Idaho was headed for a major clash within the Republican Party.
It was two years ago last week that Russell Fulcher, then a state senator from Meridian, announced he would oppose incumbent Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter in the Republican primary. That launched the most serious opposition from inside his own party to an Idaho governor in almost 50 years, though Otter would go on to win it decisively.
Months before that, in June 2013, Bryan Smith launched his campaign for the 2nd District U.S. House seat, opposing veteran Republican incumbent Mike Simpson in the May 2014 primary. He campaigned steadily for nearly a year before losing, by a strong margin, on election day.
In starting their campaigns well before the end of the year before the election year, Fulcher and Smith – who were not alone in Idaho in launching primary competition campaigns along that schedule – were doing the smart thing. Money is an important factor in many campaigns, but time is often an underrated asset, or liability if you have too little of it. I even think of the two as being mathematically related: Extra time, or money, can help make up for a deficiency on the other side of the equation. And Fulcher and Smith must have entered their campaigns knowing they were likely to be outspent (as they eventually were), so the extra time was a helpful element.
One point here is that, even with lengthy campaign efforts, each fell short, and it wasn’t especially close.
Another point is that no one this year has been making similar effort in the year-before to start an insurgent campaign the way those two did.
By this point in the last election cycle, as I noted, a significant clash between wings of the Republican Party in the state was already well in the making, and it became a big and highly unusual conflict, with what amounted to two separate slates going to war with each other in the primary. The election delivered a clear win to one of those sides – the incumbent, more establishment side – but it didn’t end the splits or the conflict, as demonstrated in the rancorous party convention of 2014.
That seemed to set up the likelihood of another, similar, battle for 2016. But no such battle seems to be coming together. Look around and you’re not seeing announcements of primary challenges around the state, a contrast to the last cycle.
There are several possible reasons. One of the biggest is simply the lack of major offices to run for: Above the legislative level, that would be just the two U.S. House seats, and both incumbents (Republicans Raul Labrador and Simpson) look likely to seek re-election and are strongly entrenched.
Nor is there, offhand, any particular reason to anticipate major fireworks on the legislative level. Put aside the presidential race and Idaho’s politics in 2016 look pretty quiet. In state, political people probably are thinking more about 2018 (when, among other things, Otter likely will step aside and open the office for someone else) than 2016.
It may be that some of the activism within the Republican Party could be diverted to the presidential nomination contest, where some of those same debates could play out (in a proxy way).
But the absence of Idaho dogs barking in the night-time, as the Sherlock Holmes story had it, may translate to an absence of heated politics in the state next year.