• 100 Influential Idahoans 2015
You can find it all here in the Pacific Northwest - much of the nation's most beautiful places, some appallingly trashed-out areas; politics running from just about as far left to just about as far right as anywhere in the country; economies of all sorts from the highly prosperous to the dying. It's all here.
 

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Through most of the last generation you could find much of the edgy fringe of Idaho politics in Kootenai County, and pieces of a recent article about politics there helps locate one of the reasons things have gotten so worked up.

The article by Anne Helen Petersen on the site Buzzfeed is called “Here’s what happens when Republicans have no one to fight” (it is at https://www.buzzfeed.com/annehelenpetersen/wackadoodles-north-idaho). It describes in detail the evolution over the last half-century or so of local Republican politics, especially the relatively recent splintering between sundry pachyderms, Reagan Republicans, redoubters and others.

The most central current figure in the article is Brent Regan, chair of the Kootenai Republican Party Central Committee, where at meetings “people come to him, as if before a ruler, or a king.”

He apparently is not shy about expressing himself, writer Peterson said, and “when I asked him to help refine my understanding of liberty-minded conservative beliefs, Regan protested my use of ‘beliefs,’ which infers that they are, in fact, decisions — instead of ‘immutable truths.’”

The article quoted an email from Regan: “There is a right and a wrong, good and evil, and beneficial and detrimental. Society cannot thrive under Cartesian Relativism because it devolves into a muddle of conflicting ‘truths.’ The truths are that American Exceptionalism is the product of Judeo-Christian morality (The Ten Commandments) and of Logos (try to speak Truth), Greco-Roman philosophy (democracy and the idea that nature can be understood) and Anglo-Saxon Law (Magna Carta, the laws apply to all, even the King). The result is articulated in the most powerful political statement in history, the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution is a covenant between the states to create a federal government. The Bill of Rights does not grant rights, it forbids the government from infringing on those rights which “are endowed by their Creator.”

No.

I reject his premise: These are not immutable truths. These are interpretations, analyses – ideas, opinions, which may have merit or not, but most certainly are not facts. Facts and opinions are different things. It’s a fact that Regan was quoted in the article as the last paragraph indicates. This column is opinion and analysis, and so is the quote from the Regan email.

Some of what Regan says here is just silly. American exceptionalism is the outgrowth of the Ten Commandments? Really? Other parts seem more sensible. I would agree that the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence is among the most powerful political statements ever, but how is that contention fact and not opinion?

This is not mere philosophical hair-splitting. The inability to discern between fact and opinion is subtle but also one of the most serious real political problems we have these days, and it’s getting worse.

A big part of what we as Americans suffer from is an inability to compromise – which is another way of saying, the ability of the widely varied 323 million or so of us to get along and to work together. A society made up of people convinced of their own absolute, unquestioning rightness, the lack of any need to learn anything new – much less about their fellow citizens – can keep our country from functioning. It can blow a society apart.

You want to turn America into an updated version of the 90s-era Balkans? Evidently, you can find a prescription for that kind of future up in Kootenai County.

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Last week, I ran through some of the reasons businessman Tommy Ahlquist, one of three major candidates for the Republican nomination for Idaho governor, might come in third when the votes are cast. They’re pretty good reasons.

But so fluid is this race that those points tell only part of the story. Ahlquist, Lieutenant Governor Brad Little and Representative Raul Labrador each plausibly could come in first, second, or third. Let’s look now at why Ahlquist might win – reasons that shed light on some important factors in the race.

If you have three strong candidates (we’ll assume that none of them drastically flame out), little more than a third of the total vote may be needed to win. Move on to the probability (not certain but likely) that the 2018 primary may be a relatively low-turnout event.

Right now, Little and Labrador have clear and substantial bases of support – to over-simplify, many well-established organization and rank-and-file Republicans for Little, and many of the activist and erstwhile Tea Party backers for Labrador.

But large segments, some overlapping, remain unaccounted for.

The Latter Day Saint or Mormon vote, accounting for maybe half of the Republican primary vote, often sticks mostly together in races like this, and its inclinations are not clear yet. It probably will not back Little, although it might: Support for the establishment might have appeal. Labrador, as a brother in the faith, would have some appeal too. But he has several issues: He’s based over in the first district, his mode is more that of a firebrand (not a match for Mormon sensibilities) and he’s been a critic of the Idaho National Laboratory, a problem for voters in the Upper Snake.

Ahlquist, also LDS by faith, is another matter. He is a businessman, which suits well, and his language seems a match for the Mormon community. His relatively recent arrival in Idaho wouldn’t hurt him in the eastern Idaho LDS community either, because he has background in the Salt Lake City area – the second capital for many people in that area. (I may have overstated that and understated his Idaho background last week; no doubt the subject will continue to be discussed.) Quite a few Mormons in the east have been known to take cues from Idaho Falls businessman Frank Vandersloot, Idaho’s wealthiest resident. Vandersloot hasn’t stated a clear preference in the primary yet, and maybe he won’t. But it wouldn’t be hard at all to see him give the nod to Ahlquist. Backing from Utahn Mitt Romney doesn’t hurt either.

The second important up-for-grabs constituency is the strongly pro-Donald Trump contingent. Surely Labrador will appeal to a significant part of it. But much of the Trump appeal has to do with the perception of outsider status, and Labrador – while a rebel of sorts within the U.S. House – will nonetheless have been a member of the despised Congress for eight years when these voters vote. Ahlquist can run more obviously and simply as an outsider. And parts of his advertising and rhetoric sound clearly designed to appeal to these voters. Smart strategy.

Third, in parts of the central Boise area, Ahlquist may have pull simply because he actually has been a successful developer there, and on that basis if nothing else has impressed plenty of people.

There’s also the factor of too much familiarity. Enthusiasm matters enormously in low-turnout primaries, and newcomers have an easier time generating it than veteran candidates (see: many of our recent presidential elections). Ahlquist has an advantage if he can get himself well enough known, which he is in the process of doing.

All this easily could add up to enough votes to win a seriously contested primary.

You could run comparable scenarios for the other two candidates as well (if you’re a supporter of one of them, you may have done that while reading this). Point is: This is a seriously competitive race that right now could go any which way.

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I’ve taken to describing the already long-running Idaho Republican primary for governor as “fluid,” meaning that it’s yet to be won, that campaigning will matter, and a number of important constituencies are not nailed down.

With three major candidates in the race – Lieutenant Governor Brad Little, Representative Raul Labrador and businessman Tommy Ahlquist – there are nine plausible outcomes, as each of the three realistically could come in first, second or third. The dynamics are intriguing to watch, though maybe agonizing to be a part of.

To highlight some of the pieces in play, I thought I’d direct this column, and the next one, to two alternative prospects, about one of the candidates – whose fortunes seem the least predictable of the three – and consider what might result in his top-ranked win or last-place loss.

That candidate would be Ahlquist, the Boise downtown and metro developer, a newcomer to Idaho – after background as a physician in Salt Lake City – and at present a highly active campaigner. The next paragraphs consider why he might come in third; wait a week for why he might come in first.

He could lose partly for reasons so many businessman candidates for higher office – who have little or no experience running for or serving in office – do. Politics can look easy; he’s been a success in complex business (and other) spheres, so running for office should be a piece of cake, right? In fact, the skill sets for candidates and for many other things, including business leaders and physicians, are distinct. In some people they overlap, but often they don’t. Cecil Andrus was a highly effective campaigner and governor, but he didn’t light the world afire as a businessman. The skill sets were different. Sometimes the stronger the skill set is in one area, the less well they transfer to a different arena.

Compared to many gubernatorial candidates, Ahlquist is not a long-timer in Idaho. He has been civicly active in recent years, but his ties are recent. Little and Labrador have connections and networks built over decades (in Little’s case, over many generations). Both have been able to draw on extensive campaign structures, fundraising, community help, volunteers and much more, created over a long time; Ahlquist had to start from scratch.

Ahlquist is less well known around Idaho than his competitors, and generally has polled well behind them. That can be a solvable problem; name identification can be built in the way he has been developing it, through ads, news reports, campaigning and so on. But there are other problems associated with being a newcomer.

Little and Labrador have established identities. Those don’t work completely in their favor, but they do carry the advantage amounting to a known quantity: A level of trust in knowing who this guy is. (Some aspects of that problem, such as Ahlquist’s past support for some Democratic candidates, already have emerged.) Ahlquist has yet to be fully defined. He’s working on it, but much of that kind of definition is (as ever) not fully within his control. And, as Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff probably could tell you, too much advertising will wear on people over time; it can start to grate, even if it’s well done.

Ahlquist has supporters around Idaho, but he’s overwhelmingly identified with Boise – not necessarily the best place in the state to be overwhelmingly identified with.

And who or what is Ahlquist’s base? Little has the establishment Republican base (which, remember, did extremely well in the 2014 Republican primaries), and may be augmented by crossover independents and Democrats. Labrador has a well-established, and substantial, activist base, notably in the first congressional district. Where is Ahlquist coming from? Is he seeking out the Donald Trump-oriented support? Or something else? Remember, in the 2016 presidential, Ahlquist was a backer of Marco Rubio, not Donald Trump. We haven’t heard the last of that.

And there’s more. But there’s also a flip side: Ahlquist could win this primary. Next week I’ll get into why that might happen.

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Circle October 11 on your calendar. It may be a critical date in Idaho’s economic future, because that is when Idaho Power Company’s Hells Canyon Dam relicensure settlement conference is scheduled at the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.

It may not seem notably critical at first. The three Idaho Power dams on the Idaho-Oregon border, in Hells Canyon, have been operating and supplying an immense amount of power for a very long time, almost unnoticed (out of sight, out of mind) for many Idahoans. They were the subject of fierce controversy back in the 50s, but since have been recognized as one of the big drivers of Idaho Power’s tremendous growth in the mid-twentieth century, and through it a lot of the explosive growth of the Boise area. The dams have kept electric power reliable and cheap, no small factor in business development over the years.

When the dams were first built they were constructed under a 50-year license, which expired a dozen years ago. Today they’re running on what amounts to extensions of extensions (no one wants to shut the dams down), and work on formal relicensure continues.

That’s not a comfortable position for Idaho Power or for a lot of regional power users. But this is a matter as much of dilemma as of frustration. Idaho Power remains an independent local power company, based in Boise (albeit that its stock is publicly traded). It long has provided some of the lowest power rates in the country.

While lots of other utilities in recent decades have been gobbled by bigger corporate fish, Idaho Power has not. And evidently, one of the big reasons is that renewal of the licenses has remained unsettled. Much could change in southern Idaho if Idaho Power is bought. Usually in such cases low power rates tend to be jacked up after a purchase – sometimes jacked up a great deal.

There’s not one single reason the relicensure has stalled, but one seems to be a disagreement between the states of Idaho and Oregon, both of which have to sign off for major dam activity, over fish runs in the area.

An Associated Press story on the situation summarized, “Oregon officials are refusing to agree to the re-licensing until salmon and steelhead can access four Oregon tributaries that feed into the Hells Canyon Complex, as required by Oregon law for the re-licensing. But Idaho lawmakers have prohibited moving federally protected salmon and steelhead upstream of the dams, which could force restoration work on Idaho’s environmentally degraded middle section of the Snake River.”

This seems to be the primary relicensure hangup right now.

If Oregon’s requests are agreed to, significant changes could be required, and ratepayers might be stuck with paying another $220 million for the work. On top of other possible increases. On top of, if the company were taken over, higher rates otherwise down the road.

When I’ve been asked what economic risks Idaho faces in upcoming years, I’ve generally mentioned the Hells Canyon dams situation as one of two or three to watch out for.

On October 11, the Idaho Public Utilities Commission will hold a conference on what do next. What it does could be among the most important decisions the PUC has made in a generation.

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