• 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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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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