ID-Governor: Why Isn't the Tea Party Rejecting Butch Otter?

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, a Republican, pushed a controversial gas tax increase last year. Idaho Republicans are big Tea Party supporters. So, why is Otter expected to easily prevail in the Republican primary for governor?
by | May 24, 2010
 

What a difference a Tuesday makes. A week ago, we had really interesting elections in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Arizona, Arkansas and Oregon. This week, all we've got is a primary in Idaho.

But, the primary in Idaho actually is interesting -- although it's interesting for a reason that won't serve as incentive for you to stay up late following the returns. The intriguing question: Why didn't Idaho Gov. Butch Otter have a tougher time in the Republican primary?

Otter unsuccessfully pushed a gas tax increase last year, a move that prompted a huge fight with the Republican-controlled legislature. In Idaho, a Mason-Dixon poll shows that 63% of Republican primary voter support the Tea Party's agenda. Yet that same poll shows that Otter is at 60% in the Republican primary, with none of his opponents above 6%. So, the question is why these Tea Partiers aren't rejecting a governor who pushed a controversial tax hike.

One unsatisfactory explanation: Otter's opponents are weak. It's true that the governor's opponents aren't distinguishing themselves. Otter's two "leading" Republican foes are Rex Rammell and Sharon Ullman. Rammell is most famous for joking about hunting President Obama,a remark that led to pretty much every notable Idaho Republican denouncing him. Ullman is more credible on paper -- she's a county commissioner in Idaho's largest county -- but she essentially hasn't raised any money.

Idaho has lots of ambitious Republicans. Presumably, if Otter really looked beatable someone stronger would have stepped in (or Ullman's campaign would have caught fire). The weakness of Otter's opposition is more a reflection of his strength than a cause of it.

A better explanation is that conservative Republicans in Idaho aren't judging Otter just on the gas tax increase. Otter has been an elected official for a long time and long has had a reputation as a libertarian-minded Republican -- just the sort of candidate that Tea Partiers tend to support. An Idaho Tea Party leader, for example, told the Associated Press that we liked Otter's work fighting federal health care reform:

In the 2009 gas tax fight, "there was a heightened feeling Otter may not see things our way and may have lost some of his conservative principles," said Brendan Smythe, president of Tea Party Boise. "Since then, we've seen a shift in attitudes. His biggest victory for our side was the Health Freedom Act."

Along those lines, another good explanation is that the views of Idaho's Tea Party supporters are more complicated than you might expect. The same poll that showed 63% of Idaho Republican primary voters support the Tea Party also showed that a plurality disapproved of cuts in public education spending that Otter signed this year (Idaho, for the first time in state history, reduced year-over-year education spending).

In that context, it makes sense that Idaho's Republican voters weren't sympathetic to a challenge from Otter's right. They don't actually want greater fiscal austerity, at least not when it comes to popular programs such as public education.

The lesson here is that Idaho's conservative Republicans actually are a lot like most voters all over the country and all over the ideological spectrum. They want to be taxed less, but also somehow wish that government could find a way to spend more money for their favorite programs.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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