By Cynthia Sewell

Lt. Gov. Brad Little seized an early lead Tuesday night and held it as he asked Republican voters for a promotion from Idaho's No. 2 job to its No. 1 job.

The Associated Press, New York Times and Washington Post called the race for Little around midnight, with about 30 percent of statewide votes still to be counted. Little held 37 percent of the vote, followed by U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador with 31 percent and developer Tommy Ahlquist with 28 percent.

"It really is something," Little said during his victory speech.

"I've talked to both Tommy and Raul. And to them and their families and their supporters, my hat is off to you," he said. "In case you did not notice, this was a pretty hard-fought campaign."

Ahlquist congratulated Little in an emailed statement. "I look forward to supporting him in the general election and wish him the best," Ahlquist said. "We ran this campaign on a conservative blueprint to build an even better Idaho. While I would have liked a different result, I am grateful and honored for the opportunity to move some of these important issues forward in public dialogue. This has been an incredible and life changing experience spending the past 15 months with the people of Idaho."

"Now it is time to turn our attention to November," Little said. "The die is cast. We know who the list of candidates are."

Little will face former North Idaho legislator Paulette Jordan in the November general election.

Idaho voters are selecting a new governor for the first time since 2006.

Little, Labrador and Ahlquist have been locked in a costly and cutthroat contest for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in hopes of succeeding Republican Gov. Butch Otter, who is handing over the reins after three terms.

Little is a third-generation Emmett sheep rancher. He's held a position in the Statehouse since 2001, when he was appointed to the Senate before becoming lieutenant governor in 2009. A loyal Otter ally who is often considered heir apparent to Otter's legacy, Little campaigned on continuing to promote Idaho's economy, improve education and advance agricultural interests.

Voters endured an extra-long campaign season with political newcomer Ahlquist's early break from the starting gate in March 2017 to start his name-building campaign. And, despite the early start and fierce battle, voters took their time committing to a GOP candidate.

After serving two terms in Idaho's House of Representatives, Labrador in 2011 went to Washington, D.C., representing the 1st Congressional District. He quickly found his place co-founding the Freedom Caucus and earning a reputation as a staunch conservative. Now, Labrador wants to bring his anti-tax, anti-spending, limited-government crusade back to Idaho.

Tommy Ahlquist, first an emergency room doctor and then a developer, decided to make his next foray a political one. Convinced that what he learned in the medical and business world could be the answer to reforming state government, Ahlquist put $2.4 million million into his own campaign to convince Idaho voters they do not need a career politician at the helm.

Collectively, the three candidates poured $5.6 million into the primary, with Ahlquist spending $2.84 million, Little $1.98 million and Labrador $800,000.

(c)2018 The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho)