BOISE (AP) — Deep rifts are dividing Idaho’s Republican party, and the tension may be coming to a head in the race to become the GOP’s gubernatorial nominee.
Two-term Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter is facing off in the Republican primary against state Sen. Russ Fulcher of Meridian.
“It is a straight-out ideological challenge between traditional conservatives — the establishment, if you will — and the insurgent or tea party factions of the Republican party,” said Jim Weatherby, a political analyst and professor emeritus at Boise State University.
Otter, a seasoned campaigner who has won nearly every political position he’s sought since 1973, totes his tax cuts and experience guiding the state through the great recession, contending he’s managed to make state government more efficient and responsible to its citizens. Fulcher, a Tea Party favorite who worked in both the technology and real estate industries before he was appointed to the Idaho Senate in 2005, says federal overreaching is threatening Idaho’s future. Fulcher says the state needs to take back federal lands and cease running a state exchange under the Affordable Health Care Act.
“The difference between myself and my opponent is I’ve got a track record that’s proven the principles that I’ve been running on,” Otter said.
The governor pointed out his efforts in 2012 to successfully cut Idaho’s top income tax from 7.8 percent to 7.4 percent, and the corporate tax from 7.6 to 7.4 percent. He also says he’s cut taxes by $150 million overall — a number that includes a phased-in grocery tax credit that rebated more than $100 million to Idaho taxpayers this year.
“We’ve proven over the time that I’ve been in office — even through this economic downturn, which was the worst since the great depression — that we can still balance the budget in Idaho and we don’t have to raise taxes to do that,” Otter said.
Fulcher, meanwhile, says under Otter’s leadership Idaho has become “addicted to a narcotic called federal money, and that narcotic has strings attached. Think Common Core. Think Medicaid and the Medicaid rules.”
To break the “addiction” and help reduce the federal debt, Fulcher said, the state needs to get control of federal lands so it can harvest natural gas, wind and solar power, and timber resources.
“We cannot prosper, we cannot control our destiny and we cannot reduce our debt if we don’t get access to what God gave us, and it’s what we’re standing on,” Fulcher said.
The idea that the state could wrest back control of federally managed land is one of the key issues dividing the state GOP. Otter says he wishes the people behind those efforts well, but believes there’s a better path.
“A more responsible course is for us to demonstrate that we can manage those lands in Idaho just like we manage our endowment lands, which are more fire-resistant, healthier forests and that provide for a big segment for our economy,” Otter said.
Besides, he says, the cost associated with managing those lands can be great during a bad fire season. Two years ago, Otter said, the total bill for wildfire suppression was $220 million in Idaho, but the portion Idaho had to pay was only $14 million.
“Where was Russ going to get the money?” Otter asked, suggesting Fulcher would have hypothetically been forced to raid the budgets for education, corrections, or health and welfare.
Fulcher criticizes Otter’s decision to create a state exchange rather than to use the federal health exchange system established under the Affordable Health Care Act.
“We had two choices, a federal exchange operated by federal employees or a federal exchange operated by state employees. The latter was worse — and the latter was what the governor embraced — because when you voluntarily invest in something, you become incentivized to see it succeed,” Fulcher said.
If Fulcher had been successful in his fight against the state exchange, “we would have had Obamacare on steroids in Idaho,” Otter countered.
The two also fall on opposite sides of the closed primary debate. Fulcher says it’s fair to limit the GOP primary — which often predicts the general election winner — to people willing to register as Republican. He calls it a way to promote “truth in advertising.”
Otter fought against the move to close the primary two years ago because he says it disenfranchises many voters. He invokes former Gov. Phil Batt and President Ronald Reagan when asked about the GOP rift.
“The person I agree with only 80 percent of the time is not my enemy,” Otter said.