Like elsewhere in Idaho, Bonner County election officials reported a quiet night for the 2012 GOP primary.
According to County Clerk Marie Scott, shortly before polls closed, “our average right now is at 12 percent. It’s not good.”
“Because it’s a non-presidential [primary] year and the closed primary [in which voters had to register as Republicans to vote on the GOP ballot], we knew it was going to have a negative impact on our voter turnout; we just didn’t know how bad an effect it would have,” she said.
Unofficial results were not posted on the county website as of early morning May 16, but according to the secretary of state, with all 33 precincts and absentee ballots accounted for, it seemed that all three incumbent District 1 lawmakers were returned to the Statehouse.
Sen. Shawn Keough, of Sandpoint, handily defeated challenger Danielle Ahrens with 71 percent of the vote, or 3,428 ballots cast. District 1A Rep. Eric Anderson, Priest River, pummeled Donna Capurso 66 percent to 26 percent, and District 1B Rep. George Eskridge, Dover, soundly beat local Tea Party leader Pam Stout 68 percent to 32 percent. All three also won their races by wide margins in Boundary County, Idaho’s northernmost county.
For Keough and Eskridge, it was a tense race filled with acrimony—fueled by PACs and lobbyists who funneled resources to their opponents, Ahrens and Stout, respectively.
“We have a battle going on within the ranks of the Republican Central Committee—between the moderates and the radicals,” said Scott. “That’s happening in Boundary County and Kootenai County as well.”
Keough, speaking to Boise Weekly a few hours before polls closed, bemoaned the divisiveness of the primary campaigns. In her and Eskridge’s campaign, it was recently revealed that Washington-based utility Avista had strongly supported their opponents, and Keough was specifically targeted by action committees like the Gun PAC, run by Republican strategist Lou Esposito and supported with contributions by House Speaker Lawerence Denney, Majority Leader Mike Moyle and Majority Caucus Chair Ken Roberts.
“The nastiness of some of the legislative campaigns—that’s different,” Keough said, referring to glossy mailers sent to Bonner County voters characterizing her and Eskridge as everything from “big spenders” to anti-gun advocates.
One such mailer, sent by another Esposito-operated PAC, Idaho Chooses Life, featured stark images of distressed teenage girls and asked the question: “Why Is Shawn Keough’s Record So Harmful to Families?” It went on to claim that Keough holds “radical views on abortion and families” and urged support of Danielle Ahrens. Another pro-Ahrens mailer, paid for by the Free Enterprise PAC, tarred Keough, who serves as a vice chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, with the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s ranking as “The #1 Big Spender in Boise.”
“It’s the people who are supporting our opponents who are bringing the nastiness that we’re not used to,” Keough said, characterizing the mailers as “lies and distortions” and going on to claim that the “laundering of money” to support District 1 GOP challengers was also new to the Idaho GOP campaign process.
Ahead of the polls closing, Keough said that if re-elected, she hopes to delve deeper into the source of this season’s negative campaign tactics, singling out the Idaho Freedom Foundation as a particularly egregious perpetrator of untruths with its so-called “Freedom Index,” which ranked various lawmakers based on their votes regarding “a very narrow band of bills,” she said.
“They [her and Eskridge’s opponents] accepted point blank [IFF founder] Mr. [Wayne] Hoffman’s characterization of us … as big spenders just because we passed a budget, which is constitutionally charged. That is very disconcerting,” Keough said.
As for utility company Avista, which opposed Keough and Eskridge because of votes they maintain were cast to protect north Idaho ratepayers, Keough said she wants to look for some answers from the higher-ups.
“My hope is that after the campaign dust settles and should I be re-elected, I look forward to talking to somebody further up the food chain at Avista, other than a lobbyist,” she told Boise Weekly. “I don’t think Avista, as a company, understands what their lobbyist was up to or did. … After the election, I will look for an opportunity to have a discussion with a CEO or those levels of folks to figure out just where, exactly, those lines were drawn. As I’ve said, I won’t apologize for looking out for the ratepayers.”
Keough, who has held state office since 1996 and is now one of the most senior members of the Idaho Senate, took a positive view of the primaries, stating that the negativity cast by the GOP challengers may have actually worked in her and Eskridge’s favor.
“People who weren’t motivated before to take our signs, give us money … it wasn’t until the negative stuff started hitting that people got enthused or engaged,” she said. “That gives us some hope that people are going to reject this nasty, dishonest campaigning and not respond to it.”
That may well be a prescription for the Idaho GOP as a whole.
“There’s definitely a divide in the party and it’s expressed itself in Bonner and Boundary counties and also in Kootenai,” Keough said. “I think some folks have become active in our party about four years ago and have really taken it in a different direction that lines up differently than has our traditional Republican Party,” Keough added. “It’s very strict ideology.”