Any Idaho candidate with an eye on the governor's seat shouldn't underestimate the considerable sway held by Wayne Hoffman, Alex LaBeau and Courtney Washburn of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, and Conservation Voters for Idaho, respectively. The trio are loath to brag about their political clout, however.
"If I came to work every day worrying about power, I'd be working for the wrong reasons," said LaBeau, president of IACI, an organization whose 300-plus members include a who's who of Idaho employers. "I want Idaho to succeed and the people of Idaho to succeed. I come to work with that mentality, and don't worry about the rest. That said, if you have the resources and ability to influence, you should, by all means."
Washburn, executive director of CVI since 2015, said her political mission—made obvious by the name of the organization she heads— is more clear. CVI openly endorses and funds campaigns.
"We work to protect clean air, clean water and public lands in Idaho, and we do so by changing the political landscape," she said. "[But] don't assume for a moment we work only with Republicans or Democrats."
Hoffman, who helped found IFF in 2009, pointed out his organization doesn't endorse candidates, but he conceded it does skew right, politically.
"At first, some people described us as conservative or libertarian. Early on, I tried to stay away from those words," he said. "But a few years ago, we said, 'OK. Let's bring it down to the language that Idahoans use,' which is, indeed, conservative."
In anticipation of the 2018 Idaho gubernatorial race—already on pace to be the most expensive and hotly contested in recent memory—Hoffman, LaBeau and Washburn offered up several headline-grabbing pieces of news across separate, wide-ranging conversations:
First, even though Idaho is nine months from its May 2018 primary and 15 months from the November 2018 general election, one organization is already poised to make a key endorsement;
Second, all three top GOP gubernatorial candidates—Boise-based developer Tommy Ahlquist, Congressman Raul Labrador and Lt. Gov. Brad Little—have been meeting regularly in private with one of the organizations;
Third, all three organizations agree old-fashioned, door-to-door retail politics, not an onslaught of social or mass media advertising, will decide who the next governor of Idaho will be.
The Race for Idaho Governor is Already on its Second Lap
One of the worst kept political secrets in Idaho is about Boise businessman and Boise School District trustee A.J. Balukoff: He is expected to make another run for governor as a Democrat in 2018, although he scored less than 39 percent of the vote in a challenge to Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter in 2014. The latter cruised to re-election with 54 percent of the vote.
"He's a good guy, but I think we differ on policies in quite a few different areas," said LaBeau. "I don't think a whole lot will change from our perspective when it comes to Mr. Balukoff in 2018, outside of the fact that he's going to be more experienced than he was the last time he went down this road."
LaBeau, like most insiders, is keeping close tabs on the Republican field, which will see Ahlquist, Labrador and Little facing off in primary on Tuesday, May 15, 2018. According to the latest campaign finance disclosures, filed July 31 with the Idaho Secretary of State, the candidates have already begun building formidable war chests for the electoral battle.
Ahlquist reported raising $952,531 between Jan. 1 and June 30—more than one-third of it from his own pocket. Labrador reported $309,046 during the same six-month period and Little raised $229,501.
Those figures may not be what each of the candidates has on hand, however. Ahlquist already spent a lot of money—$615,905, to be exact—on broadcast advertising in the first half of 2017. His campaign bank account at the end of June showed a balance of $156,171, Labrador's was $287,822 and Little's account was at $449,258, much of it from fundraising prior to 2017.
"Mr. Ahlquist is clearly spending more than anybody right now," said Washburn. "He has very deep pockets. And his presence on television is quite robust right now."
Wayne Hoffman: The Candidate Whisperer
The Idaho Freedom Foundation will host what is promised to be the "shindig of the summer for liberty lovers"—its annual Faces of Freedom Banquet, Saturday, Aug. 26, at the Riverside Hotel in Boise ($50 for non-members). There's no official confirmation that Ahlquist, Labrador or Little will be on the guest list, but Ahlquist and Labrador have committed to being sponsors of the event.
Hoffman reiterated that his organization doesn't endorse, but it does have an interest in the outcome.
"Our goal is to have a good relationship with whomever the next governor is, and I should tell you that we have had conversations with each of the candidates," he said. "We see ourselves as an independent arbiter. We work with everybody. We have supplied all of them with information on the state budget."
One meeting with Ahlquist just before he announced his candidacy revealed he and IFF were, for the most part, on the same page.
"Tommy Ahlquist came to our office a month before he announced his run for governor and said, 'Wayne, I love the work that you're doing at the Freedom Foundation,'" said Hoffman. "We talked on a number of occasions."
Several months (and a number of conversations with IFF) later, Ahlquist stunned more than a few pundits when he announced June 13 that, if elected, he would slash $100 million from the Idaho state budget within the first 100 days of his administration. Ahlquist wasn't specific about where most of the cuts would come from, but took aim at the many task forces Otter has employed to tackle big-ticket issues like education, health care and more.
What many Idahoans may not know is Ahlquist's $100 million target was close to the dollar figure the Idaho Freedom Foundation said should be cut from the state spending plan.
"In fact, we did a memo that said you could cut $96 million from the budget and, two days later, Ahlquist came out and said he would cut $100 million," said Hoffman. "He's listening. I appreciate that. I was really proud of him for saying that, and I sent him a text message and said, 'I'm really glad that you came out with that position.'"
Courtney Washburn: Direct Voter Contacts
Washburn said CVI "doesn't have a working relationship" with the Idaho Freedom Foundation.
"We're often at odds with their candidates," she said. "For several years, many of those candidates led the effort to take over public lands and hand them over to the state. I'm glad to say they've been largely unsuccessful, but they are not to be dismissed."
Washburn took the reins of Conservation Voters for Idaho in 2015 after spending nearly a decade lobbying at the Idaho Statehouse for the Idaho Conservation League. She has seen plenty of Idaho candidates—but not many like Ahlquist.
"I think he's fascinating when you look at his track record of development in downtown Boise and then you hear that he's an emergency room physician," said Washburn. "But then we hear from him about slashing $100 million from the state budget. It makes me cringe to think about it, because the usual tendency for cuts comes at the expense of the most vulnerable populations or funds from public service."
CVI has enjoyed significant political victories with both Republican and Democratic candidates receiving its endorsements and political support.
"It's interesting to see what's unfolding across the Idaho. Walk into a coffee shop in Boise and you'll hear young activists on the left side of the political spectrum talking about their plans for change. Pull into a gas station in Challis and you'll hear just as much talk about change, but from the right side of the spectrum."
For all the commercials that are expected to flood Idaho radio and television airwaves, Washburn said the 2018 election cycle will require a considerable amount of in-person campaigning.
"This is complicated work. My favorite meetings are at the kitchen table," she said. "Currently we have seven salaried staff but, because of the political nature of our work, we'll have up to 25 in the election cycle doing direct voter contacts. Maybe more."
Alex LaBeau: Ready to Endorse
Two of the three Republican candidates who want to be the next governor of Idaho have close ties to the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, perhaps the most influential business lobbyist organization in the state.
"Mr. Ahlquist used to sit on our board of directors and Lieutenant Governor Little is a former chair of our organization," said LaBeau, a former lobbyist for the Idaho Association of Realtors who joined IACI as its CEO in 2004 and became the president of the organization in 2006. "And we have known Congressman Labrador very well, working with him on issues with varying levels of success. We're pretty familiar with the candidates."
LaBeau said his organization is so familiar with the candidates, in fact, that it is poised to make what could be a game-changing endorsement.
"Right now, it's about the winnability of the candidate," he said. "I think you can expect to hear an endorsement from our organization sometime after Labor Day. And then we'll make some further decisions on how we might engage in the race."
IACI also has its own political action committee, the Idaho Prosperity Fund, "to take a more active and effective part in government," but LaBeau said significant funds likely won't flow from the PAC into the campaign coffers of its preferred candidate for governor.
"It doesn't do our members any good to have just another place for them to put their money for a candidate. They can contribute on their own and that's fine. They should do that," he said. "It's really about the endorsement and the engagement. That's where we make the most out of the organization."
LaBeau added that, even more than a year before the general election, a good many IACI members have probably already made up their minds about who should be the next governor.
"There's a pretty clear delineation between the candidates. Yes, there are things we agree [on] with all three of them. But it's really about winnability," he said. "We spend a decent amount of time looking at the analysis of who is going to be able to get people to show up and vote."
Much like Washburn, LaBeau is convinced in-person campaigning is key.
"It's about putting more people in the field. We experimented with that in the last election cycle. It takes a lot of skill and it's time-consuming," he said. "But, by and large, it's the most effective way to campaign."
Another factor that might determine the next governor, according to LaBeau, is the current governor.
"For a sitting governor to have [a] more than 60 percent approval rating after 12 years in office is unprecedented," said LaBeau. "I don't think voters will look past that so easily. We track just about everything that's going on in the campaign, but don't count out the 'Otter Effect.'"