While a recent poll shows Gov. Butch Otter well ahead of his chief challenger in the November election, much is predicated on the turnout and support of conservatives who feel jilted by the formerly libertarian chief executive. Otter and his surrogates worked to defeat conservatives and elect moderates from the Legislature on down to the precinct committee level. The blood is so bad, it's open warfare now, despite the traditional GOP "unity" press conference the day after the primary.
Conservatives are talking about withholding support for Otter, believing they'd be better off with Democrat A.J. Balukoff in the governorship.
Here's how that theory goes: Otter hasn't officially endorsed Medicaid expansion, but his administration's public admiration for one expansion plan makes it appear it's coming. Other issues are equally vexing for the conservative/libertarian likely voter. Otter supports Internet sales tax, local option sales tax, higher gas taxes, increased vehicle registration fees and Common Core education standards.
Conservatives are suggesting that the Republican-controlled Legislature would likely go along with Otter's agenda, regardless of what it is because the ideas are coming from a Republican governor. The theory is that the Legislature would balk at Otter's ideas if they're advanced by a Democrat. So, in other words, Gov. Balukoff's Medicaid expansion proposal would be dead on arrival, where the same might not be said of the same coming from Gov. Otter.
If Otter believes he needs to mend fences with conservatives to win, offering some certainty on some substantive policy issues would help. Firmly rejecting Medicaid expansion might be a good place to start. In fact, it is probably the best place to start. Having fully embraced the Obamacare insurance exchange, the idea of implementing another prong of the president's health care law seems a sure fire way of completely erasing the memory of the congressman (Otter) who famously voted against the Patriot Act.
But so far, Otter has not advanced any policy position intended to bridge the gulf between Republican factions, and conservatives feel especially threatened, with Otter's successful appeal to voters to toss Sen. Monty Pearce of New Plymouth, but unsuccessful campaigns to release the likes of Sen. Bob Nonini from Coeur d’Alene.
It's clear from Otter's lackluster primary victory that there's a vulnerability. But that vulnerability extends only as far as his opponents will take it, and so far, Balukoff doesn't appear to be seizing the moment. He is running the same, if predictably unsuccessful, campaign from the Left—Jerry Brady in 2002 and 2006, and Keith Allred in 2010.
Balukoff's support for Obamacare and a minimum wage increase probably won't sell well here. And his decision to not answer the National Rifle Association's candidate survey was a tactical error that only serves to raise more questions in the minds of voters, who think such things important and would toy with defecting to the Otter camp.
Still, some voters might be miffed enough with Otter to let those positions pass, especially if Balukoff postures himself the way Walt Minnick did to beat my old boss, Bill Sali, in 2008, or with the tone and styling of Cecil Andrus. A strong, conservative tax policy play from Balukoff, perhaps opposing high property taxes or offering a fix to the state's last-place-in-the-region business tax climate would draw needed attention from the Right.
That is, unless Otter says these words: "I oppose Medicaid expansion." If that happens, he might just bring part of his old base along just long enough to vote for him one last time. If not, the prospect of a conservative defection will haunt Otter clear through Election Day.