Idaho Politics, Reapportionment

A Short History of Reapportionment

“The past is never dead,” the great novelist William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun. “It’s not even past.” 

In the spirit of Faulkner the Idaho Legislature often seems to be the political equivalent of the Bill Murray’s character in the movie “Groundhog Day,” constantly reliving its flawed past, recycling old notions and re-igniting controversies once consigned to the political ash heap.

The legislature may have dodged a bullet pointed at its own foot this week when apparently cooler heads prevailed and Republican leaders pulled back, at least temporarily, from forcing a vote on a revamping of the state’s approach to reapportionment. The task of redrawing legislative and congressional district boundaries needs to be done after every census. Done the old way, with intense partisan log rolling and insider deals, reapportionment is about the most political act imaginable. 

The Idaho House of Representatives

On the face of it, the recent reapportionment proposal, pushed by Representative Steven Harris, a Meridian Republican, is a blatant attempt to put the partisan back in redistricting. Harris hasn’t been around long enough to know – he’s in his third term – and like most replacement level Idaho legislators he clearly doesn’t remember what a mess reapportionment was when it was a blatant cutthroat partisan contest, a self-interested slugfest that ultimately reflected poorly on both political parties. 

Harris’s proposal, pulled back from a vote in the House early in the week, but still alive and thrashing about would have added a seventh vote to the existing constitutionally mandated citizen’s commission that is designed to force compromise and prevent either party from automatically having the upper hand when it comes to legislators picking their voters instead of the other way around. Voters overwhelmingly approved a change to the state constitution in 1994 to, as much as possible, take partisan politics out of redrawing legislative district lines. As things now stand the citizen’s commission is evenly divided between Republican and Democratic appointees. It’s a setup requiring accommodation and mandate fair dealing. 

Under Harris’s proposal the new member would be selected by a vote of the state’s top elected officials – at the moment all Republicans, of course. That seventh member, beholden to elected Republicans, would automatically become the commission’s decider, the partisan legislative line drawing czar. Such power no person should want or have. 

The scheme would be, as the Idaho Falls Post Registerpointed out in an editorial, a license to gerrymander and to what end, carving up Ada County to thwart recent Democratic gains there? Prevent growing Boise districts from encroaching on traditionally Republican Canyon County? Punish Democrats for having the audacity to hold a whopping 21 of the 105 seats in the state legislature? 

A bit of history is informative. In 1982 a lanky, laconic, litigious lawyer from Coeur d’ Alene by the name of Ray Givens tied the Idaho Legislature in knots with his legal challenges to Republican inspired reapportionment plans. Three different Givens-inspired cases went to the state Supreme Court challenging plans the legislature crafted. Givens won, at least in part because partisan lawmakers put their own interests before the interests of their voters. Givens was awarded substantial legal fees, which for a time the legislature refused to pay, so the crafty litigator slapped a lien on the furniture in legislative hearing rooms. It was a first class mess, but none of the current legislative crowd was around to remember the turmoil. 

More trouble followed in the early 1990s when again partisanship trumped the basic democratic necessity of drawing fair and just boundaries. I’ve long thought that legislative Democrats that year put parochial, and often petty concerns about protecting a handful of incumbents ahead of attempting to create a number of new, genuinely competitive districts. It was, I am convinced, a turning point for Democratic fortunes in the legislature. 

By 1994 legislators and voters had enough of the partisan games and endless lawsuits and largely took lawmakers out of the line drawing business. The current system is far from perfect and it could be reasonably and responsibly tweaked, but the adjustments require a fine tool, not the partisan sledgehammer Harris, House Speaker Scott Bedke and no doubt most GOP lawmakers came to Boise to pass this year. 

Some Republicans have complained that redrawing legislative and congressional district boundaries should be left to lawmakers who, as former GOP Representative Tom Loertscher said in 2018, “know our districts better than anyone else.” Exactly. And that’s the problem. 

Legislators know enough to add a precinct to their districts that would be helpful in the next election or shed one that might be problematic. They know enough to carve up an opponent’s district or to draw boundaries to punish a foe. It’s not unheard of to intentionally put two incumbents in the same district, particularly if those incumbents are in a party opposite yours. 

Only two things are really necessary for Idaho’s citizen-based reapportionment system to work properly. The first is to have the Republicans and Democrats who appoint the members of the commission select people who will genuinely act in good faith, without a partisan agenda. At a time when political cynicism oozes out of every voter, when elected officials have about as much credibility as aluminum siding salesmen, treating the business of reapportionment as a task above petty partisanship could not be more important. 

Appoint good, honest, fair-minded people to do the job and let them draw lines that respect voters more than protect politicians. 

The second requirement is for Idaho legislators to go find some other long dead bad idea and waste their time on that. Reapportionment isn’t broken, but only legislators can break it. 

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GOP, Idaho Politics, Russia, Trump

Moral Rot…

My weekly column from the Lewiston Tribune 

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In the wake of the latest revelations about the president of the United States the extent of the intellectual and moral rot of the modern Republican Party has – again – come into sharp focus. A party that once built a brand around “family values” has decided that Donald Trump’s involvement in a scheme that paid off a porn star and a Playboy model to hide affairs shouldn’t be treated as criminal.  

The National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, no squishy liberal, says the party – leadership and followers – is guilty of “outsourcing our moral, our political judgment to legalisms.” 

The new GOP brand: moral relativism. 

Senator John Thune

South Dakota Senator John Thune, the third ranking Republican in the Senate, dismisses Trump’s involvement in felony campaign finance violations, crimes that Trump’s one-time lawyer Michael Cohen will serve jail time for, as essentially a paperwork mistake. “These guys were all new to this at the time,” the senator says and besides what’s a little hush money to quiet a scandal during a presidential campaign. “Most of us have made mistakes when it comes to campaign finance issues,” Thune says. 

Or this from Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, a pillar of propriety on everything but presidential misconduct: “President Trump before he became president that’s another world. Since he’s become president, this economy has charged ahead … And I think we ought to judge him on that basis other than trying to drum up things from the past that may or may not be true.”

You can search high and low for any Republican concern that Rex Tillerson, the former Secretary of State and CEO of Exxon, said recently, “So often the president would say, ‘Here’s what I want to do, and here’s how I want to do it’ and I would have to say to him, ‘Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law.’”

Few Republicans have bought more heavily into the party’s moral and intellectual rot than the Idaho delegation. After a brief flurry of indignation when Trump was caught on videotape bragging about assaulting women the get-along-go-along Idahoans have been pretty much lock step with Trump and they generally decline to say anything even remotely critical regarding his behavior.

Senator Jim Risch is the worst offender. 

Idaho Senator Jim Risch 

Risch, soon to be carrying Trump’s water as the high profile chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, couldn’t even bring himself to condemn the administration’s handling of the brutal murder of a Saudi national who was also a columnist for the Washington Post. The CIA has concluded that the Saudi crown prince ordered the murder, a position Trump refuses to accept presumably because it would cause him to have to do something that might upset oil prices or more likely his own business interests. 

In an interview with the editorial board of the Idaho Falls Post Register last week, Risch said that he had reached a conclusion about who was responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but that he couldn’t discuss it without revealing classified information. That is simply an absurd statement. Other senators in both parties have laid the responsibility directly at feet of Mohammed bin Salman, but as the Post Registernoted “on all questions having to do with bin Salman’s direct responsibility, [Risch] deflected,” obviously in deference to Trump.

Meanwhile, as the New York Times has reported, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has been counseling his Saudi pal, the crown prince, “about how to weather the storm, urging him to resolve his conflicts around the region and avoid further embarrassments.” Or as one wag put it “the president’s son-in-law is giving the Saudi prince some tips on how to get away with murder.”

Trump deference – or better yet servile submissiveness – is a pattern with Risch. In the face of much evidence that North Korea’s dictator snookered Trump during talks in Singapore in June Risch has helped maintain the fiction that Trump knows what he is doing. Risch has backed administration policy in Yemen where the Saudi’s, with U.S. help, have bombed the country back to the Stone Age. By some estimates 85,000 children may have already died in Yemen, with as many as 12 million more people on the brink of starvation.

Risch, with a seat on the Intelligence Committee, has been almost completely silent on Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign, speaking only to dismiss its importance. “Hacking is ubiquitous,” Risch said in 2017 before adding, “Russia is not, in my judgment, the most aggressive actor in this business.”

We now know that at least 14 individuals with direct or close ties to Russia, from the Russian ambassador to the lawyer who set up the infamous Trump Tower meeting during the campaign, made contact with Trump’s closest advisors, his family and friends over an 18-month period and during the campaign. We also know, while Trump’s story continues to shift, that special counsel Robert Mueller has indicted a busload of Russian agents and gained convictions of Trump’s campaign chairman, former national security advisor and many others. The investigation goes on, more indictments loom and Risch seems to care not at all. 

When the senator made his Faustian bargain to support Trump after the notorious “Access Hollywood” tape emerged he said he had no choice but to support the con man his party had embraced. “Without any options other than to abandon America to the left or vote for the Republican nominee, as distasteful as that may be, I will not abandon my country,” Risch said. In reality, by ignoring and excusing the inexcusable, he has put party loyalty above both his country and our Constitution. 

Paul Waldman in the Washington Post put a fine point on this kind of moral rot when he wrote recently of Trump, “Once he’s no longer president — perhaps in 2021, or perhaps even sooner — everyone who worked for him, supported him, or stood by him is going to be in an extremely uncomfortable position.” 

Foreign Policy, Idaho Politics

The Myth of the Saudi Special Relationship

My weekly column in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune 

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On June 9, 1979 Molly Ivins, the brilliant and still widely mourned reporter – she had a rare knack for simultaneously turning a phrase and twisting a knife with her journalism – had an Idaho datelined story in the New York Times.

“Confrontation over Mideast Policies Apparently Taking Shape in Idaho ’80 Race for Senate,” was the headline over Ivins’ story where she explored the fallout from a speech then-Senator Frank Church had given that was deemed to be highly critical of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Church, then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, actually had criticized both the Carter Administration and the Saudis in his widely reported speech. Both were guilty, Church said, of undercutting efforts for a comprehensive Mideast peace. The U.S. was “pinning our policy to false assumptions,” Church said, much as the U.S. had placed a losing bet on the “a rotting regime” in Iran when for decades presidents of both parties made apologies for the Shah.

Jimmy Carter with Idaho Senator Frank Church

Church, predictably, was accused of undermining a vital strategic relationship when he criticized the Saudi regime, which was then as now, an often violent and repressive dictatorship. But the Idahoan did it anyway, taking on both a president of his own party and Idaho economic interests. The Boise-based construction firm Morrison-Knudsen had a huge contract in 1979 to build a new city in Saudi Arabia and Church’s eventual 1980 opponent, Steve Symms, was calling for accommodation with the region’s dictators in the interest of selling both American weapons and Idaho wheat.

Some things never change.

Amid the broad international condemnation of the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a gruesome, barbarous hit almost certainly ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – MBS to his “friends” – the current president can only focus on what Time magazine calls a “cold financial calculation: Saudi money for U.S.-made weaponry” that results in American jobs. Or as Donald Trump put it recently, “I don’t like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States.”

Murdered journalist – and U.S. resident – Jamal Khashoggi

It is a brutal and cynical calculation and, like so many other “myths” which have long been the foundation of American foreign policy, it will be self-defeating. Frank Church knew that 40 years ago, Trump and his congressional enablers never will.

The Saudi-U.S. relationship is a veritable case study of how money, influence and delusion come together in Washington, D.C. The Washington Post recently outlined how the “sophisticated Saudi influence machine” has lavished millions on lobbyists, consultants, law firms and think tanks in order to prop up the myth that the Saudi dictatorship is a vital U.S. ally. The kingdom spent more than $27 million on such influence buying last year.

Robert Kagan, a veteran of the George W. Bush State Department and now a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, has argued that America has long harbored a fantasy about “reforming” dictators like MBS. Fanciful as it now seems, some Americans once thought Mussolini or the Shah of Iran would “reform” and we placed naïve bets on such fiction.

“Today, the Saudi crown prince’s U.S. supporters are asking how he could have been so foolish if he, as it appears, ordered the murder of Khashoggi,” Kagan wrote recently. “But who are the fools here? Dictators do what dictators do. We are the ones living in a self-serving fantasy of our own devising, and one that may ultimately come back to bite us.”

Which brings us to the Idaho politician currently in a position to influence U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia. You might be excused for forgetting that Senator Jim Risch, the Idaho Republican, has such power. But the man who will almost certainly be the next chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee hasn’t, near as I can tell, spoken a syllable about the Saudis. No statement of concern or condemnation over the Khashoggi murder. No thought or threat about sanctions. Risch, who never tired of slamming one aspect or another of Barack Obama’s foreign policy, is now a sphinx as a feckless president makes excuses for the inexcusable.

Jim Risch, the Idaho Republican, will soon chair the Foreign Relations Committee

Some argue, and perhaps Risch believes this too, that American interests are served well enough by the Saudi regime’s effort to create “stability” in the Middle East, while using our weapons and help to churn up more chaos in Syria, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere.

The real Saudi objective and the overriding objective of every despot – this has been the case since Franklin Roosevelt’s historic tete-a-tete with King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud in 1945 – is the preservation of the wealth and power of the ruling monarchy.

When Frank Church called out the Saudis in 1979 he was at the height of his influence and he used his platform to try to redirect U.S. policy. As his biographers LeRoy Ashby and Rod Gramer have noted Church “thought it was time for somebody with some stature in American politics to speak plainly to the Saudis.”

It’s well past time for that to happen again. If only there were a courageous Idahoan in a position of authority in the Senate. But guts and the perspective to take on a woefully ignorant president and a Washington influence machine in the service of a corrupt foreign government is not something you’ll find in Jim Risch.

Idaho Politics

Will Brad Little Make a New Beginning..

My weekly column from the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune

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Idaho’s Governor-Elect Brad Little has some big decisions to make. In the next few weeks he’ll need to put his stamp on a state budget that will spell out how he proposes to implement the Medicaid expansion initiative supported overwhelmingly by the state’s voters last week.

Presumably he’ll want to, at least at the margins, differentiate his proposals for education funding from those of his long-time boss retiring Governor Butch Otter. Maybe he’ll propose a grocery tax repeal and a way to pay for it. Additionally a major challenge for the governor-elect is the perception, and remember perception is reality in politics, that he is simply gearing up to preside over Otter’s fourth term.

Idaho Gov-elect Brad Little

There is a way to immediately change that perception and it involves how Little will stock the leadership ranks of state agencies. The new governor has two choices: he can tinker at the margins or he can clean house. He should clean house. Not doing so would be a big mistake for one simple reason.

Every governor, whether one that is succeeding a member of his party as Little will be, or taking over from the other party, has one clear moment when he (or we can hope someday soon she) can place a dramatic imprint on state agencies. This is such a moment for Little, a guy who has long prided himself on being a student of government, a kind of cowboy boot wearing policy wonk steeped in the details of governing in a way that Otter never was.

Idaho has, all things considered, a relatively weak governor model. The governor doesn’t directly appoint some of the most important state agency heads. A governor can have influence, but has no direct appointment authority over the Departments of Transportation, Corrections, Fish and Game, Lands or Parks and Recreation. Nevertheless what he can control is very important: the state Commerce Department, Health and Welfare, the departments of Administration, Labor, Insurance and Finance, the state personnel chief and the critical job of state budget director.

One can only imagine that Little, still basking in his decisive win on election day, has discovered just how many new best friends he now has. Half the GOP members of the legislature – a conservative estimate – lust after an appointment to a state job, even if the outrageous perk of receiving a big jump in state retirement benefits may soon go away. For many legislators snagging the good salary and benefits that go with being an agency director has to look pretty good.

Many of the current occupants of these state jobs – all appointed by Otter – will be working overtime to hang on to their positions. The natural tendency for most new governors would be to take the path of least resistance and keep a bunch of the Otter crowd. They’re loyal Republicans, after all, and many contributed to Little’s campaign. They’ll pledge their fidelity and most will want Little to succeed. But Little can’t – or won’t – shape a new version, his vision, without new people, his people, in key positions.

My old boss, Cecil D. Andrus, lived this lesson in 1986 when he was preparing to succeed fellow Democrat John V. Evans in the governor’s office. Evans, a good man and still an underrated governor, had assembled a good team and many of them wanted to stay on into a new Democratic administration. Andrus knew better. He imposed a rule during his campaign that he would accept no contributions from staffers in the Evans Administration. He wanted no implied understanding that someone from the outgoing regime might curry favor with the new crowd, while hoping for a job. Andrus angered more than a few people, fellow Democrats mostly, when he made it clear that he was cleaning house. With only a couple of exceptions he brought in an entirely new cast of state government leaders, people loyal to him, people sharing his vision, people understanding his priorities, people who knew he was the boss.

Little’s immediate staff – a chief of staff, a press secretary, counselors on key issues – will constitute a critical part of his team. He should pick them wisely from among people he knows, trusts and is confident will serve him – and Idaho citizens – with diligence, energy and, as Franklin Roosevelt famously insisted, a “passion for anonymity.”

Beyond his immediate staff, Little would be well advised to put his own person in charge of economic development at the Commerce Department. He should install a seasoned administrator at the Department of Administration, an incredibly important agency that handles everything from computers to risk management, and a place where more than one governor has been tripped up. Most of society’s problems land daily on the desk of the director of the Department of Health and Welfare and the director there best be a person the new governor can both trust and personally hold accountable.

It’s no knock on the Otter crowd that a new governor should want and is entitled to his own team. There are lots of names on doors in state government, but only one name on the ballot. Governor Little will send a signal about how he’ll run state government by the personnel decisions he makes between now and Christmas. If he’s smart he’ll make a clean sweep. He’ll start fresh and from day one be in a position to hold his own people accountable. He’ll never have a second chance for a new beginning. He’ll never have a second chance to have his own first term rather than Butch Otter’s fourth term.

BTW: Here is a link to Little’s transition website.

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2018 Election, Idaho Politics

Of Discord, Simpson and GOP Sweeps

My weekly column from the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune…

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A few takeaways from the midterms.

The State of the Union – Divided: The red gets redder and the blue gets bluer. The story of the 2018 midterms will be that the deep political divisions in the dysfunctional American family are destined to only get deeper. Rural America – and rural Idaho – will continue to embrace a remarkably divisive president who articulated a blatant election appeal based on racial and class division that would have made George Wallace blush.

The Economist illustrates the great divide

There is something for every partisan to celebrate in the results. Democrats won control of the House of Representatives and repaired some of the party’s recent damage in the Midwest. Democratic control of the House will return some level of balance, if not bipartisanship to national politics.

Republicans can celebrate the pick up of several Senate seats and as a result Senate Republicans will be even less inclined, which is saying something, to police administration actions. Given the abject lack of Senate oversight of Trump’s foreign policy – Idaho’s Jim Risch will now likely become an even more shameless Trump apologist as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee – look for the president’s incoherent approach to the world to become more erratic, less predictable and more dangerous.

The Women’s March in New York City, January 20, 2018. They weren’t marching for Donald Trump

Bottom line: Trump has further consolidated his control over a Republican Party that now completely owns his ballooning deficits, serial lying, a fear and loathing message of racial division, disdain for the most basic level of ethics and in the pre-election period a politicization of the American military to deal with the phony issue of “a caravan.” Nationally the party has shredded any appeal to suburban women, younger voters and those with a college education. Republican voters actually re-elected two members of the House who are under indictment and in Nevada a dead man who owned a brothel – he was regularly referred to as “a pimp” – won a legislative seat. This is not the party of Ronald Reagan.

Meanwhile, national Democrats have room to grow a diverse coalition but lack a natural leader, which may be the best news of all from the election for Donald J. Trump.

Idaho’s most effective legislator Mike Simpson now in the minority

Simpson’s New World: Second District Congressman Mike Simpson is adjusting to a new reality. Simpson, the most accomplished Idaho federal lawmaker since the late Senator Jim McClure, is a legislator of uncommon common sense. Now he will have to learn new tricks as an appropriator in the minority. Had Republicans held on to the House of Representatives Simpson had an outside shot at chairing the immensely important House Appropriations Committee. At least Simpson would have remained chairman of an important subcommittee. Now, the man who brings home the bacon of the Idaho National Lab and regularly attends to home state issues will need to apply all his skill as a bipartisan dealmaker to continue to wield influence in a Democratic House. Simpson will, on the surface at least, have a better relationship with new First District Congressman Russ Fulcher than he ever had with Raul Labrador. While Fulcher will join a House were his natural allies – Labrador’s old “Freedom Caucus” – will be severely neutered and where he will labor in the least attractive position in politics: a rookie in the minority.

Idaho Republicans Sweep – Again: Governor-elect Brad Little ran a textbook Idaho GOP campaign and crushed Paulette Jordan, his badly overmatched Democratic opponent. Jordan, with little to show for her vacuous, personality driven campaign other than a scrapbook of national news clippings, did nothing to change the trajectory of Idaho’s beleaguered Democratic Party. In fact, Jordan may have retarded the progress of rebuilding a credible minority by blowing what might have been a historic opportunity. Republicans have held the governor’s office for 24 years and, as prolonged, uncontested power inevitably does, they have accumulated a litany of scandals minor and otherwise. Little was effectively running for Butch Otter’s fourth term – never an advantageous political position – and in a year when women candidates nationally made major strides. But Jordan never put together a real campaign, never had a compelling message and never succeeded in turning the lanky rancher’s white Stetson black.

Paulette Jordan’s anemic 38% did no favors for Idaho’s endangered Democratic Party

Jordan’s anemic showing did no favors for the one statewide Democrat, superintendent of public instruction candidate Cindy Wilson, who seemed to have a path to victory and even in defeat ran well ahead of the top of the Democratic ticket. Rural red Idaho did Wilson in, however, while old-time Democrats, now mostly gone and forgotten, in places like Nez Perce and Shoshone Counties are spinning in their graves.

The scope of Little’s win – and Jordan’s loss – is illustrated by one telling election statistic. Jordan spent more than a million dollars to collect 38% of the vote, barely three percent more than the Democrat who put his name on the ballot for attorney general, never campaigned and didn’t raise a cent.

A tiny, but not insignificant glimmer of hope for Idaho’s Democrats was a pick up of a handful of legislative seats, a growing lock on the state’s largest county – Democrats won two county commission seats in Ada County for the first time since 1976 – and the example of the ballot proposition that expanded Medicaid coverage to some of the most vulnerable Idahoans. That well-funded, well-organized, well-messaged campaign was both historic and provides a template for a future statewide Democrat. If any Idaho Democrat ever wins again it will happen because that candidate has a compelling message that reaches voters where they live and builds a new organization at the grassroots that brings new participants, particularly millennial and Latino voters, into the political process.

If the national GOP’s deep problem with suburban women has any, even minor, corollary in Idaho, it is in the Great State of Ada. A young and appealing generation of women office holders now populates the Boise city council and the county commission. The party has to start rebuilding someplace and Ada County is as good as it gets for Idaho Democrats.

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2018 Election, Idaho Politics

Little Sunshine in This Race…

My latest column for the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune on Idaho politics…

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It is now clear that the campaign of Idaho Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paulette Jordan purposefully worked to establish a “shell” company in Wyoming, channel at least $20,000 through that company and kept the connections, including who has actually benefited from the campaign’s largess, secret. The convoluted effort was undertaken, the Jordan campaign acknowledges, in order to disguise the ultimate recipients of the campaign’s money. The campaign says the money went to anti-Brad Little Republican operatives who have to remain anonymous to avoid getting crossways with “their Republican patrons.”

Idaho Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paulette Jordan

Unpacking this subterfuge and the Jordan campaign’s shifting explanation of these shenanigans leads to a couple of obvious questions.

One question: If Jordan has been truly seeking Republican support in her underdog campaign against the GOP Lt. Governor, support she needs to win, why not do the hard work of forming a genuine “Republicans for Paulette” group? For a long time Democrats, particularly former Governor Cecil Andrus, made such efforts a lynch pin of their campaigns. I remember then-Republican Senator Steve Symms walking into my office in the Idaho Statehouse years ago and looking at a framed copy on the wall of a full-page ad featuring prominent Republicans that Andrus’s campaign had utilized during the hard fought 1986 campaign. The ad featured photos of Washington U.S. Senator Dan Evans and Idaho business titan Harry Magnuson, among others. Symms simply said, “That ad elected him.”

Washington’s Dan Evans was a sitting Republican U.S. Senator when he endorsed an Idaho Democrat, Cecil Andrus. in 1986.

Rather than such a transparent, and I would argue effective, tactic, Jordan’s campaign embraced s shadowy scheme to allegedly employ disenchanted GOP operatives to dish dirt on her opponent.

A second question: Is Idaho’s campaign finance disclosure law really so toothless that it permits a campaign to set up what in essence is a secret company (out of state), route money through that company and keep the ultimate recipients of the cash secret? We don’t really know for sure what the company – Roughneck Steering, Inc. – did for the campaign. We don’t know who did whatever was done and we can’t contact the firm because it’s really only a mail drop in Sheridan, Wyoming with a “registered agent” who won’t return a phone call.

When I inquired a couple of weeks ago the Jordan campaign told me that Roughneck’s agents (whomever they are) had made “polling calls” approximately “8,270 calls (in August), in September the calls were made to 9,023 Idahoans.”

But the story shifted when Jordan’s campaign manager Nate Kelly later spoke to reporter Betsy Russell of the Idaho Press. “They ended up doing a bunch of not polling, but push-polling,” Kelly said.

For those not versed in the terminology of sleazy campaign practices, a “push poll” is designed to persuade, or more often misinform, voters under the guise of being a legitimate public opinion survey. Typically a heap of entirely negative material is shared with the person getting a call in hopes of planting the notion that a certain candidate is a scoundrel. The practice is held in such low regard that it violates the code of ethics of most real pollsters.

Kelly also told Russell that Jordan’s previous campaign manager, Michael Rosenow, who resigned in September apparently to protest the campaign’s involvement with a federal political action committee, established the Wyoming shell company. Of course we can’t ask Rosenow about that because he signed a non-disclosure agreement with Jordan’s campaign.

If, as the Jordan campaign says, there are “anti-Little” forces determined to damage Little’s candidacy that would be some news and would certainly underscore the deep fault lines – or perhaps just bitter animosity – that continues to exist in the Idaho GOP after Little won a tough primary in May. Of course, because the Jordan campaign won’t tell us we can’t even be sure there are mysterious GOP operatives hoping to sabotage their party’s nominee. My own checking turned up suspects, but no evidence.

Kelly rejects any suggestion that the Jordan campaign has engaged in subterfuge in order to obscure the final dispensation of campaign funds. He called Roughneck “a contracting firm” that merely processed payments to individuals who had done the actual work for the campaign. He contends such arrangements are typical in the corporate world. Kelly, a California attorney, is also the owner of another Wyoming company that has received several payments from the Jordan campaign.

Despite his role in shielding the names of those really behind Roughneck Steering, Kelly recently told the Associated Press that Jordan’s campaign was all “about transparency.” And he added, “We want to be an open book and not be distracted. Everything is on the up and up.” That statement is Donald Trump-like in its credulity.

The effort by the Jordan campaign to obscure where campaign money has been spent adds to a litany of questions – non-disclosure agreements, two major campaign shakeups, the circumstances surrounding the federal PAC – that bear directly on the candidate’s transparency, not to mention credibility. The effort to conceal the final destination of campaign payments may also violate Idaho’s campaign finance disclosure law.

Deputy Idaho Secretary of State Tim Hurst points out that the purpose of Idaho’s voter approved campaign disclosure law is pretty simple and the intent is not to hide information from voters about how money is raised or spent by candidates. Hurst referenced the stated purpose of the law: “To promote openness in government and avoiding secrecy by those giving financial support to state election campaigns and those promoting or opposing legislation or attempting to influence executive or administrative actions for compensation at the state level.”

Another section of the Idaho law says: “No contribution shall be made and no expenditure shall be incurred, directly or indirectly, in a fictitious name, anonymously, or by one (1) person through an agent, relative or other person in such a manner as to conceal the identity of the source of the contribution.”

If the state of Idaho can’t enforce the law in the face of the Jordan campaign’s obvious efforts to skirt real disclosure then the state’s “sunshine law” isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

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Andrus, Idaho, Idaho Politics, Nuclear Waste

Andrus Acted, DOE Blinked

My weekly column in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune

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Thirty years ago this month then-Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus willfully and with malice aforethought sparked one of the most consequential confrontations of the nuclear age. The Idaho governor, a rangy, bald-headed one-time lumberjack from Orofino, took on the federal government in a way few, if any, Idaho politicians ever had before, or has since.

Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus at about the time he told DOE to take their waste and…

I have many vivid memories of working for Andrus those long years ago, but no memory remains more evocative than when the governor of Idaho called the bluff of the Department of Energy over nuclear waste. We are still feeling the ripples of that encounter and Idaho, thanks to dozens of subsequent actions, including a landmark agreement negotiated by Andrus’s successor Phil Batt, has gotten rid of a good part of its nuclear waste stockpile. If current state leaders are half as smart as Andrus and Batt they will fight to retain the leverage Idaho has to get rid of the rest.

On a crisp fall day in 1988 Andrus and I flew to Carlsbad, New Mexico, a town in the southeastern corner of the state at the time better known for its caverns than for its starring role in a governmental showdown. Carlsbad was once the potash capitol of the country and had long been a place where extracting value from the earth dominated the economy. When potash ceased to be an economic driver for the region the powers to be in Eddy County went looking for a future. They found some level of economic salvation in nuclear waste. Andrus was there to help realize their expectations and in the process help Idaho.

Years earlier, as Secretary of the Interior, Andrus had become a Carlsbad favorite for his attention to local issues – Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the domain of the Interior Department is nearby – and because of the respect he enjoyed the locals made him an honorary member of the Eddy County Sheriff’s Posse. As a member of the august group Andrus was able to sport the outfit’s signature Stetson, a big hat hard to miss in a crowd. The Stetson was a scintillating shade of turquoise.

Entrance to the WIPP site near Carlsbad, New Mexico

Wearing his colorful headgear, Andrus arrived in Carlsbad thirty years ago to “tour” the then-unfinished Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a massive cavern carved out of the deep salt formations under southeastern New Mexico. Years earlier the Department of Energy (DOE), then as now the single most incompetent bureaucracy in the federal government, had determined that the salt formations would be the ideal place to permanently dispose of certain types of extremely long-lived radioactive waste. Encased thousands of feet below ground in salt that had existed for hundreds if not millions of years and never touched by water, the waste would be safe. The science was sound even if DOE’s execution of a plan to prepare the facility for waste was deeply flawed.

Andrus’s WIPP inspection left him convinced that the only way to move DOE’s bureaucracy was to manufacture a crisis. His motive, of course, was to shine a light on DOE management failures, but also advancing the day when nuclear waste that had been sitting in Idaho for years would be permanently removed to New Mexico. He returned to Idaho and closed the state’s borders to any more waste, declaring, “I’m not in the garbage business any more.”

I remember asking Andrus if he really had the legal authority to take an action that seemed sure to end up in court. He smiled and said, “ I may not have the legal authority, but I have the moral authority. Let them try to stop me.”

The audacious action had precisely the effect Idaho’s governor intended. The nation’s decades of failures managing its massive stockpile of nuclear waste became, at least for a while, a national issue. The New York Times printed a photo of an Idaho state trooper standing guard over a rail car of waste on a siding near Blackfoot. DOE blinked and eventually took that shipment back to Colorado.

Near Blackfoot an Idaho State Police officer guards a train car carrying nuclear waste. DOE ultimately returned the waste shipment to Colorado.

A now retired senior DOE official recently told me Andrus’s action was the catalyst to get the New Mexico facility operational. His gutsy leadership also highlighted the political reality that Idaho’s rebellion against the feds might easily spread. Subsequent litigation, various agreements and better DOE focus, at least temporarily, lead to the opening of the WIPP site in 1999 and some of the waste stored in Idaho began moving south.

With the perfect hindsight of thirty years it is also clear that Idaho’s willingness to take on the federal government did not, as many of the state’s Republicans claimed at the time, hurt the Idaho National Laboratory. Republican Governor Phil Batt’s 1995 agreement, which Andrus zealously defended up until his death last year, continues to provide Idaho with the best roadmap any state has for cleaning up and properly disposing of waste. Idaho would be foolish to squander any of the leverage it has thanks to the work Andrus and Batt did to hold the federal government accountable.

The president and his Energy Secretary

But, of course, some Idahoans continue to talk about waste accommodation with DOE, even as deadlines for more removal and clean up are missed and the DOE behemoth stumbles forward. A former Texas governor who once advocated eliminating the agency now heads DOE. As Michael Lewis demonstrates in his scary new book The Fifth Risk, DOE Secretary Rick Perry is little more than a figurehead acting out a role that is both “ceremonial and bizarre.” According to Lewis’s telling, Perry didn’t even bother to ask for a briefing on any DOE program when he arrived.

Meanwhile Perry’s boss recently announced in Nevada, a state where waste is about as popular as a busted flush, that he’s opposed to eventually opening the Yucca Mountain site as a permanent repository for very high-level nuclear waste. Donald Trump made that statement even as his own budget contains millions of our dollars to work on opening the very facility.

Federal government incoherence obviously continues. Cece Andrus confronted it thirty years ago. He was right then and we can still learn from his leadership.

 

Campaign Finance, Idaho Politics

A Black Box of Questions…

My Lewiston Tribune column of October 19, 2018 

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Paulette Jordan, the Democratic candidate for governor of Idaho, has created in a way rarely seen in the state’s recent political history a small donor fundraising juggernaut. Jordan has tapped into thousands of small donors in Idaho and across the country. From Clinton, New York to Longview, Washington from Aiken, South Carolina to Denver, Colorado people have been sending her money and in the process she has raised more than $1 million, a respectable figure for an underdog Democrat in Idaho.

Idaho Democratic candidate Paulette Jordan

A substantial percentage of Jordan’s fundraising haul has come from small, individual contributions, some as small as $5 and many less than $100. And many donors have given to her campaign multiple times. It is the kind of broad based fundraising that candidates dream about. Jordan’s contribution profile differs dramatically from her opponent, Lt. Governor Brad Little, who has mostly relied on the standard sources of GOP campaign cash – industry PACs, businesses, lobbyists and well-heeled supporters from across the state. As a result Little has outraised the Democrat by a lot and in the home stretch has held on to more cash for a final push.

Yet there is a confounding mystery at the heart of Jordan’s campaign: little of her cash seems to have made its way into what you might call a real campaign – direct mail, billboards, TV, radio, newspapers and social media. Rather hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on out of state consultants and, as the Idaho Statesman’s Cynthia Sewell documented recently, on food, travel and lodging – much of it out of state – by the candidate.

Jordan’s pre-election campaign finance disclosure report is simply one of the most unusual, which is to say unprecedented, documents of its type since Idaho voters mandated campaign finance disclosure 1974. To say the least the report raises more questions than it answers, while the campaign refuses to provide answers to basic questions about how and why it has spent its money. Consider a just few questionable details from Jordan’s October 10 report:

The campaign has paid at least four out-of-state companies in Wyoming, Vermont and Minnesota nearly $50,000 for what it says are various consulting services. Yet the companies appear to be “shells” with no actual place of business only a mailing address and a contact listed as a “registered agent.” One company is identified by the campaign as a Limited Liability Company with a post office box in Peru, Vermont, but the Vermont Secretary of State has no record of the company existing. Another company that has received payments from Jordan’s campaign lists its address as an apartment in Minneapolis.

One company with a Cheyenne, Wyoming address, lists Jordan’s campaign manager, Nathanial Kelly, as its president, secretary, treasurer and only director. Kelly is the same guy who recently tried to explain away why the campaign required its staffers to sign non-disclosure agreements. Kelly’s Wyoming firm only became active in August just about the time Kelly has said he was helping the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, with Jordan’s encouragement, to establish a federal super PAC.

A second Wyoming firm that received two $10,000 payments from Jordan since August is registered at the same Sheridan, Wyoming address as the federal PAC. This firm has not filed more complete information, including the names of incorporators, with the state of Wyoming because it isn’t required to do so until a year after it is formally registered. Meanwhile, the campaign insists that none of its resources have gone to helping establish the federal PAC, which Jordan has refused to discuss beyond criticizing the reporting that disclosed its existence.

The Jordan campaign has employed two different digital fundraising firms both located in Washington, D.C. and paid them more than $110,000. One firm started work after Jordan won the May primary. The campaign also reports payments to two separate campaign reporting and compliance firms with one firm joining post-primary. The campaign, which has had two high profile staff shake ups since May declined to provide information on how many different employees it has paid – it appears upwards of a dozen – has also utilized two different payroll services firms, but has also paid staff directly. (The campaign refused my request to provide information on who has been paid and how.) These set ups beg the question: why are two firms doing what appears essentially to be the same job.

The campaign also reported a $1,000 “contribution” to a California entity that lists the same Novato, California address as one of the reporting and compliance firms. When I asked who received the contribution I was told the money went to “an elected official who is consulting for the campaign as well.” A spokeswoman at the Idaho Secretary of State’s office says failure to disclose the recipient of a contribution from an Idaho campaign committee is a violation of Idaho law. That obviously is a problem for Jordan’s campaign, but her small dollar donors might also be justified in asking why would an Idaho campaign scraping for every dollar make any contribution to a candidate in California?

Campaigns, we all know, cost money. Personnel, technology, advertising and travel require money, the kind of money Jordan has been raising. But the real question for the candidate – and her thousands of small donors – is why so little of the more than one million dollars she has raised has been spent in a way that might actually reach, inform and motivate Idaho voters?

The campaign has talked about the importance of transparency and accountability in state government, but that clearly doesn’t extend to her campaign. Jordan’s latest campaign finance report is a black box of questions, contradictions and head scratching inconsistencies. It all begs another question: where has all the money gone and why?

 

Education, Idaho Politics

Idaho Ds Win (Occasionally) When GOP Screws Up

My column this week in the Lewiston Tribune

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This year’s race for Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction will test one of my long held theories about the state’s politics. It will be news to some voters, but Democrats have occasionally won elections in Idaho, but generally only when Republicans screw up and put forward a candidate broadly seen as unfit or ill prepared. When that happens a competent Democrat can win and often stay in office for a while.

Frank Church won the first of his four terms in the Senate in 1956 because he faced a flawed GOP incumbent, Herman Welker, who had distinguished himself as Joe McCarthy’s best friend in the Senate. Welker was likely also suffering from a brain tumor, which may have contributed to an erratic personality that offended many voters, including Republicans. Unacceptable GOP candidate equals Democratic win.

Cecil Andrus used to joke that had there not been a Don Samuelson, another bumbling GOP incumbent, he would never have won the first of his four terms as governor. Democrat John Evans beat the hapless Republican gubernatorial candidate Allen Larsen in 1978 only after Larsen, an awful candidate, told live-and-let-live Idahoans that he thought it was possible to legislate morality. That’s why you don’t remember Governor Larsen. Richard Stallings was elected to Congress because the GOP incumbent George Hansen was a serial crook. One judge, obviously giving Big George the benefit of the doubt, said Hansen’s failure to comply with campaign finance law was not necessarily “evil” but “stupid, surely.” Hansen later served time for defrauding a bank.

Democrat Cindy Wilson

Which brings us to Cindy Wilson, the earnest, experienced, energetic and personable Democratic candidate for state superintendent of public instruction. Wilson, based on her resume and grasp of issues, should, even in red Idaho, be a serious candidate. She’s taught for 33 years in schools in Orofino, Pierce, Shelley, Boise and Meridian. She’s won awards for her classroom success and Governor Butch Otter appointed her to the state board of corrections, giving Wilson a view of how educational failure contributes to exploding prison populations. That Wilson has a chance to win, however, says as much about the underwhelming incumbent as it does about the challenger.

Republican incumbent Sherri Ybarra is, as one astute observer told me, really “an accidental candidate.” Ybarra, a total political unknown with a shallow resume, came from nowhere to win the GOP nomination four years ago. That was enough for a Republican “fresh face” to win a general election. Since then Ybarra’s often erratic performance has raised persistent questions about her competence and even her interest in the job.

For a politician who is supposed to be an advocate for Idaho’s 300,000 public school students, Ybarra frequently seems to have forgotten to do her homework. Ybarra has been late with her campaign finance reports and has never fully explained why she had to amend disclosure reports going back to 2017 to justify why she paid herself back for a loan to her campaign that she had never disclosed as a loan in the first place.

Ybarra has stressed support for rural schools, but her policy proposals have been thin to the point of non-existence. Gubernatorial candidate Brad Little, by contrast, recently put some specific meat on the bones of how rural districts might actually combine certain services. It is the kind of thing a chief school officer might do rather than a candidate for governor.

Republican incumbent Sherri Ybarra

Ybarra has touted a school safety initiative – KISS, Keep Idaho Students Safe – but did nothing to coordinate her very expensive proposal with the office state lawmakers specifically established to deal with that issue. As Idaho Education News reported recently the head of the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security was dumbfounded to learn that Ybarra had gone off on her own, ignoring the expertise in his office. “We didn’t even know she was looking at doing any kind of safety initiative until she announced it to the general public,” said school safety program manager Brian Armes.

Challenger Wilson might have simplified her entire campaign by adopting an easily understood slogan: “I’ll show up for work.” Ybarra has frequently missed state board of education meetings, including a meeting this summer that conflicted with her professed need to pack for a vacation. Lately she has been stiffing joint appearances with Wilson, including in the last few days an Idaho Falls City Club event and an educational forum at Boise State University.

Ybarra ducked the Idaho Falls appearance in favor of a fundraiser at a pub in Eagle owned by a former colleague who lost his educational credentials after being accused of multiple counts of sexual harassment. “He was punished for that, and he’s still a friend of mine,” Ybarra told reporter Clark Corbin of Idaho Education News. “We’re not around kids right now, we’re at a fundraiser.” That statement will be remembered as the definition of tone deaf, or perhaps worse.

The last time Idaho had a bumbler in the state superintendent’s office voters overwhelmingly rejected his “education reforms” at the ballot box. And before that an incompetent Republican state superintendent lost re-election to Democrat Marilyn Howard, who went on to serve two terms, carrying on a tradition of professional, competent management of the office that dates back to Jerry Evans and Roy Truby in the 1970s and 1980s.

Having the big R behind your name is often all it takes to win in Idaho, but if voters are paying attention and really want competence in a job critical to kids and parents and the economy, the incumbent state superintendent will be looking for a new job in January.

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Idaho Politics

All Politics is Local…

      Breaking: Three top aides to Idaho gubernatorial candidate Paulette Jordan resigned late Friday,  according to published reports. The campaign had no immediate comment and two aides said non-disclosure agreements with the Democratic nominee’s campaign prevented them from commenting. 

       Earlier Friday my regular column in the Lewiston Tribune dealt with Jordan’s campaign. That column is below. 

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There are few universal rules in politics, but one rule certainly holds that no challenger wins a contest without making the incumbent the issue. Challengers who don’t take the fight to incumbents lose. Paulette Jordan, the Democratic nominee for Idaho governor, isn’t precisely running against an incumbent in Republican Brad Little, three-term governor C.L. “Butch” Otter’s lieutenant governor, but Little has all the trappings and the potential downside of incumbency.

Brad Little, Idaho Republican gubernatorial candidate

Little is an “establishment” Republican who vanquished two conservative foes in a divisive GOP primary. He’s been around Idaho politics for years – his father was a long-serving state senator – and he is, in effect, running for Otter’s fourth term, accountable for all the bad and ensured of only modest credit for the good. Yet, seven weeks in front of the November election Jordan, the insurgent challenger, has yet to lay a glove on the incumbent. She certainly isn’t making it clear, as she must if she hopes to win (or even come close), that the election is a referendum on 12 years of the Otter-Little administration. A skillful candidate would by now have exploited some of the many missteps of the last dozen years, but beyond supporting Medicaid expansion and offering pabulum about a more humane government, Jordan hasn’t offered specifics about much of anything.

Jordan, a novice statewide candidate, is also violating Tip O’Neill’s old truism that “all politics is local,” by largely ignoring the traditional means of politicking in Idaho. Jordan has received heaps of attention from CNN and national publications have devoted ink to her resume as potentially the first woman and first Native American governor in Idaho. Yet she regularly avoids engaging with Idaho reporters and was largely missing on the summer fair and rodeo circuit. One long-time weekly newspaper editor told me recently he hasn’t seen the Democratic candidate and doesn’t expect to. He’s given up on ever getting a phone call returned. It’s a common refrain.

Jordan should have taken a page from the surging campaign of Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke who is challenging Texas Senator Ted Cruz and seems to have made that race a virtual toss up. O’Rourke, running as the underdog in a Trumpishly red state, has crisscrossed Texas repeatedly holding town hall meetings with anyone who will show up. During a recent gathering in San Marcos, according to the Texas Tribune, “O’Rourke answered questions about what he thinks about impeaching Trump, how to address the wealth gap between African-Americans and whites and whether he supports Betsy DeVos’ efforts to bring guns to campuses (‘No,’ he said).”

Democratic candidate Paulette Jordan

In contrast, Jordan recently swapped time in Idaho for an appearance on a Saturday night CNN show where she avoided discussing any specific issue. Idaho voters, she said, were “ready for true compassion and governance again.” Jordan told CNN host Van Jones that her upbringing stressed love of country, love of the land, love of all humanity, but that such attitudes hadn’t been “reflected in Idaho for the last three decades.” That is a vacuous and dubious claim at best. Going back thirty years, for example, would take us to the third term of the last Democrat to win the governorship, Cecil D. Andrus, a man who championed good schools, fought the feds over nuclear waste storage, presided over a strong economy, advocated for human and civil rights and certainly loved the land. Andrus knew that any successful Democrat has to run with a real and specific agenda.

Jordan does seem to be attempting to expand the electorate, trying to appeal to disaffected Idahoans and younger voters. O’Rourke has much the same strategy in Texas, but he adds the critical ingredients of substance and presence. In other words he shows up and is willing to confront issues, even difficult ones, head on.

I have long argued that Idaho Democrats must find a new approach to running statewide campaigns, including strategies to expand the electorate. They need to focus on younger voters who much research shows aren’t particularly wedded to either political party. They need to play to their one true strength, years of commitment to improving educational opportunities. And they must relentlessly and enthusiastically engage voters. A brief hit on CNN is no substitute for a town hall meeting in Payette, a picnic in Orofino or knocking on doors in Soda Springs.

Jordan has apparently mastered one part of a new Democratic strategy. The University of Virginia Center for Politics and Ipsos, the polling outfit, has created an online 2018 Political Atlas for every major race in the country. The Atlasmeasures, among other things, a candidate’s social media presence and on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram Jordan looks like a winner. One analysis gives her seven times as many Twitter followers as Little and six times as many followers on Facebook. Nevertheless respected political scientist Larry Sabato who helped invent these new measures calls the governor’s race “safe Republican.” That call is based on his detailed analysis of polling, Idaho’s electoral history, the quality of the candidates and other first hand intelligence.

A good social media presence is clearly an element of a challenges strategy, but it’s hardly enough by itself. The vast majority of Jordan’s social media followers appear to be fans from outside Idaho and therefore unable to vote for her in November. Perhaps that’s what you get when you base an Idaho campaign on profiles in The Atlantic or interviews on CNN.