By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports
In a Democratic primary where candidates are almost identical on the issues, the conversation has turned to endorsements.
In case you’ve missed the social media bickering and debate jabs from the last few weeks, here’s a summary: Paulette Jordan has national support, touting endorsements from well-known progressives like Cher, Van Jones and Khizr Khan. Missing from that list: Any of the Democratic lawmakers she served with in the Legislature. Twelve of the 17 have endorsed AJ Balukoff, while the other five are staying neutral. Balukoff also has endorsements from Idaho Democratic heavy hitters past and present: former House minority leaders Wendy Jaquet and John Rusche, retired Rep. Shirley Ringo, and former U.S. Attorney Betty Richardson, among many others.
To her credit, Jordan and her team have turned her lack of legislative endorsements into a plus. They hosted a rally the Saturday before the primary called “Endorsed By The People,” taking advantage of the same anti-establishment fervor that gained both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump so much support in 2016. Meanwhile, Balukoff has kept his campaign positive, focusing on his support and not attacking hers.
Still, Democrats and independents have noticed. Sprinkled among the #ImWithPaulette and #BlueWave tweets are persistent questions from uneasy voters: Why doesn’t Jordan have any endorsements from her former colleagues?
And why aren’t those lawmakers being frank about why they don’t back Jordan?
There are a handful of documented frustrations surrounding Jordan’s time in the Legislature. She didn’t shepherd much of anything into law. (Compare that to Reps. Ilana Rubel and Melissa Wintrow, both of whom were voted into office in 2014, the same year as Jordan. They have been at the forefront of a multitude of high-profile, bipartisan issues, including mandatory minimums, changes to rape kit testing, and civil asset forfeiture reform.)
Jordan resigned in the middle of the 2018 legislative session, leaving District 5 without a representative — and Democrats down a vote on the critical House State Affairs Committee for more than a week while Gov. Butch Otter decided on a replacement.
There are other grumblings and rumors about about Jordan — note the high-level staffers leaving her campaign days before the primary. And a recent Balukoff endorsement from Rep. Sue Chew, who spent a good amount of time working for Paulette Jordan’s legislative campaign, raised eyebrows among Boise politicos.
But when reporters ask for comments on the record, Democrats demur, preferring instead to focus on why they support Balukoff.
Why? One theory: Even with all their frustrations with Jordan supporters, establishment Democrats don’t want to alienate this new, energetic base.
The last Democratic governor, Cecil Andrus, left office in January 1995. There are Paulette Jordan supporters who were born after that, who have never known an Idaho where Democrats were a force. Jordan herself wasn’t old enough to vote at the time. (To be clear, neither was this reporter.) Endorsements from former Democratic heavyweights mean a lot to establishment party members, but the 20- and 30-something progressives who are backing Jordan have made it clear they’re not impressed.
There are short-term considerations, too. If Jordan wins the primary, Idaho Dems will have to rally behind her in an attempt to disrupt the long streak of Republican rule in Idaho. They know anything they say about Jordan now could be used against her in the general election. Democrats have no room for error in November if they hope to beat the GOP nominee. They can’t afford a #NeverPaulette or a #NeverAJ movement; They’ll need every vote they can get.
Even if that excitement can’t get Jordan or Balukoff into the governor’s office, increased turnout from progressives could help Dem candidates in close legislative districts, or even elect a Democratic state superintendent. Young voters are excited to vote for Paulette Jordan in the primary, sure, but can the party get them to show up for the Cindy Wilsons and the David Nelsons and the Mark Nyes in the general? Not if Democratic elders estrange them now.
Regardless of who wins the nomination for governor, the Jordan supporters are going to play a big role in the future of the Idaho Democratic Party — as long as the party figures out how to harness that energy and enthusiasm.
The fight isn’t so much about who will be the next governor. It’s about the identity of the party moving forward. And in that sense, Jordan may have already won.