(UPDATED, May 14, to correct wording of yard signs opposing Sen. Fred Martin.)

In the absence of independent polling, campaign finance reports are the closest thing Idaho political junkies have to a black box.

Sunshine reports provide a tangible measure of election activity. They show which candidates are raising money — generating buzz with well-funded PACs and actual voters alike — and which candidates are sinking money into ads and mailers, robocalls and the ubiquitous roadside signs.

The dollar figures are real. But they aren’t a foolproof way to predict winners and losers.

There’s a lot the sunshine reports tell us — and don’t tell us — about a primary election that could leave a profound imprint on Idaho politics and state education policy.

The price of admission is going up. At least in some cases.

House Speaker Scott Bedke and state Rep. Priscilla Giddings have combined to raise a stunning $1.4 million in the GOP lieutenant governor’s primary — for a one-heartbeat-away job that will pay a little more than $200,000 over four years. The fundraising duel tells only part of the story. As Boise State University political science professor Jaclyn Kettler pointed out on a recent Idaho Education News podcast, Bedke is relying largely on big-money donors, while Giddings is banking on grassroots fundraising and individual donors.

But if there were any lingering doubts, the fundraising reveals that the lieutenant governor’s election has much less to do with the actual job and much more to do with a personal and ideological rift that runs through the Idaho GOP and the House Republican caucus.

To a lesser but still important extent, the pricetag is also rising in some pivotal legislative races. (More about that in a minute.)

Little has a large advantage. Dollar for dollar, Gov. Brad Little’s fundraising haul isn’t much different than it was four years ago at this time. His re-election campaign has collected just north of $2 million.

But in 2018, Little raised and spent slightly more than $2 million in an extremely costly open primary with U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador and developer and physician Tommy Ahlquist. This time, Little’s $2 million swamps the GOP field. Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, a distant second, has raised slightly more than $700,000.

Little’s war chest buys a lot of TV ad time for the governor and his chainsaw. Perhaps you’ve already noticed that.

The mainstream has a fundraising edge. Dividing the top of the ticket between “mainstream” GOP candidates and “hardline” conservatives, the money is following the mainstream.

The one exception is the attorney general’s race, where Labrador has a fundraising edge over 20-year incumbent Lawrence Wasden and Coeur d’Alene attorney Art Macomber.

The question is whether the money bodes well for mainstreamers — or whether a cohesive hardline ticket will overcome fundraising gaps.

Some candidates appear to have momentum. In the past month, Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane has raised more than $126,000 in the secretary of state’s race. In that time, state Rep. Dorothy Moon and Sen. Mary Souza have raised barely $30,000, combined. That late fundraising surge guarantees nothing — except it ensures McGrane a financial edge in the final stages of what has become a salty primary.

Other campaigns appear to be fading. Back to the governor’s primary. Little has continued to pad his big advantage, raising nearly $300,000 in the past month. McGeachin has managed less than $70,000. Eagle Republican Ed Humphreys is outraising McGeachin in the homestretch. So is Democratic write-in candidate Shelby Rognstad, although the Sandpoint mayor beefed up his ledger with a $40,000 loan to his campaign.

Is McGeachin’s fundraising a bad sign for her? It’s hard to spin it as a good one.

Some legislative incumbents are in the crosshairs. Bonner County Republican Central Committee Chairman Scott Herndon has raised more than $100,000 in his bid to unseat Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle. Seeking to avenge a 2020 primary loss to Rep. Ron Nate, Rexburg Republican Britt Raybould is nearing the $100,000 mark. Ammon Republican Josh Wheeler is also closing in on six digits as he challenges Rep. Chad Christensen, R-Ammon.

These big-money challenges confirm what was already evident. Hardliners really want to take down Woodward, and other mainstream Republicans in solidly red legislative districts. Moderates really want to boot Nate and Christensen, among other conservatives. The sunshine reports bring all of this into the light.

Perhaps out of necessity, legislative candidates are chasing dollars. Even for legislative incumbents, 2022 is a whole new election. Between the state’s rapid overall growth, and the newly drawn legislative map, incumbents can’t simply rely on name ID accrued over previous elections.

Case in point: Senate Education Chairman Steven Thayn. For the past decade, the Emmett Republican has represented a sprawling district taking in Gem, Boise, Custer, Lemhi and Valley counties. Redistricting sliced those latter four counties out of Thayn’s district. He is now running in a new legislative District 14 — and while this district still includes his native Gem County, this accounts for only 36% of the electorate. The rest of the district takes in adjoining Ada County, and puts Thayn on a primary collision course with Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle.

Thayn and other incumbents — such as Sens. Carl Crabtree of Grangeville and Jim Rice of Caldwell — are running in unfamiliar turf. In redrawn districts, the ability to raise money and spend it wisely could be crucial.

As always, the money chase has a downside. Consider Sen. Fred Martin.

Heading into a GOP primary showdown with Rep. Codi Galloway — one of several House members looking to switch to the Senate — Martin has a huge campaign haul. Having raised more than $110,000, Martin has had no trouble plastering his West Boise legislative district with campaign signs. But now, yellow roadside signs are popping up in the district as well, paid for by the Conservatives:Of PAC, which supports Galloway. The anti-Martin signs point to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee chairman’s financial support from “pharma” (Martin’s donors include Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, among others.)

And in the end, money isn’t a perfect predictor. If it was, this would be the place where we could write off incumbent state superintendent Sherri Ybarra.

Ybarra is limping along in the money race this spring. Former State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield — running the most well-financed state superintendent’s race in recent memory — has outraised Ybarra by nearly a tenfold margin. Branden Durst, the former Democratic legislator turned hardline superintendent’s hopeful, has nearly doubled Ybarra’s $34,000 haul.

And momentum? Ybarra has barely raised a meager $5,000 in the past month, ceding even more ground to Critchfield and Durst as the primary approaches.

But we’ve been here before. Ybarra has been outraised in three of her four previous statewide elections, save for the 2018 GOP primary. She has won all four races, overcoming huge fundraising disadvantages in the 2014 and 2018 fall elections.

“Ybarra’s kind of an unusual candidate, in general,” Kettler said. “She tends to run a pretty quiet campaign, all things considered.”

Sunshine reports can tell us a lot. But sometimes they’re misleading. But as this election nears its conclusion, they’re about as good a resource as we have.

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday. 

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About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; “Idaho Reports” on Idaho Public Television; and “Idaho Matters” on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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