Paulette Jordan is trying to make history in Idaho. On Tuesday, she won the Democratic nomination in Idaho’s governor’s race, progressing her long-shot goal of becoming the United States’ first Native American governor.
The two term state lawmaker, of the Coeur d’Alene tribe, Jordan beat out A.J. Balukoff in a competitive primary Tuesday night, a race that became something of a familiar establishment-versus-newcomer Democratic Party fight.
She will be up against Republican Lt. Gov. Brad Little in November.
Idaho is unquestionably conservative, so much so that it is often considered to be a one-party state — Republican. That said, Jordan, at 38 years old, represents a young, fresh face for the Democratic Party in Idaho, compared to Balukoff, the 72-year-old former school board member.
Jordan’s progressive platform has gained a lot of national attention in recent weeks. She has won the endorsements of progressive national groups like Planned Parenthood, People for the American Way, Democracy for America, Indivisible, and People for Bernie Sanders. She’s even won Cher’s endorsement. But state lawmakers and local Democrats are jumping on the Balukoff’s older, familiar name. (He was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2014.)
To be sure, Jordan’s chances of actually winning the governorship are slim. The state is dominated by the conservative rural and suburban districts. Meanwhile, she’s championing raising the minimum wage, legalizing marijuana, expanding health care, and fighting climate change.
“If a Roy Moore situation presented itself, then maybe a Democrat could win the governor’s race,” Justin Vaughn, a political scientist with Boise State University, said, adding that parts of Idaho are so red that even a “Roy Moore situation” wouldn’t change the outcome.
Even so, Jordan represents a new chapter in the Democratic Party in Idaho, one that signals a significant leftward shift.
Paulette Jordan is not your average Idaho liberal
Jordan’s potential for history-making as the first Native American governor, has caught the national attention, with profiles in Buzzfeed, the Atlantic, and the Huffington Post.
But until this year, Jordan didn’t have much name recognition in her own state. She comes from long line of Coeur d’Alene tribal chiefs. Raised on her family’s farm in northern Idaho, Jordan’s political career began first in 2008, when she became the youngest person to win a seat on the tribal council. In 2012, she made her first — failed — bid for the Idaho Legislature. She ran again in 2014 and won the seat she’s held since.
In 2016, she was the only Democrat in northern Idaho to win a seat in a district Donald Trump won, an election that took out even the most established Democrats in the state.
This history has given her a unique clout in the state, and a platform to run a surprisingly progressive platform in such a conservative state. She is campaigning on Medicaid expansion (which may be on the ballot in November), building a public medical school in the state, protecting public lands, raising the minimum wage and teachers’ pay, and instituting universal preschool.
But her pitch to Idahoans is that she gets it; she’s not the out-of-touch Boise-raised liberal trying to convince farmers to vote for her. She has a young, diverse energy behind her that could mean a new page in the state’s Democratic Party.
Idaho is growing. There’s a big question over what that means for the politics.
All the attention in Idaho has been on the right — after all, Democrats’ chances in the general election are not great.
The state has a strong Republican history. The last time the state went for a Democratic presidential candidate was for Lyndon B. Johnson. The last Democratic governor in the state was Cecil Andrus, who served from 1971 through 1977 and again from 1986 to 1995.
But with an unemployment rate below the national average and low cost of living, the state’s population grew 2.2 percent in one year. A fast-growing tech sector means that influx of new residents, largely from California and Washington, is expected to continue. For many, that growth has put a question mark over the state’s conservative heritage.
So far, the state appears to be retaining its Republican roots. Even with transplants from more liberal states, “those who have moved to Idaho are predominantly Republicans, and the percentage of Republicans and Democrats for movers looks nearly identical to native Idahoans,” Jeffrey Lyons, a political scientist at Boise State wrote in the Idaho Business Review.
That said, Jordan represents a fresh page in the state’s Democratic politics, and one that is exciting younger liberals in the state.