BOISE — Some are positive, some are negative, but all the TV campaign commercials running now ahead of the May 17 primary election have lots for Idaho voters to unpack.
“It can be important to do a little bit more information-gathering, beyond the claims sometimes made in advertising,” said Boise State University political scientist Jaclyn Kettler, “whether it’s a TV ad or a mailer. Sometimes we do see things framed in a way that can be misleading.”
She also advises voters to pay attention to the source of the advertising. Thus far, all the major campaign commercials running on TV in Idaho appear to be from the candidates’ campaigns, but it’s not uncommon for outside groups to run their own ads, something we’ve already seen in Idaho this spring with campaign mailers.
“That’s something that’s key to watch, is who’s the source of the message, the advertising,” Kettler said.
Here’s a look at an array of TV campaign commercials that have run in Idaho so far in the spring primary contests:
Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin was the first out with a campaign ad, debuting a TV commercial on Jan. 24 featuring her endorsement by former President Trump, which proclaims, “Trump says she’s been a true supporter of MAGA since the very beginning.” The ad mentions “election integrity, ending COVID mandates, banning critical race theory, the 2nd Amendment and our farmers,” while providing no details. The ad has since stopped running.
“It’s slick, it’s hitting on issues that may be especially salient to some primary voters,” Kettler said, “and really highlighting the Trump support.”
Kettler noted that when McGeachin’s commercial debuted, “I think we expected Little would run for re-election,” but he still hadn’t announced his intentions. “We didn’t even know at that point.”
Little then launched his own commercials — even well before he announced he’d run. He’s run three so far. The first, entitled “Idaho Conservative,” shows Little, a rancher, working on his ranch, shooting a gun, and visiting with folks on a job site, with police officers on the street, and in the Capitol; it launched three months ago. The second features a testimonial from Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue that Little “backs the blue” and is “tough on crime and illegal immigration.”
In that ad, Donahue says Little is “cracking down on drug dealers, sex offenders and violent criminals,” and working to “help stop the Mexican cartels from flooding Idaho with deadly drugs.” Little and lawmakers this year approved an 18.7% increase in state funding for the Idaho State Police. Also, in July, he deployed five Idaho state troopers on a 21-day mission to the southern border in Arizona to assist authorities there and learn drug interdiction techniques they can bring back to Idaho. Subsequently, he launched “Operation Esto Perpetua” to bring together law enforcement and Idaho communities to counter drug abuse, including growing problems with highly toxic fentanyl.
The third ad, which is running now, is a “compare and contrast” ad comparing Washington, D.C. and President Joe Biden’s administration to Idaho and Little’s administration, highlighting deficits in Washington and inflation nationally compared to a record surplus in Idaho, along with tax cuts and record-low unemployment.
Kettler said, “I think there’s a few kind of issues or messages across these ads. One is critiquing Biden and the Biden administration, which given Biden’s low approval ratings, especially among Republicans, makes sense, especially in a mid-term election.”
“But the two issues it’s really focused on are the economy and then law enforcement/immigration,” she said. “The research shows voters do evaluate governors and take into account the economic performance of the state when voting, so incumbents can be rewarded for a good economy.”
Crime and immigration also are top of mind for Republican voters, according to many recent surveys and polls, she said, so the focus in the ads makes sense. “They’re really focused on promoting what he’s been doing in office on these issues. These are issues that particularly in the Republican primary, voters are concerned about.”
House Speaker Scott Bedke, who is running for lieutenant governor, has aired four TV commercials statewide thus far. The latest two, “Backs the Blue” and “Backed by the Blue,” both feature Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue, similar to Little’s law enforcement-themed ad. The “Backed by the Blue” ad touts Bedke’s endorsement by the Fraternal Order of Police.
Kettler said the focus from both Bedke and Little on supporting law enforcement in their messaging points brings up an issue that may touch on a division in the Idaho GOP primary voter base, between the more libertarian wing that’s focused on social issues like critical race theory, and the more traditional Republicans for whom law and order is a fundamental principle. “I do think that’s a really interesting dynamic to potentially watch,” she said. “It’s one issue where you do see attempts to use that to differentiate within some of these wings of the party.”
Bedke’s first ad, entitled “Bedrock Conservative Values,” introduces him as a fourth generation cattle rancher, a “rock solid conservative” who has been “battling Washington to preserve our land and water rights,” touches on his A+ rating from the National Rifle Association and features gorgeous views of the Bedke family cattle ranch near Oakley in eastern Idaho, including grandkids.
The second ad is a bit different. Opening with an image of Biden, it portrays Bedke as one who, in opposition to Biden, “stood up for Idaho parents, their right to be heard” and “led the fight against critical race theory.”
It’s not clear what that’s referring to, and the campaign didn’t respond to a request for more information on Wednesday. Bedke voted in favor of HB 377 in 2021, regarding “dignity and non-discrimination in public education,” but wasn’t a co-sponsor of the bill. As speaker of the House, though, he was involved in the extensive negotiations that year that led to the bill’s passage to satisfy concerns over any teaching of critical race theory in Idaho’s public schools; after that bill passed, public school budgets were approved.
First out with television ads among congressional candidates in Idaho ahead of the May primary is 2nd Congressional District hopeful Bryan Smith, who is challenging 11th-term GOP Congressman Mike Simpson.
Smith has four TV commercials that have been running in the Idaho Falls and Twin Falls markets, with the fourth just launched this week. All decry Simpson as “Liberal Mike Simpson” or “RINO Mike Simpson.” Two of the four focus on criticism of the proposal Simpson has floated to breach four lower Snake River dams to save the region’s salmon and steelhead from extinction, while providing more than $30 billion in aid and mitigation to farmers and communities, including investments in energy, irrigation, transportation, community development and more.
Simpson developed the concept after more than 300 meetings with stakeholders and interested parties, and has stressed that he hasn’t drafted legislation, but that Northwest interests, including states, congressional delegations, tribes, ag interests and more have a rare chance to come together and craft a solution to the problem before courts force one far less palatable on them.
Two of Smith’s ads say Simpson “wants to breach four dams on the Snake River, take water from farms and ranches, and cut hydropower for Idaho families.”
Kettler said the dam-breaching issue is an interesting one as an issue in a congressional race, as rather than echoing national debates, it’s specific to the region. If it continues to have a big focus in the race, she said, it could spark “discussion that might bring up about what effects it could have on Idaho.”
“That’s one of the unfortunate things about not having a debate,” she said; the statewide televised debate between the two candidates was canceled after Simpson declined to participate. “This could be an opportunity to really dig into a lot of the issues around this policy debate that would affect a lot of Idaho voters.”
Smith’s ads also claim Simpson has been insufficiently supportive of former President Trump, fault him for voting for an investigation into the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, and criticize his long tenure in office, while touting himself as a “fighter” and “hard charger.”
Kettler said negative ads can have impact, largely because they’re memorable. “There’s a lot of debate about that in the research,” she said. “There’s always been a concern that too much negative advertising may dissuade voters from even participating.”
Incumbent Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, who faces two challengers in Raul Labrador and Art Macomber, has a TV ad running statewide featuring former Idaho Gov. Butch Otter. Otter calls Wasden “Idaho’s constitutional conservative attorney general,” saying he trusts Wasden “to always defend the Constitution no matter what.”
Kettler called that “an interesting phrasing,” noting that Wasden, the state’s longest-serving attorney general, has made it his hallmark to always base his approach to the office on the strictures of the Idaho Constitution. By contrast, challenger Labrador, a former four-term congressman, has been campaigning on an activist approach, saying he wants to champion causes important to conservative legislators.
“It provides a nice representation of his approach to the office,” Kettler said.
In the ad, Otter also recounts how Wasden “protected the rights of Idaho citizens by suing joe Biden to stop the federal vaccine mandates — and he won,” and says Wasden “stands up to the federal overreach, protecting Idaho’s precious water rights.” Said Kettler, “It seems like it may be addressing potential critiques from other candidates in the race, trying to establish that he has been working, he has been pushing back against the Biden administration, standing up to federal overreach,” while doing so on constitutional grounds.
Otter is a former three-term GOP governor who was in office through 2017, and who previously served three terms in Congress as an outspoken opponent of federal overreach.
One of the three GOP candidates for the open Idaho secretary of state post launched two TV ads this week, running them in southwestern Idaho. Phil McGrane, the current Ada County clerk, has two 15-second spots, both focusing on his experience in successfully running elections. Both call him “the only elections expert running for secretary of state,” and say, “election integrity matters.”
There’s even an element of humor, as one of the spots opens with, “Phil McGrane, much more than just the bald guy with glasses.”
“They’re entertaining, with good visuals throughout,” Kettler said. “He’s really highlighting the experience he has.”
She noted that rivals Mary Souza and Dorothy Moon, in their Facebook videos and other messaging, have focused on concerns about possible election fraud. “This talks about the importance of election integrity, but really trying to help continue to keep Idaho elections safe, rather than kind of fear tactics about fraud,” Kettler said. “They’re pretty positive ads, helping introduce him as a candidate, providing arguments for why voters should support his candidacy,” rather than “attacking other candidates or using fear to try to gain attention or support.”