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A Gem State in the Rough for Ambitious Republicans | Farm Team

After decades of GOP dominance, the ambitions of Idaho pols rest on the unlikely chance that Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter will retire next year.

Political operatives on both sides of the aisle speculate that Otter, who has not yet formally announced a re-election bid for 2014, may call it quits at the last minute. That kind of decision would spur significant repositioning for seats at the state and federal level.

“A lot will depend on what Gov. Otter decides to do,” said Jonathan Parker, former executive director of the Idaho Republican Party. “If he decides not to run, there will be a domino effect in so many races. … 2014 could be the biggest and most exciting primary that the state’s seen in a really long time.”

The top two Republicans eyeing the governor’s seat are Lt. Gov. Brad Little and second-term Rep. Raúl R. Labrador, according to interviews with several operatives in the Gem State.

Little is already making moves to prepare a gubernatorial bid for whenever Otter declines another term. Otter appointed Little in 2009 and they won re-election the next year with a heavy majority of the vote.

Labrador, a tea party favorite known for his conservative views on immigration policy, could run as an alternative to Little.

If Labrador runs statewide, his House seat would attract a number of weathered Idaho politicians. Republicans mentioned former Lt. Gov. David Leroy and Mike Moyle, the current majority leader of the Idaho House, as potential candidates.

Any shake-up on the Republican ladder, however, is unlikely to affect either GOP senator — at least for a few cycles.

Sen. Jim Risch has said that he intends to run for re-election in 2014. Sen. Michael D. Crapo is not up for re-election until 2016. Both Democrats and Republicans in Idaho said Crapo’s DUI arrest in December would likely not be an issue by then.

Idaho’s heavily GOP voter registration numbers put a damper on upward mobility for ambitious Republicans. Nonetheless, Republicans are confident in the depth and range of their bench.

“There are usually quite a few candidates that emerge any time there is an open seat,” Parker said.

Republicans, including Parker, cited two legislators as possible future congressional candidates: state Sen. Russ Fulcher, a former Majority Caucus vice chairman, and state Rep. Brent Crane, the assistant majority leader and the son of popular former Treasurer Ron Crane.

Meanwhile, Democrats, who have struggled to gain traction in Idaho, hope that an open governor’s race might give them a small window of opportunity.

“If Otter steps down, I would fully expect both Labrador and Little to run and that would create a very divided Republican primary,” said Dean Ferguson, communications director for the Idaho Democratic Party. “We expect to have a Democratic candidate who is competitive.”

Outside the gubernatorial race, Democrats have a couple of names on their radar.

As Idaho’s first black state lawmaker, state Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb of Boise is considered a standout prospect for future vacant seats. State Rep. Mat Erpelding has received recent attention for his plans to go on a 40-day, 900-mile hike to raise money and draw attention to rural communities.

Democratic operatives also mentioned 42-year-old former state House Minority Caucus Chairman Brian Cronin, who was named a “rising star” in state and local government by the Aspen Institute in 2011.

Cronin, who stepped down from office at the end of 2012, cited the political constraints and frustrations for young Democrats like himself.

“Recent trends have pointed to an increasingly extremist Republican Party that panders to the fringe, and these people do well in Idaho,” Cronin said. “It’s a tough environment for Democrats.”

Farm Team is a state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress. The column runs on Thursdays.

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