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Idaho primary: Paulette Jordan wins Democratic nomination for governor, will face Lt. Gov. Brad Little

Paulette Jordan speaks in Las Vegas in January.
Paulette Jordan speaks in Las Vegas in January. (John Locher/AP)

BOISE, Idaho — Paulette Jordan wants to become this state’s first Democratic governor in more than 20 years — and its first female governor, and first Native American governor.

If she wins, she’d also be the first Native American governor in the country.

On Tuesday night, Jordan won the Democratic primary for governor in Idaho, taking about 58 percent of the vote. She beat business owner and Boise school board member A.J. Balukoff, 72, who was running for the nomination for a second time with backing of much of the state establishment.

“We are all one. Like all of you, I am a Westerner. I was raised by Idaho,” she told cheering supporters gathered at a local Boise bar for a victory party. “I come here on the vision and the prayer of our ancestors. They suffered and sacrificed for far too long for us to not see this win tonight. We have a better Idaho and we’ve seen that tonight.”

She won the chance to face Lt. Gov. Brad Little, 64, a longtime Idaho politician, rancher and business owner who ran on a platform that included lower taxes, better jobs, a balanced budget and public land access. He beat out U.S. Rep. Raúl R. Labrador and Tommy Ahlquist, a real estate developer and physician.

The election saw historic numbers of Democrats cast votes across the state for the open governor’s seat. Boise-area precincts, home to the state’s largest Democratic base, ran out of ballots because of unexpected turnout that more than doubled the number of Democratic votes statewide. In the 2014 primary, about 25,000 Democrats had cast votes for governor; last night, more than 64,000 did. That was still dwarfed by the 187,000 who voted in the GOP primary, in a state that Donald Trump won by more than 30 points in 2016.

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Jordan vowed to bring her own brand of tradition to a state feeling the adolescent growing pains of rapid growth and demographic shifts. Idaho is the fastest-growing state in the nation and remains almost 90 percent white.

“Native American populations have historically been a very important part of our state, and we have an increasingly growing Latino population. And those two groups are at the forefront of the changing diversity,” said Justin Vaughn, a political-science professor at Boise State University.

Jordan, 38, was twice elected to the state House, where women hold 23 of 70 seats. Before that, she held an elected post on the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council. Her roots and ties to the land figured prominently in her campaign, but she said voters ultimately want a different kind of leadership that she can bring to the table.

“I really don’t think that it’s about my race or age or my gender. It’s all about the values that I carry forward that people want to see more of,” Jordan said. “They actually want to see a leader who is based in the land and won’t sell it off to the highest interest, and protect the environment.”

Jordan’s biography, though, has struck a chord with supporters, including Tai Simpson, a Nez Percé tribe member.

“One of the things that I appreciate about Paulette is she understands we can talk about race and appreciate each other’s race and not be racist,” Simpson said.

Jordan, who won her state House seat in a Republican district, emphasized public land protections, a key issue in a state where more than half the land is public. But she has also talked about a lot of issues that motivate liberals nationwide, such as expanding Medicaid, changing marijuana laws, reducing incarceration and limiting corporate tax loopholes.

Medicaid expansion looks likely to be on the ballot in November, as activists say they’ve gathered more than 56,000 signatures to Idahoans vote to expand state coverage. Little has said he would “adhere to the will of the voters,” though he expressed concern about paying for the measure.

While the state’s voters generally pick Republican candidates, Jordan energized supporters who said the contender drew the same kind of enthusiasm they felt for Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016. Idaho’s Democrats caucused in record numbers that year, backing Sanders with an overwhelming majority. Jordan supporters say that group could help change the political tide in a state where Democrats are ready for change.

“She’s different, and she stands out. She brings something to the table that hasn’t historically been brought to the table,” Simpson said.

But despite the newcomers and the political and social changes they bring with them, analysts don’t expect voter patterns to shift enough to ensure a victory for Jordan in the red state.

The new faces of Idaho look very much like the Peña family, who moved to Idaho three years ago in search of a more conservative community.

“In California, we had more laws on the books. I always said you could not sneeze without getting a permit,” Janie Peña said. “In Idaho, you have freedom. You can feel the difference here. People feel freer, they’re friendlier, they’re more open. One thing that you see here that you don’t see in other communities is people reach out. They help one another. When you get too many regulations, people start to pull apart.”

Vaughn said Idaho’s wave of newcomers may shift Idaho demographics, but those transplants aren’t voting out of step with longtime residents — at least for now.

“When you look at the attitudes of the people who are coming here, they are not that significantly different from the attitude of the people that are already here,” Vaughn said.