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Analyst says outside money is pushing national partisan politics into the race for Boise mayor

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023
Julie Luchetta, Boise State Public Radio, City of Boise
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023

Dr. Jaclyn Kettler, political scientist and Boise State University professor, focuses her research on political parties, interest groups, campaign finance and women in government. The current and hotly contested race for Boise mayor checks all of those boxes.

“There's research that demonstrates it can be more attention-grabbing, said Kettler. "And whether or not it changes votes or actually may turn people off. It's a big debate. But it is attention-grabbing.”

As the race heads into the final stretch, Kettler visits with Morning Edition host George Prentice, and in their wide-ranging discussion, they talk about outside interests, attack ads, endorsements, and how a “nonpartisan” election can devolve into extreme partisanship.

Frankie Barnhill
Boise State Public Radio

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. We are now just about four weeks until election day. Early in-person voting begins two weeks from today. And this is where things get serious. Boise State political scientist and professor Dr. Jaclyn Kettler is here. Our go to source on the political scene. Dr. Kettler. Good morning.

DR. JACLYN KETTLER: Good morning.

PRENTICE: We're going to talk about the race for mayor in Boise. And indeed, your research focuses on politics with an emphasis on interest groups, campaign finance and women in politics. So this race checks a lot of boxes for you.

KETTLER: That it does. And it's already really fascinating to be watching.

PRENTICE: Well, tell me how local elections usually go. It usually becomes a very personal decision, right? It's…kind of where we live and how we feel about the present and the future.

KETTLER: Those are great points. And again, you know, this is a nonpartisan race. We may have partisan interests involved and we may kind of know the partisan leanings of candidates, but a lot of local elections are nonpartisan. So as a result, we do see other factors beyond just our party identification, playing a role in how we assess candidates, how we might decide, you know, who we decide to vote for. And so, we do see, you know, some different dynamics happening than what we might see in, you know, the presidential election or legislative elections.

PRENTICE: The stereotype of incumbents is that they're usually attached to their past and old school politics, if you will. But Mike Masterson's highest profile supporters are indeed political figures from our past. Maryanne Jordan, former council president and former state legislator, and Dave Beiter, the former mayor who Lauren McLean defeated four years ago.

KETTLER: Yeah, this is really interesting. We have some kind of high-profile previous officeholders making endorsements in this race, both, you know, some supporting the current mayor, Lauren McLean, some supporting one of her main challenger, it seems like Mike Masterson. And so we do see this some of these interesting differences, some that are within the same party, which has been interesting. But we're also seeing some different issues really brought up, not just in terms of policy positions, but also potentially approach to the office of mayor.

PRENTICE: What's your take on outside interests and outside money in this race?

KETTLER: We're already seeing it play a role. We've got ads up, some supporting McLean, some supporting Masterson or attacking McLean from different outside organizations. And so we're already seeing this money on the airwaves and in these advertisements, we're also seeing a lot of groups give endorsements of one of McLean or or Masterson. But when you're in the nonpartisan race, sometimes those endorsements can be important signals for a candidate's kind of leanings or perhaps their policy positions. And so sometimes those endorsements get a little bit more focus and attention than they might in other in other elections.

PRENTICE: Let's talk about attack ads and caustic advertisements. The last time this was tried at this level in Boise, it actually blew up in Lauren McLean's opponents faces. What's your take on this now? Mike Masterson has tried to disavow himself of outside interests or political action groups, but it's happening.

KETTLER: Yeah, And this is kind of a challenge for candidates that increasingly candidates are facing, both at the national level and now at the state and local level, too, where these outside groups get involved in elections. And when they don't coordinate with the candidate campaign. So the candidate doesn't have influence over what the group is doing. They can request like, “Oh, don't run negative ads.” But if the group wants to run negative ads, the group can continue to do that. There have been this kind of back and forth a little bit as the building industry group has been, you know, on the airwaves with some negative ads attacking McLean and Masterson, saying, oh, don't you know, don't approve of that. I don't I don't want, you know, don't want to run a negative campaign. But when it's outside groups involved, there's limited influence the candidates have on this. And it gets to a broader question as well about why use negative advertising? And there's research that demonstrates that it can be more attention grabbing, that people pay more attention to it. And whether or not it it changes votes or actually may turn people off. It's a big debate, but it is attention grabbing.

PRENTICE: Lauren McLean has yet to lose an election. The last time she was attacked for her opponents called a socialist agenda. That didn't work. And yet it's happening again.

Dr. Jaclyn Kettler
Boise State University
Dr. Jaclyn Kettler

KETTLER: Yeah, and I think there's some interesting factors happening here where some groups or actors are trying to make this mayoral race about national politics.  They're trying to nationalize it in some ways, tie it to national partisan debates. The candidates themselves haven't really done that very much. They've really been trying to focus on local issues. You know, what's really what are Boise residents concerned about? Those types of things, which I think is this interesting dynamic again, of when outside groups are, you know, get involved, what they may be trying to do compared to what the candidates are doing. And the candidates so far really are seeming to try to focus on what they're envisioning for Boise and not trying to wade too much into national issues. Also, as the incumbent, McClain has some advantages, one of which is she has a pretty sizable fundraising advantage. She also has had more time and experience running a campaign and not just her previous mayoral campaigns, but previous campaigns before that. And so that infrastructure can be beneficial and helpful for her campaign as well.

PRENTICE: What interesting personal arcs for these two people. I remember sitting down with Lauren McClain for her first interview before she became a public servant. She had just been appointed to the city council before she was sworn in. And at the end of the conversation, I asked her what her biggest concern was, and she said, “My biggest concern is hearing my name on the radio or seeing my name in print.” Mike Masterson… when I spoke to him after he arrived in Boise, it's like, okay, what's your biggest concern? He's…”Well, my biggest concern is making a difference.” And I never would have seen them as opponents. There is no real local polling. Do you have a take on where this is heading?

KETTLER: I think there are some incumbent advantages at the local level and mayoral races. Of course, we saw that incumbency advantage not matter much in the previous mayoral race where McClean won, you know, defeated the incumbent, beat her pretty handily. It did have to go to a runoff race, though. And so I think that'll be kind of the first key question for this this race. You know, can she win a majority or will this go to a runoff? And then when it's just her and Masterson, what dynamics come to play then?

PRENTICE: Mike Masterson will be the first to tell us that he looks at this race through the lens of public safety. And Lauren McClean, one of the continuous questions to her is the handling of the hiring and firing of former police chief Ryan Lee. But they both have to own it right? They both have to own their history with public safety.

KETTLER: Right. And I think that this is one of the really interesting dynamics and issues of this mayoral race and that it tends to be so far one of the bigger ones, as you mentioned, particularly for Masterson to be focusing on, it'll be brought up that the police unions have endorsed. Masterson Perhaps not surprising, seeing as he was police chief. But McLean's response is, well, they didn't endorse me previously either, and we've continued to do the work we want to do so. But I do think this is one issue where there is more concern and questions and perhaps one of the issues for that reason, why Masterson and some of the other, you know, groups involved have really been focusing on this question about the handling of the police chief position.

PRENTICE: Aside from those that have had direct interactions with law enforcement, most people haven't. Do you think it usually comes down to how they feel about their own safety and the safety of their family? And that will kind of answer this question in this particular context?

KETTLER: I think there is something to that. I think a lot of people when kind of assessing the candidates in a in a race like a mayoral race may be coming from, well, how do I feel? Do I feel safe? Do I feel like things are working well for me? Can I afford housing and food and all these types of things? Whether or not all of those, you know, experiences directly relate to what a mayor can actually do in office. We do. That's kind of how we assess executive positions, whether it's mayor or president, you know, how how are things going for me and my family? You know, if they're feeling less safe, that may really influence how they assess these candidates as opposed to other voters that feel like, you know, things are going pretty well. I continue to like living here. I think we're going in a good direction that may be helpful for McLane.

PRENTICE: Governing at a local level on a day-to-day basis is a wonky business and. Right. Isn't that where the rubber meets the road? It's zoning. It’s land use. Now, that said, you've got to kiss the babies, cut the ribbons and plant the trees. You've got to get elected. But it does take a bit of a wonk.

KETTLER: I mean, you're really diving into some of these localized issues, which is why it has been interesting to see debates and discussions about things like annexing land and growing the city's footprint. And so it is interesting, once we start seeing candidates really dive into policy debates and not just kind of the partisan discussions and arguments we see in other races often.

PRENTICE: You made a really interesting point earlier in that it will require 50% plus one. And we have seen this movie… just four years ago. Indeed, there are two other men on the ballot. It remains to be seen whether they will move that needle. But you really don't have to move the needle too far to force a runoff. It seems very plausible that this goes to a runoff again. And then once we get to the runoff, turnout is usually quite low. And so that, you know, kind of looking at that runoff election is also really fascinating. But for McLean and Masterson as kind of the front runners there, I'm sure very focused on the November election, but also probably trying to think about, you know, how do I use resources in the very likely event this may go to a runoff election.

PRENTICE: Is it fair to say that retail politics still does matter in a city like Boise? What personal engagement have you had with this person? And does that not matter?

KETTLER: I think it does matter. I mean, one thing we find in the research is that door knocking those one-on-one conversations is often the most effective form of campaigning. It's hard. It can be it's very time-consuming. It's not the easiest thing to do. And for some people you're not going to change their minds, especially if partisan politics is coming into play in, you know, those one on one interactions can be really important. And so I think that and that's one thing that McLean campaign did a lot of last time was a lot of grassroots campaigning. And so I think we'll be watching, you know, is that happening again this time around? And for people who felt like her grassroots kind of focus, you know, last time, is that still carrying out this time and how that might affect their evaluation? And this election will also be interesting.

PRENTICE: And as far as their campaign resources, my guess is social media just has to get bigger. I'm not certain how big a piece of the pie it is, but it is getting bigger. Here it is. It is becoming a bigger factor. Yes.

KETTLER: Right. And we're seeing, you know, like on Facebook, a lot of ads, for example. And so that is another an important way for candidates to engage and reach out and talking about resources. So, you know, you want money for advertising, campaign signs, all these types of things. One thing that I think is really interesting, looking at the campaign finance reporting through the Idaho secretary of state, both McLean and Masterson are getting donations from outside the city of Boise, which is really fascinating. Why would people outside of Boise be so interested in this race and kind of going back to and, you know, other actors perhaps trying to nationalize or apply some partisan politics on this race?

PRENTICE: From a regional perspective, the fact is tens of thousands of people drive into Boise every day to go to work, use our roads, use our public services. And so, yeah, they want to they want to cut of this action.

KETTLER: That's a great point. Like what happens in Boise does affect a lot of people who may not necessarily live in Boise.

PRENTICE: I was thinking about really distinct differences between Masterson and McLean. And one of them I thought was really interesting that surfaced the other day at the City Club Forum. And the question was, in regard to Mayor McLean's position on national issues or state issues. In particular, her coming out to talk about abortion services or lack thereof. Mike Masterson was very blunt and said, I don't think it's the city's place to weigh in on these matters. And Mayor McLean said it absolutely is our place. And you can expect that I will speak up when something is in contrast to how she sees the values of the city. That's a really big divide.

KETTLER: I agree. And it's a really fascinating discussion to see them have. And it kind of goes to some research that I've always been really interested in is about, you know, who you look to for representing your interests. We live in a very conservative state where Republicans run, you know, like they hold all the statewide positions. They hold a big majority in the legislature at the county level, Ada County. They control positions. Mayor McLean may seems to be feeling like well, for a lot of particularly women on the issue of abortion, who do they have to represent to their concerns? There is a need for me to step into this role, but you could see how that like she may like she may be unique for that position. Whereas someone like Mike Masterson with his background, it would probably be a less comfortable position to step into even stepping aside from ideology.

PRENTICE: Well, we're now just days away from early voting. Is it fair to say that those people who were always going to vote for a candidate, those are the people who will vote early?

KETTLER: Yeah, that's exactly right. We tend to see people who vote regularly in every election. They are often the ones that are going to vote in this election as well, and they tend to be the ones that vote early. Now, it is interesting. We have a couple city council districts that with candidates that are unopposed and so there won't be a race for them to vote for voters to vote in in those districts. I don't I think that people who are motivated to vote in the mayoral race like that tends to be the one that drives people out anyways. But it is kind of an interesting dynamic that we have in this election.

PRENTICE: How much of a factor will turnout to be?

KETTLER: Turnout, I think, is often really important for how an election will play out. I think McLean did very well in the previous her previous mayoral election, even needing it to even having to go through a runoff election. And so I think kind of the key question is how much of that support that she had last time. You know, does she continue to hold this time or do we see more, you know, more kind of breaking up in that coalition?

PRENTICE: How do you see the final weeks of this campaign? A campaign can get down and dirty or they can try to keep things tidy. So do you have a sense in this particular race?

KETTLER: Well, so far, the entities that are going more negative are not the candidates themselves. Right. It's interest groups, outside groups, some of their supporters, but not really the candidates themselves too much yet. So, I think that'll be one thing to watch. Do the candidates themselves start to be more negative? They've McLean and Masterson both have seemed to, you know, not want to engage in that sort of politics. But I think that'll be one thing to kind of watch and how nasty it might get with these outside groups, even if the candidates don't want it to play out that way.

PRENTICE: Do you think there's a risk of being in an echo chamber in a campaign in the final weeks when the advice that you're getting is coming from people who are basically telling you, yes, every other day as opposed to where people really are and how to engage or connect to that undecided voter.

KETTLER: Well, it can be really hard to know public opinion, especially on local issues where we just don't have as much information anyway. So this is already a challenge for candidates to some degree to, you know, you can have a pretty good idea of of the general sentiment, but to really know who you're trying to talk to and what you really want to emphasize is already a challenge. And so I do think that this can be a challenge for campaigns. Sometimes, though, it sounds like they have a pretty good idea of some of the bigger issues to really focus on and whether you're emphasizing from the claims perspective the progress that that she believes her administration has been able to have, or. Masterson Emphasizing the issues or the weaknesses or things that need to be addressed and changed. So they, you know, thinking about affordable housing, public safety, kind of some of the governance questions, openness for, you know, representation, all these sorts of questions. But I do think it's always kind of interesting on how campaigns are run and what sort of steps we see them making down the road.

PRENTICE: We lack really good public polling. But do you have a sense of inside the campaign polling? Does Idaho have resources to really tap into even anecdotal information of what's out? There? Are there really good, legitimate organizations that help campaigns?

KETTLER: They definitely are. But polling in general is just getting more and more challenging because, you know, a lot of people may not have landlines and may not pick up a cell phone call from a number they don't know. And so even if campaigns are doing polling and perhaps spending a lot of money for it, there's always these concerns of, well, is the sample actually representative of the population just because there are some challenges.

PRENTICE: Those push texts that that I get that everyone gets why am I getting those are my sense is my phone number is being sold somewhere.

KETTLER: A lot of groups and entities may be purchasing numbers. They may be sharing contact information. You know, a lot of campaigns or parties, for example, will share voter lists or information with each other, especially when it's text messages. Often there are a lot of citizens that are uncomfortable receiving it. This way, it may not really understand either, like, where is this coming from? Why am I getting this? And is it safe to take to complete this as well?

PRENTICE: We could have a different conversation and I'm certain we will about closed or open primaries and party affiliation. But is it fair to say that most Idahoans still look at themselves as independent.

KETTLER: In general in the United States? It's a growing population of people that view themselves independent. Whether or not they're truly independent is a question they probably are usually voting with one party or the other. But we've seen, you know, within Idaho, some of these growing concerns or conflicts, particularly within the Republican Party. So people may vote to vote Republican, but may view themselves as independent and may be interested in revising or reforming how primaries are operated in the state.

PRENTICE: Do you think we are in a particular era of more elections being decided by single digits?

KETTLER: Oh, that's a great question. I haven't looked at the data recently. I mean, really, I'm obviously I'm thinking presidential races, But I think this is a pretty good example of some local elections. We can get really close elections. And that's where voter turnout, going back to an earlier point can be really impactful if it's going to be, you know, a really tight, close race. Again, it's hard to know without really good polling or insights. But some of these city council races where you've got multiple candidates running, they may be very, very close.

PRENTICE: We have one district where the race is already been decided in West Boise, which I think would be more certainly conservative than other districts in Boise. Folks in that district might not necessarily go to the polls and that could have an impact.

KETTLER: And so maybe not having a contested, competitive city council race won't necessarily play a big role. But I do think it's an important question and something that we really will need to look at is how does that play a role and how are the campaigns, especially the Masterson campaign, perhaps, you know, if you can't necessarily rely on a city council race to turn people out in that district, does his campaign now need to invest more resources there, or does the Willett campaign continue to be pretty active even though she isn't in a competitive race?

PRENTICE: I want to leave it at this. And that is it's easy to turn away from politics when things get nasty and ugly, and you just don't want to read or even consider it anymore. But an informed, engaged voter, which is to say looking at true issues and where people truly do stand, is always a good thing.

KETTLER: Definitely. It's great for people to to not just watch the ads from outside groups, but also go to the campaigns, read what their positions are, what their issues that they're highlighting, perhaps read some of the coverage or listen to coverage about four candidate forums, those types of things to really learn about what the candidates themselves are focusing on and not just not just getting our information from, you know, some of the negative advertising.

PRENTICE: I want to remind our listeners that they can listen to the full recording of the City Club Forum for all four candidates for mayor on our website. Boise State Public radio.org and on our app. Dr. Jaclyn Kettler, Boise State political scientist and professor and our go to source on this and so many other races and we look forward to our conversations leading all the way up to the big day. Thank you so much for giving me some time.

KETTLER: Always great to join you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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