These Idaho Republicans backed a Democratic attorney general candidate. Here’s why

·8 min read

An increasingly rare bipartisan campaign has surfaced in the race for Idaho attorney general.

Boise lawyer and lobbyist Tom Arkoosh claims loyalty to neither major political party, but he’ll have a “D” next to his name on the ballot when he faces Republican nominee and former Congressman Raúl Labrador in the November general election.

Labrador’s campaign quickly rebuked Arkoosh’s claim to partisan independence. But the first-time candidate is backed by the Idaho Democratic Party and a group of high-profile conservatives disillusioned by the Idaho GOP’s steady move rightward.

“I’m non-tribal. I think this office should be nonpartisan,” Arkoosh told the Idaho Statesman. “I’m a lawyer. I ascribe to the law and the rule of law. I don’t ascribe to these culture wars that are going on.”

Attorney turns to politics

Arkoosh lives in Garden City and works in Boise as a partner at Arkoosh Law Offices. He specializes in civil, commercial, administrative and natural resource law — all areas he touts for their relevance to the attorney general’s role.

The Idaho attorney general is the state’s top lawyer who represents, and provides legal advice to, state agencies, offices and boards as well as the Legislature. The attorney general also sits on the powerful State Board of Land Commissioners, known as the Land Board, which directs management of Idaho’s more than 2.5 million acres of state endowment land.

Arkoosh has argued cases at the Idaho Supreme Court and federal district court as well as state courts “too many times to count,” he said. He also litigated water rights cases for a decade.

“To be an (attorney general), you’ve got to know natural resources, you’ve got to know water,” Arkoosh said. “You’ve got to know commercial law, and I’ve done a tremendous amount of commercial litigation. You’ve got to know about agriculture.”

Arkoosh grew up on a farm in Gooding, where he was named high school valedictorian. He then attended Harvard University and received a bachelor’s degree in government and economics before returning home to study law at the University of Idaho.

After school, Arkoosh opened a law office in Emmett, where he practiced for five years. He then moved to Boise, working with various firms, including a stint with Capitol Law Group, which he helped form, before he started another solo practice. Arkoosh Law Offices has since grown to a six-member team.

Tony Park, former Idaho attorney general under Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus, said Arkoosh is a “highly regarded” attorney.

“No matter who you ask, if he knows anything about the practice of law and the people that do it in Idaho, Tom Arkoosh’s name always goes to the top of the list for integrity and strength of principle,” Park said during a news conference Tuesday.

Arkoosh is also a lobbyist. He has represented the Idaho Hydroelectric Producers Trust, also known as IdaHydro, a group of small hydroelectric plants that supply Idaho Power, and the Idaho Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, according to Idaho Secretary of State filings.

This summer, Peter Richardson, a fellow attorney specializing in public utilities, asked Arkoosh to run for attorney general when the Democratic primary winner, Steve Scanlin, withdrew from the race, Arkoosh said.

Like other Democratic candidates, Arkoosh was a registered Republican so that he could vote in the closed GOP primary. But Arkoosh said he’s been unaffiliated “my whole life.”

“It was time to back my mouth with a little courage,” he said of joining the race.

Idaho conservatives back Democrat

A bipartisan group of seasoned politicians coalesced behind Arkoosh, despite his lack of political experience.

His campaign chairs include Park, Democratic attorney general; Cherie Buckner-Webb, a longtime Democratic state senator from Boise; Ben Ysursa, Republican secretary of state for more than a decade; Lydia Justice-Edwards, past GOP state treasurer and legislator; and Judi Danielson, a one-time Republican state senator who now identifies as independent.

During a news conference Tuesday at the Idaho Human Rights Memorial, Arkoosh’s conservative supporters said they think he’ll maintain the integrity of the attorney general’s office amid the Idaho GOP’s embrace of hard-line partisanship and extremism. Labrador embodies the party’s new direction, they said.

“I often tell people, ‘My party left me, not I who left the party,’” Danielson said. “Moderates are not acceptable in my former party. As you can see, from this group, it is about the man and his qualifications, not necessarily the party.”

Switching sides is not without risk for Arkoosh’s backers who still identify as Republicans. When Jim Jones, former Republican attorney general and Idaho Supreme Court justice, announced he would be Arkoosh’s treasurer, the state GOP swiftly condemned him.

“Jones’s decision to leave the party and orchestrate the campaign of a political opportunist like Tom Arkoosh is a sad and disappointing end to his time in the Idaho Republican Party,” said Idaho GOP Chairwoman Dorothy Moon in a news release.

Jones is no longer a registered Republican — he’s an independent — but the same isn’t true for Ysursa, who risks being blocked from voting in future GOP primaries for supporting a Democrat.

During last month’s Idaho GOP Convention, delegates OK’d a party rule change that would bar voters from participating in the Republican primary if they have financially supported a Democrat in the last two years.

Ysursa told the Statesman he’s skeptical the Legislature will alter state law in a way that would block longtime Republicans from voting in the primary. But he’s disappointed the party is reversing its longheld “big tent,” inclusive approach, championed by former GOP Chairman Phil Batt, who later served as governor.

“The Republican Party tent now is so darn small, you can have four or five people in a pup tent,” Ysursa said.

Arkoosh’s supporters compared him to current Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, who, they said, values the rule of law over partisanship.

“That’s the way the (attorney general’s) office ought to be run, that’s the way Lawrence did it,” Ysursa said. “I think Tom would do that, so that’s why I’m here.”

Will the next AG play politics?

Before the May primary, Labrador attacked Wasden for declining to challenge the 2020 election results and for defending the governor’s public health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Labrador vowed to more actively pursue legal action against the federal government when it “overreaches.”

Labrador also has been an active member of Central District Health’s board of health since securing an appointment in January. In May, Labrador urged the board to flout federal guidance and stop recommending masks that curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Arkoosh, meanwhile, told the Statesman he would not seek out political issues as attorney general, like, he believes, Labrador will.

“I think the (attorney general), like any lawyer, responds to the client’s need for counseling and advice, and if there’s litigation, protection,” he said.

But Arkoosh also said he would not defend a recent Idaho law criminalizing abortion. The Department of Justice’s lawsuit alleging Idaho’s abortion ban violates federal law was predictable, Arkoosh posted on Facebook last week.

The abortion statute “would make criminals of health care professionals who respond to the needs of pregnant women in dire health care circumstances,” Arkoosh wrote. “Knowing that Idaho’s abortion statute violates the federal health care statutes, were I attorney general, I could not defend the Idaho law.”

Brent Littlefield, an advisor to Labrador’s campaign, cast doubt on whether Arkoosh, who “surrounded himself with a pile of out-of-touch politicians,” would keep politics out of the attorney general’s office.

“Raúl has said he will always aggressively defend Idaho’s laws as enacted regardless of partisanship,” Littlefield told the Statesman by email. “His Democrat opponent has already stated he will fail to perform his constitutional duties and will refuse to defend statutes with which he disagrees.”

Can bipartisan candidate win?

Whether voters will unite behind a bipartisan candidate remains to be seen.

Republican voters in this year’s primary dumped Wasden, who campaigned on a “rule of law” platform, in favor of Labrador, who promised to use the attorney general’s office to battle political rivals, including Gov. Brad Little and the federal government.

Arkoosh raised more than $90,000 in campaign contributions in just two weeks. Labrador has raised $650,000 since November.

Jaclyn Kettler, an associate professor of political science at Boise State University, told the Statesman by email that partisanship is the dominant factor influencing many voters’ decisions in general elections. And Republican voters far outnumber Democrats in Idaho.

But bipartisan campaigns have been successful elsewhere in recent years, Kettler noted. Democrat Laura Kelly defeated a Donald Trump ally and 2020 election denier in the 2018 Kansas gubernatorial campaign after Kelly pledged to work across the aisle.

Americans are concerned about political polarization, Kettler said, citing a recent poll that found polarization is among the top three issues facing the country, according to voters.

Candidates’ emphasis on bipartisanship “can be an attempt to broaden their pool of supporters, which may be especially important for minority party candidates in statewide races,” Kettler said. The race between Labrador and Arkoosh “could set up some interesting debates about the role of the attorney general throughout the campaign,” she said.