Paulette Jordan gently nudges her horse into the Idaho field, her yellow riding gloves loosely holding onto the reins as the sun begins to set on the nearly triple-digit temperature summer day. The Democratic candidate for governor pauses and pats the horse’s neck. “Been too long,” she says, and then moves the horse into a trot.
Running for the highest office in a state that has never elected a female governor doesn’t leave much time for riding. But it’s on Idaho’s most remote and independent lands where Jordan feels most connected, as both a person and a political candidate.
Idaho has been a graveyard for Democrats seeking state or federal positions for decades. But Jordan’s passion for her roots and battle cry that the state work for the people and not the other way round are winning attention and funding. She’s being watched as a possible model for Democrats to win in rural areas.
“I was raised by the community of Idaho. I was raised by the land,” says Jordan, her voice calm as it carries her central pledge to rural voters — to fight political cronyism and corporate corruption.
“It’s my turn, my responsibility to take on this government that has sat idle and disserved the public. The citizens of Idaho deserve better. We’re saying we’re not here to be a part of the status quo or the establishment. That’s how we in Idaho are as a people. We are fiercely independent. That needs to be driven back into our government. It needs to work for us, not against us.”
Chance at history
The Idaho gubernatorial ticket has never seen a politician like Jordan before. At 38, she is decades younger than the GOP candidate, 64-year-old Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little. Should she win, Jordan would make history on two fronts — the first Native American and the first woman to become Idaho’s governor.
Her chances of winning in this deeply conservative, overwhelmingly white state appear slim, if not impossible. Idaho’s latest voter registration numbers show Republicans outpace Democrats by a margin of more than 4 to 1.
The last time Idaho voted in a Democrat as governor was in 1990. Democratic candidates for governor since then have been cut from the same mold — politically moderate, white, older men. Their candidacies have been so abysmal that the Idaho Statesman referred to them with this blanket statement: “the sacrificial lamb in the governor’s general election race.”
The most damning data for those looking for a Democrat surprise in November — Trump won Idaho by 32 points in 2016.
But Jordan, an Idaho state legislator, has already bucked the trend, keeping her seat in a historically Republican rural district when a number of her fellow Democratic state legislators were defeated in the 2016 Trump wave. She was first elected in 2014, beating a Republican incumbent, drawing heavily on the Native American vote in her district.
Jordan, a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, grew up in Plummer, Idaho, a rural town of about 1,000 residents, about a third of whom live below the poverty line. She draws on that biography — the childhood lessons of her tribal elders and the struggles of her rural neighbors — to form a platform that is unabashedly progressive, but nuanced for rural Idaho. She touts independence from party politics, both from Boise’s power structure and the ugliness in Washington.
“We’re not speaking to political party issues,” Jordan tells CNN. “We’re speaking to the concerns of the people. The path to victory is talking to the people, people who are overlooked, disconnected to governance themselves.”
If that sounds Trumpian, the details are certainly different.
All about the land
Among the recognizably Democrat planks of her platform, Jordan calls for improving public schools — Education Weeks ranks Idaho 48th among the states and DC for educational performance and bottom for equitable distribution of funding. She also supports expanding Medicaid and has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood. Jordan proudly says she’s not taking any money from the NRA but adds she’s a certified and trained gun owner, who counts hunting as a hobby. She walks carefully around restricting assault rifles, preferring to talk about a gun owner’s personal accountability.
But the issue most central and personal to Jordan is not one on most Democrats’ lists of talking points: keeping state public lands in the custody of the public. Her fear is that privatizing public lands means that areas would be auctioned off to wealthy people or corporations for private profit, encroaching on public hunting, fishing and recreation. She’s pledged to support an agreement that allows the state of Idaho to co-manage public lands with the US Forest Service for continued access. That issue, Jordan believes, is a rural and urban Idaho value shared across party lines, but one that elites in both parties have forgotten about.
“We are igniting a people who are often overlooked, ignored, and haven’t been served for decades,” says Jordan, who believes she can woo people who normally vote for GOP candidates. “These lands, they deserve representation. Republicans want what I want, they want independence. They want to be left alone. They want to live upon these lands with freedom. They don’t want overregulation and the government controlling every aspect of their lives. They want the support they need.”
Democrats listen for wake-up call
Democrats across the country like Joe Trippi are taking note of Jordan’s rural-focused campaign.
Trippi is a veteran of presidential races and was the chief media strategist on the Doug Jones campaign, which caused a massive upset in the Alabama Senate contest last December. Trump had won that state by 28 points but Jones beat out Republican Roy Moore, as the latter faced accusations by several women of pursuing relationships with them when they were teenagers, and in some cases, of molestation and sexual assault. Moore repeatedly denied all the allegations.
Trump won Idaho by an even greater margin of 32 points and while no major scandal is hovering over the gubernatorial candidates as there was with the Senate race in Alabama, Trippi contends “it is possible” for Jordan to win by stitching together a coalition of voters, even in bright red Trump country.
“Her running the way she has, in defense of rural Idaho and defending it against the elites in Washington, has been a message that could prove very successful,” says Trippi.
“Does she win? Does she do significantly better than previous Democrats in Idaho? If so, that would be a wake-up call and we’ll all be thinking differently about how best to reach out to voters we haven’t been able to carry before. There were a whole lot of people who thought we couldn’t do it in Alabama. We did.”
Hunting for votes
Jordan’s progressive positions have grabbed the attention of Andrew Miller, a married father of two girls who lives in Boise. He voted for Trump in 2016, hoping he would shake up politics, and wants more change from another outsider. This is the kind of conservative or independent voter Jordan needs if she is to cause the upset her supporters want. Miller says he will vote for Jordan because he sees the GOP candidate, current Lt. Gov. Little, as too entrenched in the state’s political structure.
“I just think she has a better pedigree and background to support and protect our public lands,” says Miller. “I think she’ll support folks like us who want to keep public lands open and available and maybe not so much in the back pockets of other people who might want to influence her.”
Miller paused, then added admiringly, “I think she has a pretty good shot with a rifle, too.”
But for every Andrew Miller, there’s a Rick Zogg. A resident of Canyon County, a conservative stronghold, Zogg couldn’t recall the name of the Democrat running for governor. He wasn’t concerned about learning Jordan’s name because he, like many he knows, always votes Republican.
“Politically, I think it’s very conservative here, with a big farming community,” says Zogg, who moved to Idaho because he felt his native state of California was simply too liberal for him. “Everybody that runs around here on (the) Democrat side seems to be just, very, very to the left.”
The Rick Zoggs of Idaho are why Jonathan Parker, chairman of the Idaho Republican Party, says, “I think we’re in a good position,” though he adds they are not being complacent. Parker notes Jordan has energized the Democratic base, drawing so many supporters in Idaho’s primary that some precincts ran out of ballots.
“We’re paying very close attention to Paulette. We’re not taking her lightly. She’s getting a lot of national attention, something that candidates in Idaho aren’t used to getting,” says Parker.
Brad Little’s campaign declined to speak to CNN for this story.
Longtime Idaho political columnist Chuck Malloy describes the lieutenant governor as someone who “doesn’t inspire people with a stump speech. But I don’t think that Idahoans want flashy.”
Malloy calls Jordan bright, young and inspirational, but likely unable to pull together enough voters to win in this deeply Republican state, even with a rural message. “I don’t see that kind of sea change. Where is she going to get her votes?” says Malloy. “Until proven otherwise, Idaho is a Republican state.”
Jordan bucks the naysayers and believes in this political time, when Democratic voters are hungry for change and Republicans are tired of the fighting in Washington, she will win. “The people have been fooled for far too long. Now they’re waking up. It’s our responsibility to get to them.”