Idaho’s gubernatorial election will be historic no matter who wins. On one side potentially- Idaho’s first female governor -- and the nation’s first Native American. On the other, Republican Brad Little who even his supporters call … low key. But he is a traditional conservative running in a traditionally conservative state.
It’s August during election season.
Where else would a politician be other than trying to shake as many hands as possible at the Western Idaho Fair?
Nearly everyone who stops to talk to Brad Little seems to be a recent California transplant, including Gail Anderson.
"Hi, sir. How are you?" she asks Little.
She sidles up to him with her grandson in tow.
"This is the next governor," she tells her grandson.
"What’s your name?" Little asks the boy.
Little is dressed in a button up shirt, jeans and well-worn cowboy boots. Anderson is impressed.
“You know what I like about him immediately is the fact that he remind me of my dad: an old rancher kind of guy from [the] old school – very approachable,” she said.
Anderson’s quick impression sounds familiar to Jasper LiCalzi. He chairs the Department of Political Economy at College of Idaho and says that’s how a lot of people see Little.
“He almost comes out of central casting. He’s third generation rancher, he wears the cowboy hat, he has the perfect family and the children and the grandchildren and such,” LiCalzi said.
He says that image might stick in people’s heads, but…
“I don’t think they really know him. I think they’ve heard his name, they’ve seen him, but I think he’s a hard person to get to know," he said.
Little is 64. He was born in Emmett, Idaho to a ranching dynasty.
His grandfather emigrated here from Scotland more than a century ago. He was known as the “sheep king” because he built up one of the largest sheep herds in the U.S. The family eventually sold the flock and have raised cattle ever since.
Brad Little says when he was growing up, he never thought of doing anything else. In fact, he’s been a rancher for most of his life.
“That’s what I knew, that’s who my friends were, that’s who I operated with," Little said.
But the family was involved in another business - politics. Little’s dad, David, was a state senator.
And in 2001 Little officially entered this second family business to become a state senator himself. He was elected into a leadership position almost immediately. State Senator Shawn Keough served with him for years.
She says he’s not your typical charismatic, larger than life leader, like Idaho’s current governor, Butch Otter.
“He’s not as outgoing as Butch is, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to know you. I think it’s just a little harder for him," Keough said.
It’s a stark contrast to Governor Otter who famously entered and won a Mr. Tight Jeans Contest when he was lieutenant governor.
Little can be shy according to his colleagues. Someone who doesn’t like to be the center of attention. Someone who’s more comfortable talking policy than his personal life.
Like Otter, Little does have critics in his own party though. He’s been called a RINO - Republican In Name Only. Wayne Hoffman runs a conservative think-tank called the Idaho Freedom Foundation.
“I wouldn’t call Brad a liberal, but I also wouldn’t define him as a staunch conservative," Hoffman said.
Hoffman faulted the then-state senator for votes he cast to raise taxes. But he also gave Little a thumbs up for other votes he took to cut spending. And Hoffman says he’s keeping an open mind on what Little could accomplish in office.
“Brad has an opportunity to chart his own course. I would hate to predefine what that course will be,” he said.
On the campaign trail Little has talked a lot about cutting taxes and reinvesting in Idaho’s education system. The goal he says is to keep younger Idahoans from moving out of state.
And he wants to meet that goal in partnership with the legislature.
“I don’t want to beat my chest," Little said. "I want to say, ‘There’s the goal, more or less, let’s get there. How can I work with you to get there?”
A Democrat winning the governor’s seat in Idaho may be about as rare as drawing a bighorn sheep hunting tag, but that doesn’t leave Little complacent.
His opponent, Paulette Jordan, has energized voters in ways not seen for decades and he’s taking her campaign seriously.