Idaho’s Freakshow Debate

The state’s gubernatorial debate on Wednesday was great entertainment, but was it good for democracy?

Jim Hadley/Idaho Public Television, via AP

Wednesday’s debate in Idaho’s governor’s race may have been the most exciting moment in the state’s politics since Larry Craig was busted for his “wide stance” in an airport bathroom.

It featured incumbent Republican Governor Butch Otter facing off against State Senator Russ Fulcher, who is trying to primary Otter from the right. Then there was the freak show. Two fringe candidates, Walt Bayes and Harley Brown were included and their participation made the debate go viral on the Internet. Brown, who insisted he wasn’t crazy, talked about how God had called him to be president and how he had the presidential seal tattooed on his arm accordingly. Bayes read Bible verses on stage and linked the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl to the Book of Revelations. The Internet exploded with glee, with sites from the Washington Post to Buzzfeed to Gawker trumpeting the debate. It seemed everyone enjoyed it. After all, who doesn’t like a good freak show? Well, it seems Russ Fulcher doesn’t.

Fulcher’s campaign sent out a statement blasting Bayes and Brown’s participation in the debate, which he described as “making a laughing stock out of Idaho.” The gubernatorial hopeful raged “Although they did not meet the debate’s qualifying criteria, [G]overnor Otter demanded inclusion of two perennial candidates, Walt Bayes and Harley Brown, as a contingency of his participation in the only debate he would agree to. As a result, the ‘debate’ turned from a serious discussion regarding the position for Idaho’s Chief Executive, to a mockery of the [R]epublican [P]arty and of Idaho.” The Republican hopeful also vowed that, when elected, “I will not subject my party or my state to this type of public humiliation.”

It’s hard to fault Otter’s strategy in insisting Bayes and Brown’s presence. This was the only debate that he agreed to and nothing the incumbent or his opponent said was noticed. Instead, everyone just paid attention to the freakshow. The problem, of course, is that Idaho Republican voters were deprived of a chance to fully examine the two credible candidates running. On the bright side though, the rest of us got to be entertained.