The hottest election this fall isn't about individuals. It's about an issue - whether Idaho should have a state lottery.
It's warming up rapidly. Since the start of October, the airwaves have been filled with commercials from the anti-lottery organization, "Consider," linking the lottery issue with wide-open gambling.The pro-lottery groups have been countering the best they can, but acknowledge they won't be able to match the media blitz from the anti-lottery people.
In a year when Idaho has no races for statewide office, no U.S. Senate race and two congressional campaigns where the incumbents are strongly favored, much of the attention is centered on the lottery proposal.
Lottery backers thought they had the battle won two years ago. A state lottery was on the ballot, and won by 75,000 votes. Only 12 of the 44 counties voted against it. All were in eastern Idaho, with the furthest west being Cassia County. Not a single county in southwestern or northern Idaho opposed the lottery.
In the counties bordering Oregon and Washington, both of which have state lotteries, support was particularly strong.
Opponents blocked the lottery with lawsuits. Eventually the Legislature decided to ask voters for a second opinion, this time removing a flat constitutional ban on the lottery.
Lawmakers also passed legislation setting the lottery in motion if the amendment passes.
All that was a year and a half ago. The issue sat idle until last month, and then the battle started.
"Consider" is a coalition of church and moral groups spearheading the lottery battle. Smaller organizations have grown up to promote the lottery.
Who is spending how much is an interesting question.
"Consider" Director Randy Furniss acknowledged that of this week, his organization has at least $200,000. He won't say how much more. That won't be disclosed until financial reports are required next month.
The group also has been hinting strongly that a lot of out-of-state gambling money is backing the lottery. But the Idaho lottery groups deny it.
Larry La Rocco, head of "Idahoans for the Lottery," said his group has only a couple of thousand dollars. Carl Shell of "Keeping Idaho Alive" said his organization got a single donation of $4,000 last year and that has covered most of the spending.
Sen. Mike Blackbird, D-Kellogg, a leading northern Idaho pro-lottery spokesman, talks of raising $30,000 to $40,000 in the final few weeks to boost the lottery.
"Consider" has been doing most of the mass media advertising, and Furniss won't say how much more is planned. "The advertising is paid for," is all he will say.
It's an interesting election issue because it will be fought on unusual grounds. The first lottery vote, 226,816 for vs. 151,132 against, was almost purely regional. The 32 favoring counties were pitted against 12 eastern and southeastern counties opposing.
But the opponents' problem is immediately evident. In the 12 opposing counties, 48,319 "no" votes were cast. In the five largest counties supporting the lottery, there was a plurality of more than 50,000 votes for the lottery, with 29 other counties also favoring the proposal.
La Rocco said if it were purely a question of a state lottery, there appears to be no question the lottery would win. "The opponents are trying to obfuscate the issue, bringing in things like casino gambling and organized crime," he said.
But the huge media campaign put on by the opponents has lottery sponsors worried, despite the 75,000-vote margin two years ago. La Rocco said the battle will be to get all the lottery voters who thought they decided the question two years ago to vote again.
"The religious groups are fairly well-organized with their impassioned media blitz," La Rocco said. "It's easier to vote no than yes."
He said the lottery opponents are using "desperation strategy" in the last-minute blitz.
Furniss has been quietly working for months to organize what he says are "thousands" of volunteers working against the lottery, a figure estimated as high as 10,000.
"We are organized down to the precinct level, every precinct in the state (884) as far as I know," he said.
"Keeping Idaho Alive" is operating on a more modest scale. Shell said 5,000 brochures went out last week, titled, "The Facts: Why You Should Support the Lottery." It went statewide, and Shell said a few thousand more may be printed next week.
Another factor has some political leaders uneasy. There are indications the 1986 lottery vote brought out people who usually don't take part in the election process.