For 18 years, Republican Sen. John Andreason represented the partys dwindling moderate wing, deflecting primary challenges from purists who called him a Republican in Name Only, or RINO.
Andreasons retirement in a district that includes Centennial and Capital high school attendance areas will decide whether Democrats expand their reach into the suburbs, offering prospects of long-term gains.
As a result, its Idahos most expensive legislative race.
Democrats nominated Betty Richardson, 59, Bill Clintons appointee as U.S. attorney for Idaho. As Ada County Democratic chairwoman, she helped engineer her partys high-water mark in the Legislature in the last 50 years, the 21-21 Senate tie in 1990.
Republicans chose another veteran pol. Fred Martin, 62, worked for Congressman George Hansen and on Boise city races that ended the mall wars in the 1980s, leading to construction of the Boise Towne Square.
District 15 runs, roughly, from Maple Grove Road on the east to Eagle Road on the west, south of Chinden Boulevard and north of Interstate 84. Both candidates agree that this is GOP territory, but how Republican is the question.
Richardson says that polling puts it at 45 percent GOP, 28 percent Democratic and 27 percent independent. Martins measure is the last three elections for secretary of state, controller and school superintendent, where the GOP averaged 66 percent of the vote.
Both say that GOP Gov. Butch Otter is focused on the contest. Richardson, a Lewiston native, challenged Otter for 1st District Congress in 2002, faring far better than Otters two other opponents, but still carrying only 39 percent.
Otter attended a Martin fundraiser at the Arid Club last month. Because of them running against one another 10 years ago, understandably he has more than a passing interest, said Martin, who grew up in Fort Hall and owns a Dish Network franchise.
Richardson said shes been told by a lobbyist friend of Otters keen eye. I suspect he would just as soon not have my voice speaking out in opposition, she said.
Otter declined comment.
Martin expects to win and said internal polls show Mitt Romneys coattails helping him. Martin touts his 1975 election as student body president at Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) and his work as a former seminary teacher.
Because it has been a Republican district for so long, it would be embarrassing to lose, he said. I feel some pressure as the standard-bearer of the Republican Party. I not only want to win, I want to win with a large percentage.
Richardson said she knows that Democrats are unlikely to boost their numbers much beyond the 20 seats they now hold in the 105-member Legislature. Still, she said West Boise voters should send her instead of Martin.
I may only be able to give voice to the hopes and concerns of people who arent otherwise represented, she said. I may only be able to stand up and ask good questions, I may only be able to cause people to pause in the haste to pass legislation and think about whether there might be a better path. If I do that, over time, I can be effective.
Richardson has raised more than any legislative candidate statewide; combined, the race is Idahos priciest. Richardson collected $87,400 through Sept. 30. Martin raised $66,400, though $27,600 of that he loaned his campaign. Both have been working hard. Martins pickup sporting a 4-foot-by-8-foot billboard is ubiquitous.
On the key statewide issue affirming or overturning Superintendent Tom Lunas Students Come First school laws Martin is stuck between GOP loyalties and the districts apparent hostility to the changes.
Martin wont reveal how hell vote, saying he defers to the will of the people statewide. But he adds that he quit teaching at Highland High School in Pocatello after five years because he couldnt support his family. He said teachers are underpaid and undervalued.
Teachers in Idaho feel theyre not loved and appreciated, and I would want to make sure that they know, at least as far as Im concerned, that I appreciate what theyre doing, Martin said.
Richardson says shell vote no on Props 1, 2 and 3: It is truly unfortunate that the school superintendent has so dismissed the opinions of classroom teachers.
She says Martin is recasting himself as a moderate when he affirmed every plank in the GOP platform, including repeal of the 17th Amendment, which gives voters, not legislatures, the power to elect U.S. senators.
I think Freds trying very hard to run as a vanilla Republican, she said.
Martin said he opposes repeal and didnt read the platform carefully enough when he completed a party questionnaire.
I like vanilla ice cream immensely. If shes calling me vanilla, I consider that a compliment, he said.
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics