Idaho Democrats: Opportunity knocks

The party says 2014 presents its candidates with their best prospects in a generation.

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comJune 20, 2014 

Idaho Democrats begin their state convention Friday in the same Moscow hotel where the rent in the GOP fabric split wide for all to see last week.

Although Republicans' failure to pass a platform or elect officers is an easy target, Chairman Larry Kenck said that won't be the focus of the Democrats' two-day meeting.

"Lambasting what happened to the Republicans is not leadership," Kenck said. "We're not going to fight with each other, but work on solutions to education and the economy and raising our citizens' standard of living. That's what we want to accomplish at our convention."

That's not to say Democrats don't see GOP disunity as providing a rare shot to erode Republican control of all seven statewide offices, all four congressional seats and 80 percent of the Legislature.

"We've got the best chance we've had in two decades to elect someDemocrats to statewide offices," said gubernatorial nominee A.J. Balukoff. "It's important we make the most of it."

Even former Senate Republican Leader Rod Beck, a key agent of still unresolved GOP discord, acknowledges Democrats will be upbeat.

"They'll be holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya,' " Beck said. "The longer this goes on, the more damage to the Republican Party."

House Minority Leader John Rusche, of Lewiston, said Democrats must convince voters accustomed to voting GOP to hold the majority accountable.

"The message is that for 20-plus years we've been at the bottom of the barrel as far as education and family income," Rusche said. "Isn't it time for new leadership so we can do better?"

ROUSING 'LAZY DEMS'

Jana Jones, the candidate for superintendent of public instruction, is considered the Democrat most likely to win, against newcomer Sherri Ybarra. Jones came within 2 percentage points of winning the 2006 race against now-outgoing GOP Superintendent Tom Luna.

Jones said the convention will brand Democrats as the party of public schools and higher education.

"We're united," Jones said. "You will see a focus on making our investment in our kids our No. 1 priority."

The convention, with about 210 delegates, is an opportunity for relative unknowns - U.S. Senate candidate Nels Mitchell, Boise Rep. Holli Woodings, running for secretary of state, and Deborah Silver, candidate for treasurer - to win over volunteers.

"We're centrist Democrats and we appeal more to the average Idaho voter," Mitchell said, noting that 56 percent of registered voters decline to affiliate with a political party. Motivating "lazy Democrats" who skip voting in nonpresidential years is vital, he said.

Said Woodings: "The best outcome is delegates will see me as a viable candidate and somebody they want to get behind and help spread that message in their counties."

REMEMBERING 1994

Rusche predicted close contests for Balukoff, Jones and Woodings in her race against GOP Rep. Lawerence Denney. He said Silver will give incumbent Treasurer Ron Crane a serious challenge.

The three federal elections - Mitchell vs. Sen. Jim Risch, state Rep. Shirley Ringo vs. U.S. Rep Raul Labrador and former Congressman Richard Stallings vs. incumbent Rep. Mike Simpson - are tougher.

"The congressional races are very difficult because they have such a huge amount of outside money," Rusche said.

Political scientist Jim Weatherby said Democrats' prospects appear their best since 1994, when they expected to win the governorship, held the 1st Congressional District and had strong candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general.

As it turned out, Idaho donkeys drowned in the "Contract for America" wave, the GOP winning the governorship, both congressional races and all but one statewide contest.

Democrats need to affirm their autonomy from the national party, Weatherby said. "The Republicans are very good at nationalizing the election and putting up billboards of A.J. Balukoff with Barack Obama," he said.

But if the GOP doesn't heal, Weatherby said, disaffected moderates voting for Democrats and tea party voters staying home or voting for independent candidates might produce upsets.

"It's kind of like negative campaigning," Rusche said. "It doesn't do you any good to smear your opponent but sometimes it keeps his voters home."

LASTING GOP DIVISION?

Ringo is leaving the Legislature after seven terms to make what she concedes is a steep climb against Labrador. She said GOP disharmony and a strong Democratic turnout give her hope.

"I want to make sure the delegates understand the dynamic I'm seeing," Ringo said. "If we're smart and we work hard, we really have a chance to put together a winning campaign."

Republican infighting is part of her formula.

"We've seen times when they would seem unhappy with each other and then by the time November rolls around, they've found a way to patch everything up. ... More recently, I'm feeling like that rift is running deeper," Ringo said.

Stallings, who was in Congress from 1985 to 1993, said the laughable GOP governor's debate in May, last week's convention shenanigans and what he called "nastiness" plays into Democrats' hands in a state that cherishes civility.

"They seem to enjoy picking on the misfortunate, downtrodden and the poor," Stallings said. "How tough would it be to increase the minimum wage so you could raise 100,000 Idahoans out of their desperate situation? And yet they're concerned about protecting tax cuts for the rich. It's a party that's totally out of balance."

Stallings said Republicans risk the perception they're unfit to govern.

"We're the party of diversity, we're the ones that should be pulling in 10 different directions," he said. "And here you have basically an aging, white political group that spent two days beating the hell out of each other."

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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