Points to ponder:
Donald Trump improbably won the Republican presidential nomination by defeating 16 opponents. But he lost in Idaho.
For the Democrats, Hillary Clinton held off Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. But not in Idaho.
Republicans worry that their national convention in July will devolve into an angry, fractious spectacle. Democrats hope to link arms in unanimous praise for their standard-bearer, even though Sanders has refused to leave the race officially and endorse Clinton.
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The nation might wait with bated breath to see what will happen at July’s national party conventions, but it’s a safe bet they will look different from the ones held here in June. (Democrats concluded theirs Saturday.)
Throughout this presidential election cycle, Idaho, more or less as usual, has marched to the beat of its own drum, on both sides of the political aisle.
What does that mean for Democrats and Republicans in the Gem State? How do they differ from their national ranks? What do national races portend for Idaho races in November? And where is Idaho as a state trending politically?
Both Idaho parties are evolving, generationally and demographically, but don’t expect the national race to influence local races much, or for the political scales, heavily weighted to Republicans, to shift.
How the two parties evolved in Idaho
In case you missed it, Idaho is a deeply conservative state. Gallup’s annual ranking this year puts it at No. 2, after Alabama.
As with most of the Intermountain West, it was settled by independent, self-sufficient pioneers. Idahoans resent being fenced in, though today the barriers are more ideological than physical.
In the post-Civil War decades, from Idaho’s early territorial days into statehood, the Republican Party came to embrace the limited-government principles Idahoans liked. The GOP has dominated state politics ever since.
The best run Democrats ever had was from roughly the 1970s to the mid-1990s. Two Democratic governors — Cecil Andrus and John Evans, then Andrus again — combined for six straight terms in the Statehouse, from 1970 to 1994. Influential Sen. Frank Church served four terms through 1980. Democrats reached their legislative high-water mark in 1990, when they managed a tie for seats in the state Senate and only a 2-1 deficit in the House.
But by the mid-1980s, the traditional constituencies Democrats relied on had already started to fade. Lunch-pail workers became Reagan Democrats. Right-to-work laws, passed here in 1985, undermined the clout of unions. Logging, mining, railroads and other industries contracted.
And nationally, the Democratic Party went another direction. Environmentalism, for example, which in Idaho had meant recreation, hunting, fishing and managed resource use, came to emphasize efforts such as species and habitat protection.
“You saw the state Democratic Party start to morph more into the national party, which was far more liberal than Idaho,” said Chris Carlson, former press secretary to Andrus and a founder of Gallatin Public Affairs. “It started to alienate a lot of Democrats who’d already flirted with and been attracted to and had voted for Ronald Reagan. I think the party ended up becoming what I call the wine-and-cheese-liberal set in Idaho.”
For a visual of that evolution, look at the state turnout for the 1964 presidential election, the last time a Democrat won here (Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater). Idaho’s Panhandle at the time rippled with blue-collar labor muscle and went solidly Democratic.
Today, with shifting demographics that include the arrival of out-of-state conservatives seeking friendly natives, North Idaho is now the most conservative region of the state. The 2008 presidential map shows the change: In the Panhandle only Latah County, home to Moscow and the University of Idaho, went Democratic for Barack Obama over John McCain. The 2012 results, with favorite Mormon son Mitt Romney, were even redder.
“When we had the growth in the late ’80s and Democrats did well, I think a lot of us misread those migration patterns and we thought that this migration would moderate our politics,” said Jim Weatherby, a longtime Idaho political analyst and emeritus professor at Boise State University. “But it has made it more conservative and has added to the division that we’ve had within the Republican Party for decades.”
Republican resurgence and Idaho today
In 1992, Phil Batt became state Republican chairman and led a bottom-up reorganization of the party.
Republicans regained solid majorities in the Statehouse, and Batt was elected governor in 1994. Since then, with few exceptions, Republicans have held all statewide offices and both U.S. Senate and House seats. Supermajorities in the Legislature have hovered around 4-1.
The party is far from monolithic. It breaks down into divisions that can be broadly classified as “establishment” Republicans, libertarians and heirs to the tea party movement, a label that has lost currency lately. As state Democrats moved left, a rising bloc of far-right Republicans has redefined what the term “conservative” means in Idaho.
“In our minds, you didn’t get much more conservative than a Canyon County conservative, but some of the people involved in the party these days would say I’m a RINO,” said Phil Reberger, a former chief of staff to Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, Sen. Steve Symms and other Republicans who is now a partner in Sullivan & Reberger, a Boise lobbying and strategy firm.
“Usually they’re people that haven’t been involved in the party very long, but they feel comfortable calling others ‘Republican in Name Only.’ ”
Primaries and caucuses
A movement to “purify” state Republican candidates — that is, make them more conservative — led right-wingers in the state GOP to sue the state in 2011 and push, successfully, to let the party close its primaries to non-Republicans. Reberger thinks closed primaries, now in place for three elections, “did not accomplish their goals,” though it has led to a surge in party enrollment.
After this year’s GOP presidential primary, Republicans for the first time surpassed unaffiliated independents in overall state voter enrollment.
The practical impact of that shift is negligible, however. Independents here already lean heavily Republican, so enrollment gains have not brought a sudden surge in Republican voters. That said, Republicans now hold a 5-1 enrollment advantage over Democrats.
So what do this year’s results show?
In other states, Trump made opponents look like first-time candidates for high school class president. In Idaho, however, he took a drubbing from Ted Cruz, who had 45 percent to Trump’s 28 percent in a record turnout in the March 8 primary. Marco Rubio, one of the perceived establishment candidates, ran a distant third with 16 percent.
Trump’s previous anti-Mormon comments and questionable conservative bona fides did him in: He lost in the conservative Panhandle, in Mormon Eastern Idaho, and in areas where the economy is relatively good. Given the state’s anti-establishment tendencies, Cruz was the natural alternative to Trump, not Rubio or Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
As in the Republican primary, the March 22 Democratic presidential caucus drew a huge turnout. Thousands waited in lines for hours to participate at the Ada County venue, overwhelming party organizers at Boise Centre and the adjacent CenturyLink Arena. More than 9,000 votes were cast there, about half the state total. Sanders won the state by nearly 4-1 over Clinton.
Bert Marley, a former Pocatello state legislator who is the current chairman of the Democratic Party and a superdelegate for Sanders, was surprised at how well his candidate did.
“I’ve always thought of Idaho Democrats, especially any that were elected to public office, as being moderate to conservative in the Democratic spectrum of things,” he said.
How is it then that Sanders, a self-declared socialist, buried Clinton here? Are Idaho’s Democrats somehow more progressive here than in other states?
Not likely. Other factors were in play.
For one, Sanders has consistently prevailed in states with caucuses, a format open to non-Democrats and a magnet for more passionate partisans. Also, the Clinton brand has fared poorly in Idaho dating to the 1990s presidency of Bill Clinton.
Last, Sanders’ populist message of economic empowerment, a higher minimum wage, free college and the like resonated with left-leaning Idahoans who feel left out of the political process—particularly young people, a group whose numbers are growing in Idaho’s urban areas.
“I’d like to think his message is attracting a lot of people that haven’t engaged in the past,” Marley said.
So what does the rest of the year look like, politically?
Trump will likely win
Given the unpopularity of both Trump and Clinton in Idaho, neither party thinks the national presidential race will have much impact locally, whichever way it goes. Trump is likely to win the state by default, but not by as much as Republican candidates typically win here.
“I don’t see the presidential race having any impact one way or another, absent just a terrible calamity of some sort, which both candidates are capable of,” Reberger said, grinning.
Also influential: The state’s economy is doing pretty well. Federal labor statistics show that Idaho’s year-over-year employment growth was the best in the nation in March and April and third-best in May. Polling shows a majority of Idahoans see the state moving in the right direction. The one naysayer group? Democrats.
Idaho Democrats typically fare even worse than usual in presidential years, when Republican voter turnout rises. With Trump’s high negatives, though, they might not do as badly this year.
In fact, Democrats think they might pick up a few legislative seats in areas where they are competitive.
GOP staying the course
Given the GOP’s dominance, the May primaries for state races often decide who will prevail in the November general election. With the Republicans holding a separate presidential primary in March, the May races were the second contest GOP voters were called to. State turnout was a record low: just 23 percent, an outcome many had predicted based on voter fatigue.
The May tallies were inconclusive as a measure of where the party might be headed ideologically.
In legislative races, several conservative stalwarts lost, but so did some moderates. Of 105 seats in the Legislature, 39 incumbents, including six Democrats, have no opposition in November. Of the 66 remaining races, Republicans are favored in 44 and Democrats in seven. Only about 15 races look competitive.
In the races for Idaho’s two U.S. House seats, the Republican incumbents, Raul Labrador and Mike Simpson, cruised through the primaries. Sen Mike Crapo didn’t have one. All three are heavily favored in November.
More telling, in terms of party organization, was how Republicans tamped down dissent at their June convention. They moved past some eyebrow-raising intraparty intrigue this spring that included an executive committeeman secretly recording video of a face-to-face meeting with the state chairman. The three-day convention in Nampa ran with military precision, with enough polite debate to avoid a whitewash label. The “establishment” leadership, such as it is, prevailed.
This was the same state party that couldn’t conclude business at its 2014 convention in Moscow after open feuding broke out on the floor.
As for the Democrats, their convention picked up where the caucus left off. Sanders’ big victory meant a lot of new delegates, perhaps 60 percent of the 400 attending. The first two days saw long delays and sometimes anguished debate over the party platform and resolutions. It demonstrated again the tendency for Idaho’s Democrats to embrace national issues that don’t find much favor here.
November will extend recent trend
“Here in Idaho, we’re not going to change lot of minds. There’s people that, no matter what, they’re going to vote Republican,” Marley said. “So we’re going to grow the party not by changing minds so much as by recruiting more people that just haven’t engaged.”
Weatherby thinks the road for the Democrats will get no easier.
“This has been for a long time a one-party state, and I think it will continue to be that,” he said. “The Democrats had a good run in the late eighties and the 1990 elections, but that was not the beginning of a trend. It was more of an aberration. It appears that the Republican dominance will continue in this state and Democrats will struggle to be relevant.”
As the rest of the country sighs, swoons and swears over the presidential race, nothing much will change here. Democrats won’t win significant upsets, but Republicans won’t sweep more than usual.
Voters will have to look for more subtle changes to see where the mood of Idaho’s body politic resides.
A Boise State University poll in January found most respondents think Idaho is heading in the right direction. The poll asked, “Do you think things in Idaho are generally headed in the right direction, or do you feel that things are off on the wrong track?”
BSU School of Public Service survey, conducted Jan. 11-15
Sample: 1,000 Idaho adults