Bright-red Idaho has always been conservative. Now comes growth - and Californians

Is Idaho turning into a blue state?

By analyzing Idaho party registration data in 2018, the Idaho Statesman found the most conservative and liberal cities and towns in Idaho.
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By analyzing Idaho party registration data in 2018, the Idaho Statesman found the most conservative and liberal cities and towns in Idaho.

Ask someone to describe Idaho.

Some residents will paint you a picture of a deeply red state, one where the House, Senate and governor’s office have been Republican strongholds for nearly three decades. They’ll bristle at the suggestion that state politics could in any way veer left, and mourn the loss of farmland to urban growth.

Talk to others, and they’ll remind you that Idaho has a track record of supporting Democrats, splitting tickets instead of voting along party lines. Those Idahoans might point to our fiercely protected public lands, some named after minority-party icons like former Gov. Cecil Andrus. And some will wonder if Idaho’s modern rush of newcomers will bring a more liberal tilt.

Much is made of the resulting contrast — the broadly conservative state, speckled with dots of liberal thought.

It’s true that on paper, Idaho took a sharp turn to the right in the 1990s. But look back farther, across 150 years, and you’ll find our state in many ways is largely the same — simply, the political labels have changed.

“What’s unique about Idaho is it’s still in line with the lords of yesterday,” said Todd Shallat, a former Boise State University history and urban studies professor.

The early days

During Idaho’s 1860s gold rush, miners were reliable Democrats, according to the Idaho State Historical Society. An influx of post-Civil War Confederates from Missouri dappled the state with even more Southern Democrats.

“For almost two decades after 1864, Idaho remained a firm Democratic stronghold,” spurred by an influx of Democratic-voting LDS settlers in 1872, a Historical Society publication states.

“Mormons in Idaho voted Democrat. They were the heart of the Democratic Party,” said Shallat.

Prior to Idaho earning statehood in 1890, it wasn’t uncommon for Democrats to represent the Idaho Territory. A series of prominent Democratic businessmen and lawyers were sent to Congress as delegates for the Idaho Territory. Several Democrats were appointed territorial governors, though only one went on to serve that role. Mining areas and rail centers like Boise and Coeur d’Alene formed the start of what would become the “blue dots” of today.

In the early days of statehood, Idahoans elected Republicans, Democrats and Populists, a result of the party union that politicians had embraced as they worked to have Idaho admitted as a state.

But the Democratic Party of the 1800s and early 1900s shared many values with today’s Republican Party and present-day Idaho voters — an emphasis on small government, a strict adherence to the Constitution and a strong relationship with farmers.

Early Idaho Republicans often ran on anti-Mormon platforms, along with promises to cede the Idaho Panhandle to the Washington Territory. Republican Senator William Borah played a leading role in passing income tax legislation through the U.S. Senate in 1913.

The parties change. The voters, less so

C. Ben Ross on horse.jpg
Democratic Gov. C. Ben Ross served in the 1930s - a high point for the state Democratic Party, which then held all but one of Idaho’s major political offices. Earlier Democrats shared many values with today’s Republicans; by Ross’ time, that was changing. Idaho State Historical Society

It wasn’t until the 1930s — when the New Deal ushered in major nationwide changes — that Republicans’ and Democrats’ platforms began to resemble what they do today. It was perhaps the only time in Idaho history when politicians we might recognize as modern Democrats had serious clout in Idaho, holding all but one of Idaho’s major political offices.

But the Democrats’ rise hinged largely on the Great Depression and the federal relief Idaho received. Relief efforts required Idahoans to adopt sales tax, an unpopular move here. That fact coupled with divisions in the party brought the Democrats’ eight years of control to an end.

As Cold War tensions rose in the 1950s, voters’ priorities changed, said Shallat. He quotes historian Robert Kelley:

“The question that obsessed was no longer economic; it was deeply and fundamentally cultural.”

Idaho followed that national shift, trading off Democratic and Republican politicians, proving that the liberal party could still be a contender in Idaho — if less frequently than before. People like Democrats Frank Church and Gracie Pfost — Idaho’s first female member of Congress — and Republicans Len B. Jordan and Robert Smylie all found support in these years.

In 1972, however, Idaho Democrats began to embrace progressive social issues — feminism, abortion rights — in a move that “shattered the Democratic coalition,” Shallat said. It was part of a national party shift even farther to the left, less recognizable than ever as the party of early Idaho.

“The Mormon delegates walked out that day, never to return,” Shallat said.

The Idaho Democratic Party suffered more losses in the 1980s, as mining, timber and other unions lost steam and withdrew supporters across the country. At the same time, Idaho adopted right-to-work legislation, hobbling unions’ political activism and, by proxy, the state Democrats.

Newcomers — but no new status quo

In the 1990s, Idaho saw its first surge of California residents, what Shallat calls a “white flight.”

“The perception is these Californians are liberals. That’s not the case,” said Matt Miles, a professor of history, geography and political science at Brigham Young University-Idaho. “The people leaving California are not the liberals and the coastal people. It’s the rural people who are fleeing their state and trying to find what they had by coming to Idaho.”

The Californian migration solidified the conservative majority in Idaho, and Republicans have held the governorship and majorities in the Legislature since 1995. In fact, Californian newcomers in the Panhandle pushed local politics further to the right.

The influx hasn’t slowed — but neither is it unique to Idaho.

“The reality is there are a lot of Californians moving everywhere, because there are a lot of Californians,” said Jeff Lyons, an assistant professor in the School of Public Service at Boise State University.

“There are certainly liberals from California coming to Idaho, but the bulk are conservatives. Demographically, they look like the state of Idaho does already.”

And, the average California immigrant may have looked familiar to those Democrats of old.

What’s next in Idaho?

Political parties continue to shift, but today’s Republicans still claim many of the values that won Idaho elections for the past century and a half.

“All I have to do is put a Republican logo next to my name in almost any precinct in Idaho, and I would win,” Miles said.

And unlike the trend over decades, voters in the short term are more likely to change their political stances than their parties, Miles said. Research, he said, compares it to joining a new religion.

“People who call themselves Republicans, they’re Republicans because their parents, friends, teachers were Republicans. When you ask them about issues, they can’t tell you [about them],” he said.

“I don’t think Democrats will take power anytime soon, because they don’t have the infrastructure,” said Shallat, who believes the state party may have lagged in developing its next generation of leaders as it dealt with fractured ideologies over the past decades.

Regardless, Democrats are hopeful this year, buoyed by unusually high interest in the party’s spring gubernatorial primary. Candidate Paulette Jordan has said she believes she can peel away Republican and unaffiliated voters. Of the 815,000 registered voters in Idaho as of July, half were Republicans; an eighth were Democrats.

Those labels, again, are only one modern way of looking at an electorate that has largely expressed the same political priorities for a century and a half. Political observers say that whichever party convinces Idahoans they own small-government, conservative values will likely continue to hold sway.

“When people say there’s a chance to turn Idaho blue — no way,” said Miles. “When people say they left the Republican Party because of Trump, they just [affiliate as] independent and still vote Republican.”

This article was written as part of a monthlong focus on southwest Idaho’s cultural and political diversity. Contact reporter Nicole Blanchard at 208-377-6410, or follow her on Twitter: @NMBlanchard