For the last 20 years, as Boise has elected more and more Democrats to the Legislature, west Boise’s District 15 remained a Republican stronghold.
But this year, both its House seats flipped from red to blue, and a recount will decide whether the Senate seat flips, too.
The defeat of two incumbents and the possible defeat of a third is raising concern among Republicans — and hopes among Democrats — that a Democratic wave has come to the district, located between Cloverdale and Maple Grove Roads and between Chinden Boulevard (Highway 26) and Interstate 84.
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Two of the incumbents say they expected that the statewide proposition on Medicaid expansion would draw Democratic voters to the polls. But they say the problem was worsened by the leadership of the Ada County Republican Party. They say if the county GOP organization doesn’t change, the district could get swallowed up by a blue wave.
“I hope it’s a wake-up call to the Ada County Republicans,” said Sen. Fred Martin, who was elected in 2012 and re-elected in 2014 and 2016. On Tuesday, he came in just six votes ahead of his Democratic challenger, Jim Bratnober. On Friday, Bratnober requested a recount.
Martin and Rep. Patrick McDonald say the Ada County Republican Party failed to fundraise sufficiently for candidates in the county and has isolated voters by resorting to the national party’s divisive rhetoric. New leadership has also created friction — they feel that the county party is mired in infighting between traditional conservatives and its libertarian faction.
In June, Ada County Republicans voted Ryan Davidson, former chair of the Libertarian Party of Idaho, as their chairman. He has previously lobbied for pro-marijuana ballot initiatives in Hailey, and he founded the libertarian group Idahoans for Freedom nearly a decade ago.
Davidson said this year’s midterms were “unusual” given the unprecedented turnout for a midterm election. In two years they might see Republicans recapture the district, he said.
But he also said Republicans need to think hard about what happened in Ada County this year. Not only did they lose two seats in Ada County — they also lost their majority on the three-member Ada County Commission.
“Obviously we need to change our strategy, otherwise we’re going to keep losing elections,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday.
But he brushed aside Republicans who “say we need to moderate the message” and advocated that the party “chase the trends” in national Republican issues to capture voters’ attention.
The local party’s focus on national issues has not always served them well elsewhere, either. At the state fair this summer, the party displayed a cardboard cutout of President Donald Trump holding Hillary Clinton in a headlock. It drew criticism from Republicans as well as Democrats.
Martin and McDonald said they tried to turn the conversation away from polarizing issues like the president and make their campaigns about Idahoans.
“I didn’t incorporate any of the national problems or national methods or national issues into my campaign,” said McDonald, who served in the state Legislature for three terms and lost to Jake Ellis.
McDonald also said the party was a less reliable source of campaign funds this year.
“The liberalization of Ada County — they’re helping it, because they won’t support their own candidates,” McDonald said. “They don’t know how to fundraise.”
But Davidson said that the party “historically has struggled to raise money,” since donors give to candidates directly rather than via the party. The county party hosted a banquet on Election Night, which he said should bolster their fundraising efforts.
State election filings show that between 2006 and 2010, the Ada County Republicans doled out about $20,000 each year to candidates. In 2012, they gave just $2,000 total to four candidates for the Legislature. Since then, they have donated just once: $300 to Tabby Jolley’s unsuccessful 2016 bid for state representative in District 17.
Even with more financial support, Martin isn’t sure that the Republicans could have won.
Jaclyn Kettler, political scientist at Boise State University, said District 15 had been getting more competitive with each election. “It’s one that’s been pegged as a potential area for Democratic pickups for a little while,” she said.
State Rep. Lynn Luker, who lost his District 15 seat to Steve Berch, did not respond to a request for comment sent to his email and voicemail.