Polly Breneman was at a loss.
The Idaho native had just spent several years in California before returning to her home state in 2006, in time to watch Republican Bill Sali be elected to Congress.
In the early morning hours, upset over the results of the election, a thought popped into her head — one that would become among the best-known, modern Idaho political slogans.
“I said, ‘Oh no, I’m a blue girl in a red state again,’ ” she recalled.
Breneman didn’t confine the phrase to her thoughts. She shouted it, enlisting her then-sister-in-law, Jessica Evett, to design bumper stickers proclaiming “Blue Girl, Red State.”
The stickers — emblazoned with a red Idaho and a blue woman with her hands on her hips, her shirt bearing the Democratic Party’s donkey — were never meant to be divisive. Breneman said she wanted to remind local lawmakers that they represented all Idahoans, not just the Republicans. She called it “pro-visibility.”
“We weren’t looking to create this negative lashing-out,” said Evett. “It’s just like, ‘Hey, we’re here.’ ”
But in the decade since their debut, politics have changed. The country in ways appears more divided. And for some, the stickers have gone from a statement of fact to a rallying cry.
1 sticker inspires more
The stickers certainly got noticed.
Since 2007, when they first went up for sale, Breneman has filled more than 7,000 orders, she said. That doesn’t count the hundreds that she estimates she has donated.
The stickers have become synonymous with Boise (and North End) liberalism, been the butt of Reddit memes, and earned a call-out from the Statesman’s Michael Deeds in 2016 as one of the most uncool things about Boise. Breneman has seen at least one Halloween costume based on the design.
There are several riffs on the stickers: “Redneck, Red State,” and “Blue Grill, Red Steak” (the latter followed by the slogan, “No one cares”). “Red Girl, Red State” was created in 2013 as a counterpoint to the Blue Girl, and features the silhouette of creator Miranda Otto, rifle in one hand and a baby on her hip.
“We have you outgunned and outnumbered,” reads the tagline from Otto’s website. She bought a pistol with the money from the 500 or so stickers she’s sold.
Like Breneman, Otto said making the decal was a move for visibility — this time for gun rights and anti-abortion causes.
“I’m not even a political person. I wasn’t even a registered Republican when I made it,” Otto said. (She later registered with the Republican Party in order to vote for Ron Paul, she said.)
Regardless, Idaho women, blue or red, could now wear their politics on display. Around the time the Red Girl stickers debuted, Google search interest for Blue Girl stickers hit its second-highest peak ever. Perhaps, the new options were inspiring Idahoans to be more vocal.
‘The Blue Girls have risen up’
Athena Fowler, of Pocatello, had one of the Blue Girl stickers on her car for years.
“Traditionally, this whole state is really conservative, and it just puts out a message of, ‘We’re here,’” Fowler said, echoing Red Girl’s Otto.
“I wouldn’t say I’m politically active by any means. I’m not a crazy liberal, but I’m not a crazy Republican, either.”
But in recent years, the once-casually political decals have become a source of controversy and, at the same time, a rallying point.
One Twitter user said she removed the sticker after a man on a motorcycle blocked her into a parking lot and accosted her with obscenities, telling her to go back to California.
“After the horribleness of the election, I took it off the car,” she said.
Many of the decals are sold at the Record Exchange in downtown Boise. General manager John O’Neil said his mother-in-law won’t put one of the stickers on her vehicle for fear it will be vandalized. Breneman’s own car no longer boasts an Idaho version of the sticker after a stranger removed it. (Her car still bears “Blue Girl, Red State” stickers for Texas and Utah, which she and Evett also designed.)
Sales, said O’Neil, come “in waves that don’t really correspond to anything — except after elections, after Democrats have been beaten badly in this state.”
“I’d be very sad if people were afraid to express themselves,” he said. “Which, increasingly, they are.”
Meanwhile, Idaho women across the political spectrum are competing for political office in unusual numbers this year. Female Democrats interviewed by the Statesman view the Blue Girl phrase not as a liability, but as something to organize around.
“The Blue Girls have risen up, as it were,” said Linda Brugger, former chairwoman of the Twin Falls County Democrats.
Brugger used to have one of the stickers on her car, too. Now she’s adopted the slogan as part of a call to action, writing columns for her local newspaper to promote the Democratic Party.
“A lot of people think it isn’t possible to have a say in Idaho as a Democrat. So part of the sticker is standing up for that, and it’s interesting to me that women have led that charge,” Brugger said.
She said she believes the ubiquity of the Blue Girl stickers has made Democratic women in Idaho “more assertive.” Gini Ballou, president of the Idaho Democratic Women’s Caucus, agreed. She often uses the phrase in caucus website posts where she urges women to join up.
“When (the sticker) first came out it was an, ‘Oh, there are those?’ It was, ‘Hey, we exist,’ “ said Ballou. “Now it’s, ‘... and we vote.’ ”
The message may not have been what Breneman envisioned at 4 a.m., mourning Sali’s win. O’Neil likens the change to a musician creating a song.
“Once it leaves your mouth and goes into the air, it’s not yours anymore,” he said.
But Breneman welcomes the ever-changing interpretation of her phrase. “It’s kind of delightful to me that it’s become synonymous with mouthy women,” she said.
And, she said, she’ll continue to make the Blue Girl stickers as long as they continue to sell.
“I’d love to put myself out of business. When the time comes, I will put them to rest,” she said.