State Politics

Hey Idaho voter! Gonna sit this one out?

Supporters cheer Republican candidate Sen. Ted Cruz at a rally at Boise State University March 5.
Supporters cheer Republican candidate Sen. Ted Cruz at a rally at Boise State University March 5.

Hello there, new Idaho Republican.

Let’s say you believe, as Ted Cruz does, that the federal government should get out of managing public lands. That and other of his positions prompted you to register and vote in Idaho’s Republican presidential primary in early March, and you were among the unprecedented 74 percent of state Republicans, some 227,000 voters in all, who went to the polls to hand the Texas senator a convincing victory.

Or you there, new Democrat, with the “Feel the Bern” T-shirt and boundless enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders. You’ve got a chunk of college debt, and you cheered wildly when the Vermont senator talked about free college on his visit to Boise on March 21. So you turned out for the state Democratic caucus, waiting in line nearly three hours to get in, and were among the 78 percent of 24,000 caucus voters who gave Sanders a 4-1 victory margin.

The question is: What will you do for an encore?

You showed in convincing fashion last month, passionate new voter, that you’re energized about the national race. Will you channel that energy and enthusiasm into local contests being decided May 17? Candidates and parties are reaching out, enticing and entreating you, hoping to connect national themes to issues in play locally. Consider:

▪  In March the Legislature adjourned without taking action on expanding health coverage for 78,000 poor Idahoans. Have an opinion either way? Vote in the primary to help choose the legislators who will pick up the debate again in January.

▪  LGBT civil rights has been on the agenda here for a decade, but this year state lawmakers didn’t even talk about changing the Idaho Human Rights Act, much less vote. Worried about what’s happening on the LGBT front? Vote in the primary.

▪  Idaho’s public schools are getting more money, but lawmakers this year left post-secondary ed mostly out in the cold. Worried about how you’ll pay that college debt, or find the right job after school? Vote in the primary.

▪  Idaho is more about Main Street than Wall Street, but the roads and bridges that support Idaho commerce are in rough shape, and other essential services of government also could be expanded. But all that costs money, and a good many lawmakers would rather cut taxes and shrink government instead. Where do you stand? Vote in the primary.

▪  Or are you just frustrated with it all? Do you feel left out of the political process altogether, resenting those out-of-touch “elites” who pay more attention to special interests than to your interests? Now’s your chance to vote to change the status quo.

“If you feel disenfranchised by the national elections or the national parties, you can have a significant impact by being involved in the local level,” said state Sen. Chuck Winder, a Boise Republican who has a Democratic opponent in November. “And that starts with voting and participating, encouraging the right candidate for you to run for office.”

Whether it’s health care, higher education, jobs and employment, or government’s everyday role in the lives of citizens, all of those national issues “have some analog at the state level that has a chance of playing out in a way that will more materially affect (peoples’) lives,” said state Rep. Ilana Rubel, a Boise Democrat running unopposed. “I hope that people see those parallels and keep them in mind with their voting, and that it actually gets them out to the polls to vote.”

Check out the Statesman’s voter guide


The two main parties are seeking to marshal the huge turnouts of the March races, following up with new voters to connect the dots for them. For Democrats, the outreach involves continuing a conversation that started when people registered to attend the caucus and “go through a many-hours-long process to have their voice counted,” said Sally Boynton Brown, the state party’s executive director. The caucus process delivered to Democrats what amounted to a pre-sorted list of motivated voters.

“We saw a much higher percentage of people who haven’t necessarily affiliated with the Democratic party but certainly are in alignment with us on our values and our issues, and came out to the caucus for really their first interaction with the party at all,” Brown said. “Good primaries really do gin up a lot of new interest and support, and Democrats are looking around for ways to get involved. So we’re really excited about taking advantage of that opportunity and funneling all of those people into our campaigns.”

The Idaho numbers typically don’t favor the outnumbered Democrats, but Republicans, who dominate state politics, have their own challenges managing internal splits.

“Given that party and elected officials have backed a variety of (presidential) candidates, including the three that are still in it, and that the party has had its own internecine issues for sometime now, finding voters isn’t as difficult as trying to corral them in some kind of unified fashion,” said Steve Shaw, a political scientist at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa.

Corralling them, or perhaps, getting them out to vote at all. Republicans, following March’s enrollment gains, now hold a 5-to-1 enrollment advantage over Democrats.

“If you’re a Republican you probably say, well, why should I go vote, they’re going to win anyway, or I’m not upset by what they’re doing therefore I don’t need to go vote,” Winder said. “Because you don’t have that contrast, I think you do get fewer people who vote.”


Holding a closed presidential primary, in which only enrolled party members could vote, netted huge registration gains for Idaho Republicans — and that was by design. Enrollment surged by 22 percent, with 64,000 newly enrolled Republicans, including 29,000 who registered on the day of the primary. As a result, the number of state unaffiliated voters dropped by 43,000, or 12 percent. Democrats saw a modest 2 percent uptick in enrollment. Statewide overall, 21,000 new voters registered for the first time.

Like the Democrats, GOP State Chairman Steve Yates said party representatives are “actively communicating to try to remind people that the May primary is very, very important.” Given the Republican enrollment edge, the winner of the Republican primary is often the heavy favorite for the general election in November.

“We do try to make that point that this is the primary election that picks the candidates closer to the people, and so if you cared about who’s running the country, you should also care about who’s running your state and your community,” Yates said. “But we’ll also continue the narrative about the presidential race, and that, in the context of trying to change the direction the country is going, picking a president is not enough.”

Still, expectations are modest. Since 1980, turnout in Idaho primaries has declined, from about 41 percent to 26 percent in 2014. It seems almost counter-intuitive to believe the trend could continue this year, given the profound voter discontent that has fueled the rise of candidates perceived to be outside the establishment.

Not lost on observers: The cure for feeling left out of the process is to get involved. All politics being local, as the saying goes, that process starts at home.

Bill Dentzer: 208-377-6438, @IDSBillD

Primary voter turnout

Turnout in Idaho primaries, as elsewhere, has steadily declined, with occasional upticks depending on individual candidates and races.