State Politics

5 takeaways: Idaho’s upside-down primary election results

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and first lady Lori Otter at the GOP event at the Riverside Hotel. Candidates endorsed by Otter had mixed results Tuesday.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and first lady Lori Otter at the GOP event at the Riverside Hotel. Candidates endorsed by Otter had mixed results Tuesday.

No single theme or trend dominated Tuesday’s statewide primaries. There also was not much evidence that the presidential politics that gave Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders victories here in March percolated down to local contests. In fact, the results have poll watchers sort of scratching their heads. Here are five takeaways, some of them puzzlers:

1. Up is down, and vice versa: That is, North Idaho — that burgeoning conservative (and possibly survivalist) redoubt — moderated, while the southern part of the state veered right, by degrees anyway. Three of North Idaho’s most conservative Republican incumbents were turned out of office: District 7’s Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll and Rep. Shannon McMillan, and District 4 Rep. Kathy Sims.

The inverse was also true in the panhandle: District 1 Sen. Shawn Keough and District 4 Rep. Luke Malek, both moderate Republicans, won comfortably.

South and east, though, moderate GOP incumbents lost. District 23 Rep. Rich Wills, of Glenns Ferry, lost to a conservative, as did District 35’s Paul Romrell, of St. Anthony, and District 8’s Merrill Beyeler, of Leadore. None of those three ran particularly aggressive campaigns, and Wills might have been swept up in the stomping his district seatmate Pete Nielsen suffered. More on that below.

[Full Idaho House and Senate results from Tuesday’s primary]

2. Farthest right, worst night: “Idaho conservatives had their best night in years,” Wayne Hoffman of the Idaho Freedom Foundation crowed on Facebook on Wednesday.

Well, OK … and the Perrine Bridge is for sale, cheap. Idahoans for Liberty offered a more candid assessment: “some good, mostly bad.”

It’s hard not to read a repudiation of the Freedom Foundationers in the results — for tactics perhaps more than the policies so conspicuously represented in the index on which they grade lawmakers. In 11 races where IFF was particularly active, it won just four. That would give it a failing grade on the “Idaho Freedom Influence Index” — a new measure invented for this commentary.

Hoffman said its political action arm sent mailings out in 11 races and won five, including one race for an open seat in Idaho Falls.

The race that best illustrated that rejection was McCammon Rep. Kelley Packer’s big win in her District 28 Republican primary. Packer directly took on the IFF, calling it out for “bullying” tactics during the session. She backs an initiative that the IFF is sworn to destroy — expanding health care for Idaho’s poor via a modified application of Medicaid expansion. Against a well-funded IFF-backed opponent, the group’s chief antagonist won her race with 57 percent.

That’s not to say that foundation-backed candidates got completely shut out. Conservatives did beat those three moderate incumbents mentioned above, and conservative Reps. Ron Nate, of Rexburg, and Don Cheatham, of Post Falls, held on in close contests.

But the record for right-wingers was decidedly mixed. Jerome Rep. Maxine Bell and Twin Falls Rep. Stephen Hartgen defeated more conservative challengers, as did Athol’s Eric Redman. Conservative stalwart Rep. Pete Nielsen, of Mountain Home in District 23, got crushed, and his big loss might have contributed anti-incumbent momentum to the ouster of Rich Wills.

(UPDATE: Guns rights activists took credit for knocking Wills out of the race. When we caught up to Wills later in the week, he agreed that their opposition was the deciding factor.)

3. Incumbency was not insurmountable: In all, seven incumbents in Statehouse races lost. Three more, including Cheatham and Nate, had close calls. The tightest race was the District 9 Senate GOP primary, where incumbent Abby Lee finished the night ahead by 28 votes out of more than 5,800 cast. She ran with the backing of Gov. Butch Otter, which leads to Takeaway No. 4.

4. Endorsements didn’t help much: Just ask Clive Strong, who had a long list of them in a four-way state Supreme Court race but finished third. Sen. Curt McKenzie had a bunch of endorsements and ran second in the same race, likely benefiting from being the best-known and most partisan candidate in the in the nonpartisan race, by virtue of his seven terms in the Legislature. McKenzie is in a run-off against top vote-getter Robyn Brody, who amassed the biggest campaign war chest and spent it freely.

In all, eight of the 12 candidates backed by Otter won, but it’s hard to claim that his endorsement was the deciding factor. So what was? That’s Takeaway No. 5.

5. Competence and realpolitik counted: Those factors prevailed over lofty ideals and ideology. Incumbents who lost but could have won waged halfhearted campaigns against more energetic opponents. Local issues dominated, and voters rewarded candidates who talked more about nuts-and-bolts issues including health care, schools and roads. Bibles in classrooms and other ideological agenda items mattered less.

One example was the five-way GOP primary for an open seat in Canyon County’s District 11. Scott Syme, who cited transportation, water rights and health care as his top issues, easily beat his closest opponent, a more conservative, ideologically-driven candidate.

Note: This story has been updated to reflect how Idaho Freedom Foundation counted its wins and losses in the primary.

Bill Dentzer: 208-377-6438, @IDSBillD