I once asked a friend, a longtime Republican from a vast family of Republicans, why he sometimes voted for candidates he didn’t respect and with whom he didn’t entirely agree. His response: “Politics is a team sport. You support your team, even if you don’t like some of the players.”
This is likely why Idaho remains solidly red, despite generations of moderates, Democrat and Republican, who value in their candidates the characteristics that define most Idahoans: hard-working, practical and generous. We also tend to mind our own business. Generally, people get along here just fine, regardless of social status or politics or religion or race. By and large, we are not contentious, rude or unfair. We live and let live. This respect for individual sovereignty, plus the beauty of our state, is why many of us stay and what draws others in.
Our high value on privacy and freedom, an attitude of leave us alone and we will do just fine, is both good and bad — especially when it comes to politics.
Though recent coverage in national newspapers often cites that Donald Trump took Idaho by 30 points, commentators omit that he was not the state’s choice in the primary; Ted Cruz won over 45 percent of primary voters and Trump was a distant second. Back in 2016, many of my Republican friends mentioned (quietly) that they disliked Trump, but would probably vote for him anyway. Some did so because they disliked Hillary Clinton even more than Trump; others just go Republican, no matter what, because that is what their parents and their grandparents do. Sure, I have a few friends on social media who are fans of the president, but many are simply supporting the team, through good times and bad.
But, remember, it wasn’t always this way in Idaho. Democrat Frank Church was our U.S. senator from 1957 to 1981. We named over 2 million acres of our state after him. We elected Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus, who passed away just last year, four times. He was beloved and respected from the rural prairies to the heart of Downtown Boise. In 1990, along with Andrus’ win, Democrats took half of the state’s Senate seats and voters sent two Democratic congressmen to Washington.
When I was growing up in Boise in the 1970s and ’80s, this is what I heard more than anything else around election time: In Idaho, we vote on the merits and character of the candidate. Local political campaigns seemed to center on ethics, leadership, Idaho roots and good values—regardless of party. My dad, a college-educated Idaho native who grew up in the very small agricultural town of Buhl, often said about his politics, “I’m GDI . . . god-damned independent.” My mom grew up in San Diego, then moved to Idaho after she married my dad. She voted for Church, Andrus and Ronald Reagan. Idaho voters, like my parents, were known for splitting tickets, filling out boxes for Democrats and Republicans on the same ballot.
Clearly, in the current political culture that emphasizes—and takes advantage of—division, that has changed. Like everywhere, it seems families and friends in Idaho are often on opposite sides of the political spectrum. I emphasize the word “seems.” Most of the individuals I know, friends and family and colleagues, continue to see themselves as moderates who value freedom and privacy as well as tolerance for difference, but they feel increasing pressure to vote by party. If you don’t, you’re not supporting the team. Idahoans are loyal. That is in our DNA, too.
Regardless of their reasons, moderate Idahoans may give money to their church to support immigrant populations, attend the Shakespeare Festival in the summer and send their kids to art camp, detest the cuts to schools and the low teacher pay . . . but they still vote Republican.
Of course, there are complicating factors, from religion to education. If someone is convinced that Republican equals family values and God, that is probably not going to change, even in the face of almost-daily evidence to the contrary from the highest level of the party. There is also no doubt that there are a significant number of staunchly conservative Idahoans, socially and economically. These are sometimes the loudest political voices in our state, even if they do not represent the majority. Granted, liberals on the far left are often shouting back, so perhaps it is the noise from both extremes that make our state seem more polarized than it is in reality.
Maybe there is some truth in what I am reading lately in national news outlets, from The Huffington Post to The New York Times: Idaho is solidly and stubbornly Republican, despite an influx of Californians, because that is just how it is here. The suggestion in most of these articles is that these new residents are leaving the endless Cali summers behind for the four seasons of Idaho because it better aligns with their more conservative politics, which is why the state’s political needle isn’t moving. Housing prices and traffic might be affected, but that doesn’t mean the state is turning even a little bit purple.
I am not sure that is true—it certainly isn’t what I see—but I do know that a lot of speculators are missing the mark. Well, several marks.
Idaho has long had moderate, even liberal-leaning, populations, mostly centered in the Boise metro and Sun Valley areas, but also scattered in the more-rural southern and northern parts of the state, such as Latah County, home of the University of Idaho. In a recent poll, a quarter of Idaho participants identified politically as in the middle and another 21 percent said they were liberal or very liberal. Fifty-one percent saw themselves as very conservative or conservative — yes, a majority, but just barely.
Perhaps more tellingly, the poll found that 35 percent considered themselves independent instead of partisan. As my dad did, these Idahoans may choose leaders on a candidate-to-candidate basis, not by party. I also wonder how many just don’t bother to vote, either assuming their voices won’t make much difference or not caring enough to take a side. However, many outright Democrats do cast their ballots, year after year, even if they only end up comprising about one-quarter to one-third of total voters, depending on the election (in November 2016, Clinton received 27.5 percent of the state’s votes, but nearly 45 percent of Ada County’s).
From what I can tell from my circle of friends and acquaintances, some moderate or slightly left-of-center Idahoans may even be registered Republicans. Despite the team-player mentality, many of the Republicans I know also support immigrant rights, marriage equality and paying taxes to help people who need it. They don’t want the government messing in their lives, but they will approve multimillion-dollar bonds to help fund public schools.
A few weeks ago, during the annual Idaho Gives campaign, Planned Parenthood received more dollars than any other nonprofit in the state — almost $40,000 in one day. Does that align with what most people believe about Idaho? A significant amount of donations also went to organizations promoting art, culture, and animal and wildlife services.
We might be a people who prefer the simple life, time in the outdoors and good beer, but we are not simple minded. And things are changing, though not necessarily in the way characterized by faraway news outlets. Many native Idahoans, along with the transplants, continue to believe in independence of self and place, but they are also sick of the negativity, backbiting and outright brutality of the political landscape. Most of us support our military, responsible gun ownership, ethical management of the environment and people’s rights to worship, love, work and play how they want. We also recognize the need for change.
Two weeks ago, an unexpectedly large number of Democrats voted in the primary, probably because it is the first time in 12 years that there is the chance to pick a new governor. As we all know, Gov. Butch Otter, a fixture in Idaho politics, is giving up the office. In Boise, some polling places scrambled to avoid running out of Democratic ballots. And Republicans chose not the extremely conservative Raúl Labrador, nor the wealthy doctor and businessman Tommy Ahlquist, but Brad Little, an experienced, slightly more-moderate option. Democrats supported a 38-year-old woman with Native American heritage, Paulette Jordan.
Though our two gubernatorial candidates differ on substantial issues from marriage equality to marijuana legalization to women’s reproductive rights, what strikes me are their similarities: Idaho natives from ranching and farming families who emphasize their roots in their campaign ads; genuine concern over improving education and employment opportunities in the state; political track records evidencing principled leadership; and explicit calls for unification and civility. They also appear to mostly agree on guns. In many ways, our choices for governor remind me of the Idaho politicians of old.
Maybe I am too idealistic about the Idaho politics of my childhood. Even so, I hold on to the memory of meeting Gov. Andrus when I was a senior in high school. His courtesy, kindness and intelligence made me proud to be an Idahoan.
My hope for this fall is that Jordan and Little will resist the seductive pull of divisive, inflammatory political ads attacking their opponents. Idahoans are sick of the name-calling. Instead, I want to learn more about how they would, if elected, lead our state amid the turmoil of a rapidly-changing world. I hope they speak to us with candor and honesty—to treat us with the same respect that they must earn from us if they want our votes. If the many Idahoans who are in the middle show up to vote (and turnouts in recent years have been high), the candidates might have to win over the moderates, not to mention the independents, to gain the governorship. I hope they strive to listen to all the voices in our state, even if they don’t agree with everything that is said.
I vote every year, but I wouldn’t say that I am political. I’m not exactly sure what I mean by that, other than I long trusted that our elected officials would take care of us, make good decisions and (like most Idahoans) stay out of my business. I no longer feel that way because . . . well, isn’t it obvious? On a daily basis, I am appalled by what our country’s leaders are saying about other nations, other peoples and their fellow Americans — even their own colleagues. Our core values are being eroded, superficial divides are growing into chasms of fear and distrust, and the open and generous spirit of our nation is under attack.
The Idaho I know just doesn’t hold with that.
Stacie Lewton Rice was born and raised in Boise and is a fourth-generation Idahoan on her father’s side. Rice taught in the English Department at Boise State University for 20 years before leaving to focus on writing. Her work includes a textbook for college writers, articles on health topics and creative nonfiction in national publications.