One would think political parties in any state would simply be happy to maintain solid majorities in the Legislature. One would be wrong. In Idaho that mistaken belief also holds. Dominant idelogies as much as political parties define state parties, whether they be Republican or Democrat. For example there is a definite ideological different between say a Democratic state legislator from Alabama and one from California. For the GOP there is a sizeable ideological different between a state legislator from Wyoming and one from NY state.
As political polarization has developed between the political parties it has overshadowed polarization within the political parties as well. Battles are now not just being fought between the two political parties but within different factions of each party at the state level. Idaho is not immune from this ideological battle. Idaho has always been defined as a state that has a definite Republican tilt with equal balance between moderate and conservative Republicans. Most of the Democrats in the state tend to fall on the moderate/liberal ideological spectrum. But starting in 2008 with the ousting of moderate GOP state chairman Kirk Sullivan, even after being supported by Governor Butch Otter, the balance shifted in favor of conservatives in the Idaho GOP.
Fast-forward to 2010 and the post-election results and it was clear no new moderate Republicans were elected. In fact, a moderate GOP senator was ousted in Nez Perce County and the seat eventually went to the Democrats in the general. The five new Republican state reps. and lone state senator were all staunch conservatives. Even more, no Democrat running for state office achieved getting more then 40% of the vote. That is abysmal even by Idaho Democratic standards.
The division in the state GOP out in the 2011 legislative session. The House, increasing becoming more conservative over the past decade by default, was buoyed by the introduction of five new Conservatives and with 57 members all but marginalized the tiny Democratic Caucus. In the Senate, where moderates still hold power and sway, a brutal back and forth between moderate and conservative Republicans played out on full display. This was clearest on three pieces of legislation. The first was education reform, where almost every single GOP Committee chairman (almost all moderates) voted against the third installment of the bill. The first installment was implementing CBA reform, the second implementing a pay-for-performance plan and the third and most controversial was adding technology to the classroom at the expense of other aspects of the classroom. Conservatives united for all three pieces of the plan, moderates mostly against the third part of the plan.
The second piece of legislation was guns on campus. Conservatives in the House passed the bill while moderates in the Senate along with Democrats killed the bill. Even Governor Butch Otter opposed the bill on safety grounds. The last piece of legislation the divide was apparent on was the state budget, which in fact was many small battles. Moderates fought conservatives, predominantly in the Senate, though sometimes in the House, for more funding for schools and considering a new cigarette tax. Conservatives opposed all these initiatives. In the end these battles left scars that run deep if one knows where to look within the state GOP.
And these scars are starting to play out in redistricting. Due to Idaho’s deep red tilt the question in redistricting is not whether Democrats will net new seats but whether they can hold onto the 13 seats in the State House and seven in the Senate they possess. This has meant that the Independent Commission (three members appointed by the state GOP and three by the state Democrats) really has not focused that heavily on partisan identification of the districts.
On the surface have been inane debates about breaking up voting precints and any of Idaho’s 44 counties. But now talk is starting to shift to partisan priorities and needs. The GOP commissioners complain Democratic map-drawers leave to large a population difference between the 35 legislative districts so Democrats can maintain their numbers in the legislature. Democrats complain the two newest legislative GOP maps (several have been submitted overall) give only three districts complete Democratic control and make three swing. That would be a huge chunk out of Democratic numbers in the legislature come 2013. But ironically Democrats have hit the GOP plans on another note. That the new maps pit almost every moderate Republican against one another in the House and Senate.
Democrats and even a few moderate Republians allege it is payback for their stance on key issues in the 2011 legislature. That does assume however that the three GOP appointed commissioners are all on the side of the conservative wing of the Idaho GOP and dislike moderates. For the two newest maps were submitted by different members. The eight Republican senators drawn together in the new maps are becoming known as the “Endangered Eight” and they all voted against at least one of the three bills that comprised education reform.
But Democratic maps also pit moderate Republicans against one another, many of them the same moderate Republicans the GOP plans do. The difference is that the Democratic map creates 5 safe districts for Democrats and four swing districts, based mainly in Ada County and Southeast Idaho. So Democratic claims, while perhaps being accurate, seem designed more to cause havoc and problems within the GOP then out of any desire to see moderate Republicans survive.
There is no doubt the state GOP has become more conservative and that means trying to achieve a new level of ideological purity. Redistricting offers the state GOP a chance to achieve this new priority. But let’s also not forget that this is a deeply red state and as a result the GOP has a luxury of doing this. If this was a swing state say like Nevada the state party would simply be trying to win races and not worrying to much about the ideology of individual candidates.
This phenomenon is not limited to Idaho. We have seen both parties at the national level through elections purge moderates from their ranks. And with redistricting in many states controlled by the GOP or Democrats they can solidify safe districts for increasingly liberal or conservative members. Redistricting used to be straight-forward. A party looked to win as much as possible by solidifying a majority without regard to ideology. Now redistricting is about not just making safe Republican or Democratic districts. It is also about creating safe liberal or conservative districts. Redistricting in some states has in essence become ideological as well as partisan.