In 2000 the Idaho legislative numbers were absolutely atrocious. If you thought having a Senate that is 28-7 in favor of the GOP and a House 57-13 in favor of the GOP was bad then 2000 for Democrats was a complete nightmare. After the 2000 elections Democrats had a mere three of 35 state senators and a paltry nine state reps in a chamber of 70. It was the Democrats low point in the modern era of Idaho politics. Following the redrawing of the lines in the 2002 elections Democrats shot up to 7 state senators and 15 state legislators. They would remain constant in the Senate and lose two house seats by the end of the decade. So can the GOP make Democrats as inconsequential in terms of elected members in the state legislature in 2012 as in 2002? Probably not. Here is why.
First, the 1990-2000 legislative lines were drawn prior to the formation of a bipartisan “Redistricting Commission.” This Commission was created in 1994 when an amendment to the Idaho Constitution was supported by the voters. Up to this point Democrats had no say in redistricting. The state legislature had always redrawn the lines and massively outnumbered each time Democrats had little offer to the discussion. It is worth noting however that in 1991 when the old lines were redrawn the state had a Democratic Governor, Cecil Andrus. Still, with no mechanism in place for what would happen if the lines were not redrawn by the end of the year the Republicans would have been perfectly fine. Likely Andrus caved in the face of united GOP pressure in the legislature (Andrus served one more term before stepping down).
This bipartisan redistricting commission rigs the system in the favor of the minority party or makes it “fairer” depending on your ideological views. Better for Democrats it sets up a mechanism that if the commission cannot come to an agreement by the end of September (simple majority which means a Democrat or Republican has cross-over and support another sides plan) of 2011, 2021, etc, the Idaho Supreme Court will redraw the lines. That puts pressure on the GOP commissioners to fight not to give Democrats additional safe or swing districts and simply try to keep the status quo.
The second reason is population shifts. People move in, out and within a state a lot in ten years. This means it is harder to simply find lines that match the old’s partisan composition and say done. Instead, it means the commission has to spend more time identifying the shifts and then GOP and Democratic appointed commissioners debating the lines. In between these debates are also different views on splitting up counties, precincts, highways and local municipalities but the undercurrent of partisan gerrymandering is rampant in these discussions (thank god for computer software).
For the GOP the population shifts in the state benefit the GOP far more than Democrats, but not to the point they can significantly weaken Democratic numbers. GOP leaning suburbs in Ada and Canyon County have grown, which might allow the GOP to shift these voters into metro Boise districts which are Democratic. Low population growth in Northern Idaho means the districts there, all GOP at every level, do not really need to shift that much. Southeastern Idaho has also not seen much growth. But this also means that districts that encompass Nez Perce County in the North and Sun Valley in the Southeast did not shed enough numbers for the GOP to dissect them. And this is assuming that the Democratic appointed commissioners would allow them to do so.
Thirdly, geography and legal requirements hinders the GOP’s ability to gerrymander. This geography is population as well as physical. The Idaho Constitution has statues and requirements of what districts can be and look like. So for example, legislative districts cannot split up more then a certain number of counties, highway districts, urban renewal districts, etc,. On top of that are layered legal requirements for how big a district can be and how much the legislative district can deviate from the mean population in Idaho (House: Idaho pop/70, Senate: Idaho pop/35). So the GOP commissioners even if they had absolute power could not simply draw lines around Sun Valley or Nez Perce County that simply benefitted them. Geography and legal requirements would hurt them in this regard.
So even though the population shifts favor the GOP in Ada and Canyon Counties and Northern Idaho; elsewhere not so much. Democratic commissioners have also made clear their intention not to give up any metro Boise Democratic district (four out of nine) and want an additional swing district in the state (plus the four currently in existence, one in Ada County with a split delegation). GOP commissioners aren’t going to take this plan lying down and instead have a plan that would actually cut Ada County’s legislative districts in the state down to seven and give Canyon County two more for a total of six. Not surprising both left and right leaning advocacy groups (Chamber of Commerce and Idaho ACLU) have cried foul at this idea. Lines elsewhere around the state are in flux but the representation around Boise and Southwestern Idaho is the major sticking point in the debate.
The very existence of a bipartisan redistricting commission, population shifts, and geography/legal requirements impair the GOP’s ability to build on their 2010 legislative numbers for the next decade. It does bode well, however, for the GOP to continue to dominate the state legislature in straight up numbers (I personally feel sorry for Democrats who are so thinned on committees). But in terms of the GOP building on their numbers in the state senate and house in the near future the odds are extremely low they can let alone hit 2000 numbers. It was the apex of GOP domination of the state legislature and the low point for legislative Democrats.
There is little debate Idaho is a red state well into the next decade. By how much is the only question?
Caveat: I advocate the complete elimination of the bipartisan redistricting commission. It is a joke and has changed little about Idaho politics. Why we fund it, pay the salaries of the commissioners and their staff is beyond me. We know Idaho is a red state, voters need to accept it, they made it that way and move on. Funding “fairness” programs, and let us not kid ourselves, this is what it is, is a waste of money that can be better spent elsewhere. Repeal this Amendment to the Idaho Constitution!