Dan Popkey, in his latest Statesman Article, “In Hostile Territory, Moderates Flee, reports on a key turning point in Idaho’s politics. No longer do moderates dominate the one-party culture of Idaho. Instead numerous up and coming politicos from what is affectionately termed by Republicans, “The Reagan Generation,” are coming to power in the statehouse and flexing their muscle. In fact, eight young House Republicans are running for Senate, seizing the chance to run in newly redrawn districts and capitalize on most Republicans voters move to the right.
If one looks back to 2008 this trend is easy to see. In 2008 Chairman Norm Semanko took over the state party. Semanko helped the party chart a right-wing course From his advocacy and funding of the party closing its primaries, creating a presidential caucus, and his close ties to conservative Speaker Denney Semanko helped move the party rightward. Closed primaries ensure more conservative nominees and exclude non-partisan moderate voters.
But to say Semanko is the start of the whole movement is false. What we are seeing in Idaho is simply the result of a generational shift in the balance of power within the GOP at the statehouse. In 2006 several prominent Republican moderates retired. In 2008 this trend continued, though at a lesser pace. Now in 2010 we are seeing a full flight exodus of 8 prominent GOP moderates of the house. But before we say they are fleeing because of ideological exclusion lets look at their ages.
All the House Republicans who are retiring are at least in their 70s. Some, like Rep. Carlos Bilbao, are leaving to run for local office. Others like Rep. Mack Shirley, Rexburg, are almost 80 and calling it quits in elected office for good. Considering their ages and ambitions (or lack thereof) it is not surprising to see many of them retiring. And as they retire a new cadre of younger, more conservative lawmakers will take their place helping move the Idaho GOP to the right.
There are other factors to consider as well in older, moderate lawmakers retirements. Many saw their districts change and while many could easily be reelected some simply do not want to go through another grueling campaign, introducing themselves to new voters. For somebody like Bilbao who represents an extremely rural district based in Gem County this is understandale. Other lawmakers also do not want to continue in a legislature tainted with scandal. I refer specifically to the scandal caused by former Senator John McGee of Nampa.
Popkey does hit upon a key factor in his article however. The atmosphere in the legislature, both in the House and Senate, but even more so in the House, has been labelled as “toxic” by multiple members. This atmosphere seems to be the result of scandal, internal ideological schisms in the House Caucus, and Denney’s use of the Speakership to axe Committee Chairmen Rep. Leon Smith and Tom Trail for holding up bills Denney wanted. It is no wonder that Denney replaced them with more conservative and reliable lawmakers as Denney has also continued to be more likely to favor younger conservative lawmakers for future chairmanship positions.
This move by Denney at the end of the last session was unprecedented. Never during the more moderate tenures of Simpson and Newcomb as Speaker had this been done before. Then again, Simpson and Newcomb never had to deal with as conservative a House Caucus as Denny has. And as more conservative lawmakers come into the Caucus Denny has to accommodate some of their demands to stay in the Speakership. If many of the House members running for Senate win their races come 2013 Senate President Rex Hill may know what Denney feels like at times.
So yes, while it is true that GOP moderates are rapidly disappearing in Idaho, especially in the House, it is not due simply to the “Tea Party filter” as Potkey refers to it. Nor is it simply because of ideological cohesion. It is also due to a generational shift within the reigns of power in the party and the internal schisms this creates in a one party dominated state. It is also due to redistricting and many older, moderate members do not want to run in new districts. Furthermore, these older, moderate lawmakers have their own lives to live and may have other ambitions. As for the atmosphere in the Statehouse driving moderates out, tough decisions, scandals, Denney wielding new power and an influx of younger conservative lawmakers have made more moderate, long-term lawmakers feel like, as Rep. Leon Smith said, “It’ just not that much fun anymore.”
Speaking personally here I see this as most worrisome for GOP lawmakers running in swing districts. District 18, a swing SE Boise District is a perfect example of this. In 2010 GOP lawmakers Julie Ellsworth and Mitch Toryanski were elected in narrow victories. The 2010 session pushed their personal loyalties and ideological leanings to the limit. But in the end they could come out looking like moderates to voters. For lawmakers representing districts such as these the question has to be asked how they will advance in seniority if the party snubs them? In recent years, both at the state and national level, the GOP and Democratic Party has been less willing to help out endangered moderate incumbents nor give them plum Commitee positions to tout. Idaho seems likely to continue this trend.
Idaho is seeing a changing of the guard in the Idaho GOP. If voters do not like it then they will send a message to the party. If not, well then Idaho will become not only a Republican state but a more conservative state as well.