There is little doubt two of the headlines to come out of the 2012 Idaho legislative elections will be about Idaho going for the Republican nominee for president and an influx of conservative freshman lawmakers entering the House and Senate due to redistricting and retirements. But a third headline could also be whether Idaho Democrats are even still relevant?
Idaho Democrats only occupy 7 of the 35 seats in the Senate and a mere 13 out of 70 in the House. A solid 7 of their 13 members in the House and 3 in the Senate represent metro Boise making the party’s strength in the state increasingly tied to urban interests. Witness the major debates of the 2011 legislative session. On the budget, Education Reform and major cuts to Medicaid all 20 Democrats stood in lock-step against any change of the status quo. That stance might play in Boise, where younger voters and teachers play a dominant role in local politics but outside of Boise not so much. And the outcomes of all those fights were decided in GOP circles regardless of Democratic opposition.
Redistricting was not kind to Democrats this cycle either. Despite the 1st Commission’s failure to even pass a legislative or Congressional plan, and then the 2nd Commission’s legislative map being rejected and quickly reworked Democrats are unlikely to make any new gains in Idaho over the next decade. Democrats completely control Districts 16, 17, one House seat in 18, and 19, all in Boise. Despite the Commission being made up of three Republicans and three Democrats the Commission drew new lines that shoved several Democratic precincts from 16 and 17 into 19. Districts 16 and 17 used to be competitive districts and the GOP hopes they can be again. District 18, SE Boise, is without a doubt the swingiest district in Ada County. In 2006 it gave Democrats complete control of all its representation and in 2010 it gave back to the GOP a House and Senate seat by a combined 128 vote margin. Under the new map the district becomes slightly more Democratic but remains competitive.
Moving outside of Boise Democrats look likely to lose what is left of their endangered incumbents. In the new 29th District Democratic Senator Diane Bilyeu saw her district become even more competitive. Short of Pocatello she has no base to rely on. Even in 2006 and 2008 she struggled and she barely survived in 2010. In 2012 under the new lines she could be out. In the new District 6 Latah County is cut into three different legislative districts. For freshman Democratic Senator Dan Schmidt who seemed to get in only because of his weak opposition and Rep. Shirley Ringo those new cuts could also mean an early retirement in 2012. Rep. John Rusche in District 7 could also be endangered. His district was reworked to take into parts of the more rural and conservative county of Clearwater. Only Boise Democrats appear to be able to take heart from this map.
Democrats made little headway in the Congressional map either. The more conservative suburbs in SE Boise stayed in the 1st CD while the more liberal aspects of SE Boise stayed in the very rural, very Mormon, and very Republican 2nd CD. Only a bad nominee looks likely to cost the GOP either seat in the next 10 years.
Democrats do have pick-up opportunities at the legislative level in District 18. But freshman Senator Mitch Toryanski and Rep. Julie Ellsworth have positioned themselves to the middle. The rematch of 2010 with Durst or Toryanski and Janie-Ward Endelking for Ellsworth promises to be a doozy. But short of that the new map looks unlikely to yield them any new seats short of a few surprise losses for the GOP.
But it is not just redistricting that seems to ensure Democrat’s irrelevance in Idaho for the next decade. Their rigid allegiance to their national party’s platform and representation of primarily urban interests promises them little new clout. Voters have been fleeing metro Boise for the heavily GOP suburbs of Eagle, Meridian, Nampa, Caldwell, etc. This population migration might make the suburbs competitive at some point, along with the growth of the Hispanic population, but not in the next decade.
Democrats have consistently struck a tone on issues that appeals to the younger and more urban demographics of Boise. But along the way that has damaged the prospects of Democrats like Bilyeu, Rusche and Ringo. These Democrats are more moderate than their Boise and let’s not forget Sun Valley partisan fellows and ladies. But they stood by their fellow members in opposition to the GOP in 2011 even as Republican registration in the state hit a new high. There may come a day when Idaho politics is once again competitive. But until then Democrats look likely to be irrelevant not just in 2012 but well into the future.