In deeply Republican Idaho there are only a few places where Democrats can dwell for more than a few election cycles. Sun Valley, moderate Northern Idaho districts nestled in Nez Perce, Benewah and Latah counties, and metro Boise. In metro Boise Democrats have found their greatest success winning consecutive elections in multiple seats since 2006. Only the results in District 18 in 2010 have stalled their electoral success in Idaho’s largest metro area. This begs the question whether the GOP can compete here?
Certainly the GOP does not need these seats. They dominate the areas of Boise outside the metro area, win Ada county elections consistently and control the expanding suburbs of Nampa, Eagle, Meridian, Caldwell, etc. But before 2006 the GOP could compete in these seats. Elections in metro Boise were competitive between 2000-06. Pre-2000 the GOP controlled legislature drew maps that dissected Ada County (and Boise) so that Republicans could easily win. In 2001 the first Idaho Redistricting Commission drew competitive maps in metro Boise which included the 16, 17th, 18th and 19th legislative districts. Often elections in metro Boise were decided by 100 votes or less during this period.
Metro Boise has changed since 2000 and that change has almost exclusively benefited Democrats. The growth of Boise State as a metropolitan university has brought an influx of young voters to the city and better job opportunities have brought more minorities to the city. Many GOP leaning voters have fled metro Boise to the Republican dominated suburbs. These three factors have largely allowed Democrats to dominate metro Boise elections in recent cycles.
This is not to say every election in Boise is dominated by Democrats. The current 14th, 15th, 18th, 20th and 21st districts all take in parts of Boise. The 14th, 15th, 20th, and 21st districts are all controlled by the GOP while the 18th has a split delegation. But short of 18 none of the GOP dominated districts partly in Boise are in metro Boise. Even 18, a competitive district since 2006, barely saw two seats go Republican by narrow margins in the 2010 GOP landslide everywhere else.
The new maps legislative maps enacted by the 2nd Redistricting Commission (long story) largely kept the seats of metro Boise unchanged. This is great news for Democrats. Some precincts were shuffled around and solidly blue 19 was made slightly more Democratic but overall metro Boise still leans Democratic. The one exception is 18. This metro/suburban Southeast Boise district remains competitive under the new lines. The district has freshman GOP state Rep. Julie Ellsworth and a freshman GOP Senator in Mitch Toryanski. The lone Democrat Rep. in the district, Phyllis King, has survived two challenges in her reelection bids.
Republicans hope this year with Obama on the ballot and increased turnout from the primary they will be able to compete in 16, 17, and knock out King in 18. Just going off primary results they have a shot. More Republicans voted in the legislative primaries in the 16th, 17th and 18th legislative districts. Still, primaries are one thing. General elections are another entity entirely.
This election several large factors complicate the GOP’s hopes for a resurgence in metro Boise. Recently the GOP closed its primaries so only Republicans could vote. This creates the opportunity for the most ideological candidate to come out of the primary. In 18 where the Republicans tend to be moderate this did not complicate getting a good challenger to King. But in both 16 and 17 it allowed for more conservative challengers to emerge in races in the moderate districts.
In 16, 17 and 18 the GOP will also be facing entrenched Democratic incumbents in all but one of those races. Even Toryanski and Ellsworth will face the same challengers they had in 2010, Brandon Durst and Janie Ward Endelking, both who have name ID in their races. Short of incumbents Toryanski and Ellsworth the GOP challengers to Democratic incumbents do not have name ID. They also face the issue of raising money in a state where cash for legislative races is hard to come by.
Finally, whereas an unpopular Democratic president running for president would be a boon for many Republicans running in new seats, Obama’s presence at the top of the ticket makes it even harder for the GOP to compete in metro Boise. The president has lost some of his luster with the youth vote but the presence of the presidential race at the top of the ticket is sure to drive out the bulk of his young support. And young voters are unlikely to split their votes down-ballot.
All these factors complicate GOP hopes for a resurgence in metro Boise this year. It is most likely that with strong incumbents and a strong challenger against Hart in 18 the GOP’s best shot at winning a seat in Metro Boise rests in this metro/suburban swing district. Of course a lot can happen between now and election day in these legislative races but 16 and 17 have been trending away from the GOP as has 18 though much less so than the latter. Short of 18 that trend is likely to continue this year and the following decade.