Idaho Democrats entered the 2014 legislative session with twenty legislators. Twenty legislators out of a body of 105 (35 Senate, 70 House). Not a single member in the Senate represented a district outside Boise, Lewiston or Sun Valley. Only eight members (3 Senators and 5 Reps) represented districts that gave their votes to Mitt Romney in 12.
At the end of the 2013 legislative session Democrats had to have been feeling gleeful. Despite their failure to stall education reform they had achieved a much bigger prize; helping pass the state health exchange. Six Democrats in the Senate joined 17 Republicans to vote yes while in the House all 13 Democrats voted yes with 28 Republicans (out of 57 total) to pass the exchange. In fact, Democrats were so gleeful at the end of the session they started talking up Medicaid Expansion.
Undoubtedly the scars of the 2013 legislative session weigh heavily on the GOP caucus. Many of the Republican legislators who backed the exchange are facing primary challenges. Senator Russ Fulcher (Meridian), a stalwart opponent of the exchange is challenging Butch Otter on a bevy of issues but primarily on the Governor’s decision to create the exchange.
But despite the gleefulness that Democrats left the statehouse feeling in 2013 the feeling seems to have left them for 2014. Governor Otter’s State of the State Address made clear he is not endorsing expanding Medicaid, is focusing on only minor tweaks to education and is not going to rock the policy boat in an election year. See Democrat’s angry response here.
The GOP’s internal rift remains but this year the party is focusing on issues that unite the party. Consider two examples. The first is a bill that would allow concealed carry on campus. While certainly not all Republicans will endorse or vote for the measure the right to keep and bear arms is universally supported among the GOP Caucus. Another issue concerns religious freedom. In response to states like Oregon and Washington suing religious store owners for not serving gays the GOP is proposing a bill that would protect individuals with religious objections from lawsuits (state or federal).
Democrats lack the numbers to force anything through the legislature. Their entire 2013 legislative agenda relied on a divided GOP legislature to give them a key victory on the state exchange. Yet, even when the Caucus was divided on education the GOP still got their reforms. In other words, good luck Democrats repeating this strategy in 2014.
Unfortunately for the Democratic Party they also seem to lack a vision to allow them to expand their numbers outside of their primary areas. Talking up the middle class, education and quality of living is great and all but how is that going to win you seats in libertarian North Idaho, socially conservative Eastern Idaho and fiscally conservative Treasure Valley suburbs? Furthermore, how is exaggerating the effects of a religious exemption bill going to win you more than urban, young and liberal voters.
Even if one believes in a scenario where the closed primary knocks out some GOP incumbents and replaces them with more populist conservative candidates, Democrats have long odds of being able to win these seats. Let me put this in perspective. In 2012 (a not great year for the GOP) Mitt Romney won every district in the state except Boise’s four urban districts (16-19). In other words Romney won liberal Sun Valley based districts 26 and 29. Also Republicans did have some colorful candidates run in 2012 and they ALL won their races.
This problem is compounded by the fact the party lacks a very strong bench to run for virtually any race. Consider who Democrats have running for statewide races this year. A.J Balukoff, the Democratic candidate for Governor is no youngster and he has donated to BOTH Republicans and Democrats in his time. Jana Jones, who is running for Superintendent of Education, ran against Luna back in 2006. Shirley Ringo, while not running statewide but for the 1st CD against Raul Labrador, is no young whippersnapper. Nels Mitchell, running against Jim Risch, has spent years working for the SEC. The only young candidate Democrats have running is Rep. Holli Woodings (19). The 19th is the most liberal district in the state by any definition which might explain why she is running for a non-partisan office like Secretary of State where voters will evaluate her on her qualifications, not ideology. Bert Marley, the Democrats latest announcing candidate running for Lt. Governor, is a former state senator from 1998-2006.
None of the above candidates have a better than 50/50 shot to win. Balukoff, who gets to watch a bloody GOP primary, is unlikely to win outside of urban Boise. Fulcher is unlikely to lose the Valley suburbs, North or Eastern Idaho. Jones best shot for winning was to run against weakened Luna. Luna is not running meaning that shot never fired. Mitchell has no shot whatsoever against Risch. Risch is one of the most conservative Senators in the chamber. Yet he has also not created waves. Ringo might hit 40% if she runs a strong campaign. Marley’s background as a teacher will likely help him but Little has been largely absent from the education debate. Marley will struggle to pin GOP education reform efforts to Little as a result. Woodings could conceivably sneak through after a brutal GOP primary but even her odds stink.
One would think that lacking a path to electoral victory and being meaningful in the legislature is bad enough. But Democrats lack even the ability to have their public policy preferences heard outside of their districts. Some of these policy preferences include legalizing medical marijuana, raising the minimum wage and expanding pre-K to be universal. As a result, Democrats have to try to get enough signatures through the initiative process to get the public to vote on the issues.
Still, I guess Democrats should feel luckier than other state parties. Afterall, the entire Hawaii Republican Senate Caucus consists of Senator Sam Slom. As an aside, I find it amusing he relishes so much in holding that role. More seriously however, few states have a smaller percentage of their legislatures be composed of Democrats than Idaho (19%). Only Utah (18.2%) and Wyoming (13%) have smaller Democratic legislative minorities. These parties are in the same boat as Idaho Democrats. Consolidated in urban areas (Salt Lake City and Cheyenne) their policy goals do not allow them to appeal to other voters outside urban areas.
Still, Idaho Democrats are firmly entrenched in the districts they hold. And you cannot do worse than holding no statewide offices. So, I suppose Idaho Democrats have nowhere to go but up.
Addendum: Idaho Democrat’s condition can partly be attributed to national factors. While Idaho has not voted for a Democratic nominee for President since 1964 (LBJ) they at least ran competitively (or somewhat so) until the 80’s. By that time the liberalism of the national party began to erode moderate Democratic roots in the state. Assembled below is a tabulation of Democratic gubernatorial and Presidential performances since 1992. Absent the Presidential years of 92 and 96 (Ross Perot Independent candidacy) and 2000 the Democratic gubernatorial nominee’s candidacy tracks well with Democratic performance (this excludes individual and unique state factors, +/-5%). It is doubtful Balukoff can overcome this trend though like Brady he may overperform (2006 was a bad GOP year and Brady had run previously in 2002).
1992 President: 28.24% (three way Presidential race)
1994: Governor: 43.88%
1996: President: 33.65% (three way Presidential race)
1998 Governor: 29.07%
2000 President: 27.64%
2002 Governor: 41.73%
2004 President: 30.26%
2006 Governor: 44.11%
2008 President: 35.91%
2010 Governor: 32.85%
2012 President: 32.40%
2014 Governor: ?