In 2011 the Idaho Republican Party took the “unprecedented” step of closing its primary (HB 351). Many opponents of the move inside and outside the party argued that it would hurt the party among general election voters. Democrats gloated it would drive voters into their waiting arms. Conservatives pushing the closed primary believed the closed primary would help them knock out numerous moderate, Republican incumbents. Neither expectation has turned into reality.
Admittedly, there is a dearth of election data to parse the results from. But the one data point we do have, 2012, stands out for two reasons. First, numerous grassroots conservative groups mobilized to defeat moderate GOP incumbents. Second, it was the first election since redistricting was completed in 2011. This meant that longtime incumbents facing tough races were trying to introduce themselves to new voters, new voters possibly more conservative than their former constituents.
The results were depressing for the grassroots. Only one of a at least four targeted moderate incumbents were defeated in the first closed GOP primary in Idaho history. Turnout was atrociously low but regardless many moderates survived and moved on to easily win their general elections.
Democrats insisted that the GOP closing its primary in 2011 would drive voters into their party’s arms. Combined with a number of other policy issues the party had pushed; Luna Laws, Voter ID and protest restrictions, Democrats argued moderate voters would be tired of the extremist wing of the GOP taking over the party. The results of the general election do not back this assertion up. More importantly. Idaho’s voter registration numbers do not back up this argument.
The results should be little surprise to Democrats. The party retook a senate and house seat in District 18 but they lost a house and senate seat in rural Idaho. In other words, the partisan composition of the legislature did not change. Secondly, the 2012 election results show that voters did not run to the Democratic Party. Instead, they stayed with the moderate wing of the GOP and solidly backed Romney over Obama. In fact, they did so to such a degree Obama only won four of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts and they were all in urban Boise (all four districts also have a solidly Democratic contingent).
In reality Democrats probably knew their argument was a shallow talking point. In February 2010, Gallup surveyed the strength of the parties in the 50 states. Despite Idaho at the time not allowing party affiliation, Republicans still had a 15 point voluntary registration advantage. Democrats have not had over 20 members out of the 105 member state Senate and House since 2010. Despite having a contested primary in both Congressional districts, Democrats only had a mere 10,000 votes cast to the GOP’s almost 72,000 and in the 2nd Congressional district Democrats fielded a mere 12,000 and change to the GOP’s 73,000 plus.
It is certainly possible the GOP could shed voters in the future. After-all, urban Boise is a liberal bastion and rural voters are increasingly moving into urban and suburban areas. But the urbanization of the state is being counteracted by factors beneficial to the GOP. Boise and Sun Valley might be liberal bastions and Lewiston home to moderates but the Treasure Valley and Northern Idaho suburbs are staunchly Republican and growing demographically and politically more so over time.
Before Democrats argue the closed primary is adversely impacting the GOP perhaps they should get their house in order. Obviously they are struggling to win over the “moderate” voters they claimed would leave the GOP in droves in 2012. Issues such as equal pay, gay marriage and abortion might play well with their urban base but they matter little to suburban and moderate Idahoans more worried about rising inflation and the state budget. Until Democrats start focusing on issues that the majority of Idahoans care about they will continue to have to rely on the GOP to revitalize their struggling party.