Boise State is set to host an interesting event next Monday on how Idaho became so Republican. I won’t plug for the event but it will host retiring longtime Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, Jim Weatherby and Democratic strategist Betty Richardson. Today, every state Constitutional office is held by a Republican. Short of Wyoming and Utah, the Idaho GOP has the third highest percentage of legislative seats in the country. The state boasts an all Republican Congressional delegation and in statewide elections for federal or state offices, no Democrat has hit above 47% since 1994.
Idaho was not always so red but it always has had a Republican tint. The state has a long history of voting Republican for President like most of the Rocky Mountain West. In fact, the last time it backed a Democrat for President was in 1964 (LBJ). The state Democratic Party still thrived during this period. This was in large part due to the quality of individual legislative candidates and two particular Idaho giants, US Senator Frank Church and four term Governor Cecil Andrus. Both Church and Andrus have the distinction of being a few of the last Democrats elected statewide.
Idaho has always been more Republican than the nation but a series of demographic and political factors drove Idaho into permanent Republican hands (state offices) starting in the 80’s. The first and perhaps most significant was the national Democratic party drifting left. In 1984, following the disastrous reelection effort of Southerner Jimmy Carter the party turned to stalwart liberal Walter Mondale. Mondale supported a number of policies Idahoans, even moderates, disagreed with as apparently did all but one state in the country (Mondale also won DC). National Democrats did no favor to their Idaho counterparts by nominating Michael Dukakis. Dukakis was just as liberal as Mondale and barely did any better nationwide. Combined with a serious of other factors roiling Idaho politics and the state Democratic Party started going downhill at a sprint. Church, after serving four terms was defeated in 1980. Perhaps he saw the writing on the wall. He was not the last Democrat to not run for reelection. Over the 80’s a number of strong Democratic legislators and county officials also declined to run and were replaced with Republicans or more moderate Democrats (to appeal to conservative voters with Democratic roots).
Two factors Democrats had no control over sealed their fate. Starting in the late 70’s and proceeding well into the 80’s was the loss of mining and timber union clout in the state. This partly occurred because the market disappeared for precious metals and ironically, Democratic Governor Cecil Andrus’s conservationist notions, limited union profits. They still strongly supported him in all four of his successful elections. The loss of union clout culminated in passage of Right to Work legislation in 1986. Unions vehemently opposed the move as did at the time former two term Governor Andrus. Unions successfully used the initiative process to gather enough signatures to have a referendum on keeping the law. In a tough fought campaign the law was upheld by 54% of the voting public. Despite his opposition to Right to Work, Andrus won another term. Demographics also played a significant role. Many conservative and Republican leaning voters moved to the state in droves and moved the state to the right. This was particularly felt at the local level as local Democrats continued to become an endangered species across the state.
Redistricting sealed Democrats fate in the state in 1991. The Republican legislature aggressively gerrymandered the map to knock out several longtime Democratic incumbents. The GOP was aided by court rulings mandating they could not use county lines to delineate legislative boundaries. As a result, the legislature shrunk from 42 seats in the Senate to 35 and 84 in the House to 70. The emerging Southwestern Idaho suburbs also helped Republicans gain new seats in the legislature. What is unusual about this situation is that Democrats regained partial control of the legislature in 1990 due to Andrus’s down-ballot strength. Republicans had controlled the legislature throughout the 80s. Combined with the emerging demographic trends Democrats essentially lost any clout in the state. Their lone member of the Congressional delegation, Larry Larocco (ID-1), lost reelection in 1992. Democrats slipped from 28 members in the House and 21 in the Senate in 1990 to a mere 5 in the Senate and 11 in the House. In 2000, their numbers shrunk to 3 in the Senate.
There is little reason for Democrats to feel optimistic heading into the future. The national Democratic Party has drifted even further left and the policies being pushed; more regulation, more taxation, gay marriage, abortion rights, etc. are anathema to many Idaho voters. Further, Democratic bastions in North Idaho have all but disappeared except for Lewiston and Nez Perce County. More so, the largest Democratic base in the state is consolidated in urban Boise, while suburban voters in the growing Treasure Valley are fiscally conservative. Certainly self-sorting has played a part in this. Immigrants from other states moved into suburbs with like-minded individuals and young and wealthy liberals have done the same in urban Boise and Sun Valley.
Democrats also face a number of tougher modern-day political issues. Beyond the Democratic brand in the state being tarnished is an inevitable result that comes from continually losing; lacking a strong bench. Consider that Walt Minnick, who beat Bill Sali in 2008, was over 70 when he won. In both of Otter’s 2006 and 2010 Gubernatorial victories he has faced only opponents from Boise. Democrats even had to go out and court Otter’s opponent in 2010 because he was not a registered Democrat at the time. Assuming Otter wins his primary his third challenger will again from Boise.
Due to the demographic and political base of the party there is little chance any of the Democrats nominees can win statewide office for deeply partisan offices. Democrats can still win Superintendent races and perhaps this year’s Secretary of State race though Democrats are putting a partisan officeholder on the ballot to do it. Since 1994 the party has had a ceiling of 46% in statewide elections (again, minus Education races). No Democrat can win a statewide office without turnout in Boise and running as a conservative. Yet, any Democrat that runs as a conservative is likely to turn off the LBGT supporting, socially liberal voting blocs in urban Boise and Sun Valley.
Idaho has always been a fairly Republican state and due to a unique confluence of factors it became more so. It could be argued that the policies Republicans have pushed since 2000 are more conservative than before but the GOP grip in the state has been tight since the start of the new Millennium.
In some ways I question whether Idaho really became more red or if it just followed a natural progression to becoming more Republican. Conservative policies at the state level that may be unpopular such as the Luna Laws and abortion legislation, continue to be outweighed by liberal policies pursued nationwide.
There is of of course more to Idaho becoming red over time but this is just a brief glimpse covering the major events. Democrats contributed to the sorry state of the their party here and they continue to do so. Republicans benefited and continue to do so from factors outside their control. Democrats should not expect their conditions in the state to improve anytime soon even as the state urbanizes and becomes younger (suburban/rural vs. urban divide).