Larry Kenck, chairman of the Idaho Democratic Party, hopes Democrats can make gains in 2014.
Larry Kenck, chairman of the Idaho Democratic Party, hopes Democrats can make gains in 2014.

At their state party convention in Moscow last week, Idaho Democrats could barely contain their glee over what transpired at the GOP convention barely a week before.  The GOP convention ended in gridlock and chaos and the party is reeling from having q chairman some believe is legitimate and others do not.  This division is partly why Democrats easily wrapped up their state convention and showed almost unilateral unity behind their statewide and legislative candidates.

But I, as a strongly conservative Republican voter, am forced to wonder why Democrats are so exuberant about their chances this November?  We have heard this song before from the minority party.  In 2012, Democrats trumpeted the strong crop of legislative candidates they had.  Even as voters turned against the Student Come First laws virtually every GOP incumbent and candidate was re/elected that year.  Now, Democrats seem to be simply repeating the pointless optimism they expressed in 2012.

This is not the first time the Idaho GOP has been divided and Democrats believed they had strong candidates statewide.  In 2010, Democrats believed their gubernatorial nominee, Keith Allred, and his bipartisan/centrist credentials would aid him against incumbent Butch Otter.  Otter had faced a crowded primary in May where he garnered less than 60% of the vote.  This year Otter only garnered 51% against three opponents.  Democrats also trumpeted their nominee for Superintendent of Education, former Republican turned Democrat Stan Olson. In the end not a single Democratic candidate for statewide office (state or federal) earned over 40% of the vote and the national mood for 2014 is looking like a copy of 2010.

Democrats argue 2014 will be different.  I would be remiss if I did not admit their was a slight, slight chance they were right.  The state GOP is divided, the GOP is defending open Secretary of State and Superintendent of Education positions and the national political climate is not as toxic for Democrats as it was in 2010, at least not yet. The party’s candidates are also young, diverse and experienced to boot.

Balukoff is certain to base his entire campaign around education.  He will be sure to trumpet statistics such as Idaho poorly funds education and student performance is poor (though only in some metrics).  However, Otter and many Republicans since 2012 have turned to head off this attack line with the creation of the Education Taskforce and increasing the education budget by a significant 5.1% for 2014.  Jana Jones, who lost to outgoing Education Superintendent Tom Luna, is probably the best bet for Democrats nabbing a constitutional position this cycle.  She faces a weak Republican in Sherri Ybarra and is already known to voters.  Lastly, Woodings is a North End legislator who boasts a strong legal resume.  Her opponent, former Speaker of the House Lawerence Denney, is better known to voters though.

Democrats seem to be forgetting just how red Idaho is in their optimism.  The demographics of the state ensure very few new Democrats are likely to enter the 2015 legislative session.  Statewide candidates A.J. Balukoff and Jana Jones can cite years of experience and incompetent leadership but the Otter’s turnout machine is unparalleled and will likely benefit downballot candidates. Further, the built in base of support Otter has in Eastern Idaho is unlikely to not show up for the Governor in November.

Of course Democrats claim this time will be different.  Voters are tired of total GOP control, incompetence and corruption.  The closed primary has antagonized the statewide electorate and unpopular policy initiatives are dragging down the party.  Yet, none of these arguments can be proven by polling.  They are purely anecdotal and they come from Democrats running in safe Democratic areas, metro Boise and Sun Valley.  Ask how North Idahoans feel about GOP policies or Eastern Idahoans and the answers will be quite different.

The platform Idaho Democrats are running on is also unlikely to swing races their way.  For the last decade Democrats have preached promoting education, strengthening the middle class and supporting LBGT rights.  It has led Democrats to exactly zero gubernatorial victories, zero victories for Lt. Governor and Secretary of State.  Indeed, Democrats have been locked out of heading Education for two terms.  Even GOP dysfunction cannot hide the fact that Idahoans do not connect with the Democratic platform any better than the governing party’s platform.

I understand why Idaho Democrats are optimistic.  They have to be.  They are so locked out of state politics it cannot get much worse.  But that does not mean things will get much better either.  Certainly Idaho Republicans can blow races they should win but none of the GOP candidates this year, short of Ybarra, look likely to do so.  Otter’s turnout machine and support in the business community is strong, Little has a lock on reelection and Denney has a history of dominating races.  Democrats may have a path to victory in a diversifying Idaho but only in the future.

Addendum: The Idaho GOP is hoping to resolve some or all of its issues at an August 9th meeting of the Executive Committee.

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