Idaho’s Dearth of Competitive Races Ensures Legislative Dominance for the GOP

imgIdaho is a red state.  Please, hold your duhs for the moment.  This is reflected in the legislature where the GOP controls 80% of both chambers combined 105 seats (84).  Again, I am sure you are not shocked.  But, what you may not be aware of is just how strong the GOP hold is on many of their legislative seats, ensuring a generational if not longer dominance of the legislature.

Historically, the GOP has dominated the state legislature since the 60’s.  The low-point for state Democrats came in 2000 when they controlled a mere three seats in the Senate and five in the House.  But, the 1994 created Independent Redistricting Committee drew new lines in 2000 that favored Democrats.  Combined with an influx of young and educated in Boise and affluent in Sun Valley Democrats gained nearly a dozen seats that year (even as Bush won the state with 67%).  Since that time Democratic legislative numbers have been stagnant and some interesting numbers show why.

In 2012, Barack Obama only carried two of Idaho’s 44 counties.  He managed to carry only four of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts.  Showing just how important Boise is to the state party, all four of those districts are in metro and suburban Boise (16, 17, 18 and 19).  But what is most notable from 2012 is that Romney won two legislative districts represented solely by Democrats.  Obama?  Zero.  Further, Obama’s best showing was in District 19 with 62%.  By comparison, Romney won 22 legislative districts with over 62% of the vote. So what you say?  That was 2012 and a national election.  Local Democrats do better.  I can’t disagree.  But Romney’s numbers suggest just how Republican Idaho voters are.

But let’s look at a local race.  Heck, let’s look at several in 2014.  Despite the favorable political climate for the GOP nationally it was a different story in Idaho.  Governor Otter was dogged by education funding shortfalls and ethics.  Superintendent of Education candidate Sherri Ybarra was a weak candidate and even Secretary of State candidate Lawrence Denney looked vulnerable to a North End liberal.  But, in the end not a single candidate lost.

The legislature was where Democrats hoped to make the biggest gains.  Buoyed by a strong 2012 where they regained seats in District 18 and came close to winning seats in West Ada their best targets were in District 15 and up north in the Latah and Nez Perce based 5th and 6th districts.  But, Republicans had their eyes on some targets there as well.

When the dust settled only a single incumbent had lost, a freshman Rep. from District 5, Lucinda L. Agidius by 2%.  In the neighboring 6th, Representative John Rusche won by a mere 48 votes and Republican Thyra K Stevenson lost by 26.  However, Democrats lost an open district in LD 5.  They were competitive in 15 but lost all races.

But it is not the back and forth of a single seat switching that matters.  It is the overall vote totals.  In 75 of the legislative seats on the ballot, Republicans won with over 60% of the vote.  Taking out uncontested seats (and there were quite a few) and the GOP still won 35 contested races (whether it be a Democratic or third-party candidate challenging) with over 60% of the vote.

This has repercussions for public policy in the state.  Democrats are a nuisance at best and annoying at worst.  The real debate is among the socially conservative, libertarian and business wings of the GOP.  Notably, Republicans seem to be returning a bit to the center this cycle with a new emphasis on education funding and less on tax cuts.

This change of direction has not been brought on by electoral outcomes.  Rather, the GOP’s business friendly and establishment wing is reasserting its muscles after a successful election.  Conservative challenges to sitting lawmakers and statewide officeholders were defeated and even the best Democratic efforts fell short.

Maybe in time Idaho will change demographically enough that Democrats can compete for control of the Legislature (and statewide office beyond Superintendent of Education).  But when you don’t even try perhaps you deserve to lose.  Democrats did not even field candidates in 46 races.  That is almost half of all legislative seats!

Of course, when you only make up about 68,000 or so registered voters out of 760,647, you don’t even have a candidate recruitment base to speak of.  This and more, speak volumes about the strength of the GOP’s hold on the legislature.


What Obama Republicans Can Do For The GOP

Congressman Crescent Hardy represents a district that supported Obama by 10% in 2012.
Congressman Crescent Hardy represents a district that supported Obama by 10% in 2012.

David Byler came out with an interesting piece this week talking about the differences between Republicans elected in 2012 and 2014, “Obama Republicans,” and the rest of the Caucus.  Note this analysis lumps many of the “Obama Republicans” elected in 2010 into the much larger category of ‘Non-Obama Republicans.”

Of note in his findings are that “Obama Republicans” are much less likely to fight over social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.  Further, a solid majority do not even state a position on gun control.  Many do not even mention climate change and only half oppose amnesty.  But, when it comes to taxes and Obamacare, these Republicans are unified with the rest of their Caucus.

This brings up an interesting question about the Congressional GOP.  Will they moderate?  The typical analysis after 2014 was the GOP House would be even more conservative but this analysis missed the mark.  First, of the 15 seats the GOP gained this cycle, a majority voted for Obama in 2012.  Thus, these blue district Republicans of 2014 have an incentive to see government work and achieve some measure of policy success.

Second, recent events have suggested the Congressional GOP may be aiming to shift to the middle even if it costs them grassroots support.  Since 2012, Republicans have increasingly trumpeted tax reform even if it means popular tax breaks to conservatives are taken away and labelled “tax hikes.”  Most recently, a group of GOP women in the House scuttled a bill by leadership to ban abortion at five months (though their reasons appear shallow at first glance).

The moderation trend of the GOP is even more noticeable in the Senate.  Unlike the House GOP, Senate Republican gains in 2014 (enough to take back the chamber) came almost exclusively from deeply red states.  Only Iowa and Colorado were the exceptions.  But the Republicans elected to the Senate were not firebrands.  Sure, they are conservative, but unlike those elected in 2010 (Rubio, Paul, Lee) they did not campaign essentially on “no.”  They campaigned on good governance.  Not that this will make them anymore popular to the left.

Taking these events into account it is not surprising the Congressional GOP is moving to the center.  The ironic variable in all this is that Obama campaigned on being the centrist and lambasting the GOP as being controlled by the “far right.”  Now, at a time when the GOP is moving to the center Obama is the one advocating “far Left” policies such as higher taxes on the wealthy, paid maternity leave and a higher minimum wage.  Not even a more centrist GOP would go for that agenda.

Now, the Congressional GOP could simply be trying to improve the party image before 2016.  Most of the GOP’s moderate agenda such as allowing Keystone and implementing tax reform will not occur without a GOP President in the White House.  It is easy to argue the GOP’s nominee in 2012, Mitt Romney, suffered because the party brand was so low.

So, maybe “Obama Republicans” will play an important part in reshaping the GOP’s image.  And just maybe, that will be their beneficial legacy to the party.



Just Another State of the Union Under Obama

SPEECH-articleLargeYa know, I remember watching Bush’s SOTU in 2008 and remarking about how much crap he spewed.  Our economy is great.  Aha.  The wars are going well.  Yep.  The list went on.. I don’t remember having a similar feeling until Obama’s speech last night.

The rhetoric Obama spat out was full of lofty goals and ambitions that made his allies swoon and his opponents blanch.  To most Americans it was probably a blah, blah speech for several reasons.

First, the speech was divorced from reality.  The President spoke of our “crisis” ending.  Wait, the “crisis” is over when a study says over half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.  It’s over when the majority of jobs being created are low wage jobs in the low-end  part of the service sector.  Most Americans know this.  It is why they are immune to claims the economy is booming.

Second, Obama came off as cocky.  This is kinda funny considering his party got shellacked and they lost Senate seats in blue Iowa and purple Colorado.  Oh, and they lost seats in the red states of Nevada and New York.  The White House apparently believes this is due to low turnout.  Oh wait, more people voted in Iowa and Colorado than did in 2010.  Darn!

Understandably, Obama is feeling renewed because he has a bunch of fancy policies to spout on about and his numbers are up.  But his tenor came off almost as belligerent and though the speech was not purely partisan it struck one as being more about vetos than bipartisanship.

Third, most Americans are not politically astute.  But they are not dumb.  So when the President says we all need to play by the same rules liberals cheer and conservatives boo.  The middle yawns.  Why?  Because even they know special interests are more powerful than ever under Obama.

Under this administration unions, renewable energy companies, his wealthy donors, unions, the auto companies, the list goes on, have been able to play under one set of rules.  Those other rich people and the rest of America don’t get too.

Now, to be fair, the President did actually put out a fair number of ideas.  Some he had already leaked like the .1% tax on high-end financial transactions (of course we all know this never would hit the middle class’s 401Ks) and 2 years of free community college.  Other ideas he had hinted at before the speech; 12 weeks paid maternity leave, infrastructure spending, paid apprenticeships and a higher minimum wage.

And again, to be fair, some of these ideas do have bipartisan support.  The infrastructure spending idea is not opposed by the GOP.  Nor is a minimum wage hike.  The GOP just wants states to do it and not the Federal government.  Further, some of the middle class tax cuts the President supports by hiking taxes on the wealthy are not foreign to the GOP.  House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan supports doubling the EITC and increasing the child tax credit.  He just does not like hiking taxes on anybody.

Lastly, the President spoke of fairness.  But his administration has been anything but fair.  Has it been fair for the VA vets denied care under his watch?  Or conservative political groups?  What about the wealthy that have been demonized endlessly for not paying enough?  Or the poor that cannot work more than 29 hours because of Obama’s health insurance mandate?  On a sidenote, this might be why a family struggles to live on a minimum wage (though they do qualify for federal food stamps and other programs).

Ultimately, the President’s speech was high on rhetoric and little else.  Americans know the economy is far from recovered.  Voters sent a message to Obama last year by voting for a Republican and even liberals and moderates who did NOT vote.  Apparently, the President did not hear it.

The Shortsightedness of the “Tax the Wealthy In Idaho More”

group_by_banner_kim_defrancoI run in political circles.  Among those circles are liberals, moderates and like-minded conservatives.  On virtually every issue I can have a civil and straight-faced discussion with those who believe differently. Yet, one some issues I cannot maintain a straight face or have an honest discussion.  Among conservatives, the primary issue is ideological purity.  See my article on Labrador’s vote for Boehner here.  Among liberals and some moderates it is on taxation.  More specifically, the what I like to call the “Tax the wealthy in Idaho more crowd.”

I have a tough time discussing such a policy precisely because it lacks any knowledge of policy and Idaho’s tax brackets.  Idaho has an extremely old and regressive tax system.  Did you know Idaho’s top tax bracket for an individual is $21K and $42K for a couple.  The top tax bracket for Idaho was formerly 7.6% but is now 7.4%.  Most recently, the Governor proposing dropping the highest tax bracket to 6.9% over five years which equals a .1% cut every year.

Cuts like this would impact the majority of Idahoans.  Indeed, the Census found Idaho’s median income between $40K and $50K meaning many individuals and couples are paying in the highest tax bracket.  So, should we deem them wealthy?  Should we force an individual earning $21K in Idaho pay more?  According to the federal tax code these individuals are in the lowest tax bracket.

Therein lies the rub that many in the tax more crowd don’t get.  The majority of Idahoans are deemed “wealthy” according to Idaho’s tax code.  Taxing the wealthy is actually a regressive action.  Considering the idea is only proposed by liberals and their banner carried by Democrats in the legislature who claim to care about the poor it is ironic a party that claims to care about the poor would want to tax them and the lower middle class (if $21K can be called that) more.  In fact, it is not hard to make a case for a .5% tax cut for individuals earning $21K to actually be helping the poor or lower middle class.

But I try to be beneficial in such a discussion and give them the benefit of the doubt.  Surely they comprehend these facts.  Sadly not.  Nor do they understand that even if we agree that $21 or $42K is not rich and a new bracket needs to be created it would be a logistical and political nightmare.  Exactly how many Idahoans would line up behind a new tax on $30K, $40K, etc.?  Yah, I thought so.  Exactly as many that are in the tax more crowd.

But, let’s put even that aside for the moment. Consider there may be many millionaires and billionaires in the nation only a few are in Idaho.  Even if set a tax bracket up just for them they could not make up the funding shortfalls the tax more crowd sees.  Taxing what millionaires and billionaires there are here would not fund our infrastructure shortfalls nor education needs.

There are not many other palatable taxing options.  Higher taxes on businesses would discourage investment, not encourage it.  A higher sales tax, though the most fair due to being a consumption tax, is extremely regressive.  Everybody has to eat and we tax groceries.  As an aside, I can see eliminating sales taxes on groceries as being a bipartisan issue both conservatives and liberals could get behind.  Minus the tax more crowd of course.

Ultimately, the tax more crowd is going nowhere.  I am thankful for this.  But the core of their arguments lack context, policy depth and basic knowledge of their state.  It’s hard to have honest discussions with people when they know nothing about the topic they are discussing.


Why The 2016 Race is Wide Open

NJ Governor Chris Christie is one of many potential GOP candidates for President.
NJ Governor Chris Christie is one of many potential GOP candidates for President.

With the 2014 elections gone into the annals of history the pundits and analysts are already predicting what will happen in 2016.  The GOP will control the House, the Senate is up for grabs with several Republican incumbents fighting in blue states and the 2016 Presidential race is wide open.  But the one thing analysts cannot predict with any certainty is the result of the 2016 Presidential race.

The reasons are numerous.  For starters the recent spate of wave elections that has hit the US (06, 08, 010, 14) suggests a highly volatile electorate.   Democrats came out in force in 06 and 08 to express opposition to then President George Bush.  In 2010, conservatives and Independents registered wide disapproval of the President Obama’s agenda.  Despite being reelected in 2012 the President’s agenda again alienated Independents and united the GOP establishment against the Tea Party.  Working class whites finally broke strongly from the President and minority turnout dropped.  The result is GOP control of Congress.

Yet, despite eight years of Democratic governance there is precedence for the incumbent party to hold the White House for more than two terms.  Piggybacking off strong support of the Reagan agenda, HW Bush benefited.  Democrats, locked out of the White House nominated a pathetic candidate for the third time in a row.  The savvy political follower will note President Reagan left office with an average second term approval rating of over 55%.  President Obama has been underwater in his approval since  mid 2013.  So there are some differences between the two but nevertheless the precedent is clear.

Other variables play into 2016. Hillary is clearly the front-runner but no standout on the GOP side maintains a similar advantage.  Indeed, many potential GOP candidates and their strengths overlap suggesting a knock-down drag out fight for the GOP nomination.  But this could be a strength as much as a weakness.  Primaries toughen up candidates and would get them primed for a campaign against the Clinton jauganant. Meanwhile, Clinton’s weakness is in her gaffes of the tongue.  Statements like “We were dead broke when we left the White House” does not engender among the base the same feelings they felt for Obama.

Demographic and economic variables also complicate the 2016 complexion. Despite robust economic growth few Americans are feeling jolly.  Wages remain stagnant and while gas prices have dropped stagnant wage growth far outweighs the extra dollars being kept in American pockets.  College continues to go up in price leading to higher student loans and non-college educated whites are feeling increasingly left behind.

Demographics are also playing increasingly into electoral results.  Black turnout in 2012 eclipsed white turnout and both races votes have increasingly gone to one party over the other.  Hispanics and the young have shown some volatility of late (2012 and 2014) but both continue to go at least 60-40 in the Democratic column.  The Asian vote is looking increasingly up for grabs if the 2014 Congressional exit poll is to be believed.  But all these things may matter little if turnout drops among one side far more than the other.

Numerous unforeseen 2016 variables put the 2016 race in play.  Opposition to Obama and his successor appear locked in place while so does his support among the minority community.  Will Obama’s approval continue to increase and boost his successor or will they fall more and prove a ring around the Democratic nominee’s neck?  Further, will turnout among whites increase from 2012 or will it drop and what about minority turnout?  Up or down?

The electoral college poses one final puzzle for Presidential predictions.  President Obama was reelected in 2012 largely because the Midwestern states of Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio fell into his camp.  Short of Ohio and Iowa, these Midwestern states have not backed  GOP Presidential candidate since 1988.  Worse, Minnesota has not backed a Republican since 1972 and Wisconsin 1988.  Strong efforts from the Romney camp to turn any of these states red failed and badly.

But, this “Blue Firewall” as Democrats call it was broken in 2014.  Republicans kept Governorships in Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio and won an open Senate seat in Iowa by a wide margin.  The party also gained a seat in Iowa and held all their Congressional districts in every state.  With whites, particularly Midwestern whites, turning increasingly to the GOP the party may finally have a chance to these states red at the Presidential level.  Democrats have a slight chance to turn Georgia and North Carolina blue but Obama’s record has alienated any Democrat from Southern whites.  Other states such as Virginia which saw a closer than expected Senate race and Colorado (GOP gain) will also play a crucial role in the race.  But if any Midwestern states go red it is likely a sign the GOP has expanded its appeal beyond the 2012 map.


The Elitism of Obama’s College Education Plan

college_wooster498x333President Obama is expected to announce in his State of the Union address a new initiative aimed at providing over 9 million Americans with at least two years of free community college.  Estimates of the cost range around $60 billion over 10 years.  The federal government would pay 75% of the cost of the program and states the other 25%.

As noble an idea as this may be it doubles down on a flawed and elitist premise.  Only going to college, any kind of college, ensures your success.  Oh, and there is also that pesky adding to the debt thing but that blog is for another day.  This elitist mindset would only be advanced further if the program was accepted.

Now, there is nothing wrong with going to college.  Heck, in three months I will graduate with a Master’s.  But there are many Americans who have and can succeed without a college degree.  Take my grandfather.  He did not attend college until his 30’s and he was able to succeed well before then.  Scores of entrepenuers, young and old, mechanics, technicians, etc. did/are not go to college and are did/are succeeding in America today.

But this idea merely doubles down on the premise that college is the end all be all.  I certainly know my college degree has not netted me the income that national and state statistics promise.  Rather, finding full-time work with a degree has been a challenge.

Again, there is nothing wrong with going to college.  I don’t necessarily see an issue with the government encouraging individuals to do so either, even with the promise of two years of “free” community college.  What I do see an issue with is that the policy seems aimed at indirectly solving the wrong problem. Instead of government trying to incentivize companies to hire non-college educated individuals or heaven forbid train them the view a college degree is needed to “get ahead” is reinforced.  This does not help create jobs or encourage companies to hire.  Instead, it creates a perverse incentive for companies to hire more of “them” (college degree holders) and less of the “rest” (non college degree holders). This mindset was not created recently.  It has occurred through a culmination of federal/state programs expanding college availability and the watering down of college standards to increase access.

Other elitist policy preferences also seem to be indicative of this choice among a wide share of stakeholders.  Liberals love the idea because it promises to expand racial diversity in college.  Businesses are warm to the idea because they have to spend less time training new workers or hiring low-skilled workers.  Further, some conservatives and Republicans may embrace the idea because it promises them a short-term fix to a serious problem in states plagued with high unemployment and a low skilled workforce.

But it is not a fix.  Community college is widely available at affordable prices to many.  A host of federal and state programs and grants exist to ensure access.  If access was an issue colleges would not be dealing with record enrollment and graduation roles. More Americans than ever before hold college degrees and they dominate government and non-entry level business positions.

Consider today that almost every government job anywhere requires a college degree.  Many business require you to have a degree to get into entry level management or supervisory roles.  Almost every lawmaker (if not all) have some sort of degree.  Do these people really understand those without a degree?  Those coming up with policy ideas such as this are thus disconnected with a very different world.

Now, I of course have my own policy ideas on how to confront these issues.  Some of them have downsides.  Deregulation of higher education at the federal level would likely impact Pell Grants and scholarships that offer opportunity to many.  But others should be very popular.  Public private partnerships promoting internships and apprenticeships and government internships teaching skills to non-college educated individuals are but two.  Eliminating onerous licensing requirements and wage subsidies paid for through government and private sources could be done at the state level.

I understand how it is easy for for society as a whole as well as elites to view college as the answer to people’s wage/job problems.  But some people simply are not book smart.  Others just have different talents.  People who drop out of community college or barely graduate High School are just as valuable to the world as those who graduate Cum Laude or like me attain a Master’s degree or PhD.  As Megan McArdle puts it “The way we acknowledge that is to create a society that values them as workers and citizens, not to declare that we’ll be more than happy to help them . . . just as soon as they get cracking on that diploma.”


California Republicans Doldrums Mean Boxer’s Seat is Safe

Carly Fiorina lost to Boxer in 2010.
Carly Fiorina lost to Boxer in 2010.

If one state has been immune to the GOP waves of 2010 and 2014 it is California.  A partisan redistricting dressed up as Independent didn’t hurt either in 2012.  Now, Republicans, who do not control a single statewide office and only 14 of the state’s 53 Congressional seats find themselves without a candidate to fight for Barbara Boxer’s open seat. Rather, all the drama seems to be on the Democratic side with at least four candidates able to make a claim to be able to vie for her seat.

Electorally speaking, California used to be a competitive state.  The state voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 yet reelected GOP Governor Pete Wilson with 55% in 1994.  Since that election Republicans have only gone downhill in the state.  Not even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s moderate tenure turned the party’s fortunes around.  Replacing a recalled Democratic Governor, Schwarzenegger cruised on his name ID.  But by midway through his second term the Governor was turning to liberal ideas to make up budget shortages and each one was soundly rejected by a liberal electorate.

Republicans, soundly crushed in California and nationally in 2008 hoped that 2010 offered them better hopes.  Boxer was up for reelection and the Governorship was open and Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown was running again.  Despite two stellar GOP nominees neither garnered more than 45% of the vote and the party did not pick up a single Congressional seat.  In 2012 the GOP only sunk further.  An “Independent” redistricting gave Democrats several solid pickup opportunities and wiped out a slate of moderate GOP Congressmen and women.  One of these, Mary Bono Mack, was probably the party’s best chance at running for statewide office in the near future.

So, with few prospects the party very likely will nominate a no-name who may not even garner enough votes to be in the top two in the primary.  Two Democrats could battle it out for the open Senate seat in November.  But, this does not mean the GOP is doomed to be forever locked out of power.  Despite losing a Congressional seat in 2014 and every competitive race in the state the GOP ran a diverse crop of candidates.  Further, in late 2013, a GOP candidate won the Mayoral race in San Diego with 55% minority support.  Those are numbers the GOP would kill for statewide.

The GOP did enjoy some success in 2014.  The party took three seats in the state Senate and ended the Democrats 2/3rds majority.  Republicans will once again have a say in the budget process.  Second, the party ran a Gubernatorial nominee who has a bright political future ahead, Neel Kashkari.  An Indian-American, if he ever runs again and controls his gaffe prone habits he could remake the GOP in the state.

Republican hopes in the short-term rely on the chance that Democrats implode in the near future.  Jerry Brown, Boxer and Feinstein are shrewd political operatives who have held together a diverse political coalition of greens, the young, minorities and wealthy by supporting slow and steady change.  Those likely to replace them may unleash an agenda that splits the coalition.  Brown’s gubernatorial tenure has largely been unremarkable minus unsurprising tax hikes.  Feinstein, if she retires in 2018, will take her moderately liberal agenda with her.

Not that this helps Republicans in less than two years.  But it does give them hope for the future.  They need all they can get.