Idaho 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.