No series of days better personified the political change that has occurred in Boise than the “Add the words” testimony at the Idaho Capitol in January. GOP lawmakers, after much deliberation, decided to allow hearings on HB-1. HB-1 would allow the words “sexual orientation and identity” to be protected under the Idaho Constitution’s Civil Rights section. For three days, person after person spoke in favor of the legislation. When the public testimony was over well over 300 had testified in favor and less than 50 against. After said testimony the committee voted 13-4 to kill the bill. All 13 Republicans voted no and all four Democrats voted in the affirmative.
In a decade (shorter even), Boise has gone from a battleground to a liberal haven rivaling Sun Valley. Not a single GOP legislator hails from urban Boise and only the Western suburb based 14th LD remains in GOP possession. This is a far cry from 2005 when the GOP controlled a majority of legislative seats in Boise. But GOP control in the area rested on two factors. First, moderate GOP lawmakers could carve out their own brand. Second, the state party was not moving to far to the right. In 2006 the state party started moving rightward by nominating libertarian Congresssman Butch Otter as its gubernatorial nominee. Meanwhile, the legislature supported a series of unpopular measures including banning gay marriage. The result was a complete and systemic defeat of every Republican in urban Boise. The 2008 election largely reaffirmed the new partisan nature of Boise. Republicans gained a temporary reprieve when they won back two legislative seats in 2010 but those seats were subsequently lost in 2012. The election returns from 2014 show not a Republican candidate in urban Boise eclipsed 40% of the vote.
Boise has changed much since 2000. It has become wealthier, more diverse and of course more Democratic. But the Democratic Party has also become much better at exploiting this factor. In 2003, a turning point in city history, David Bieter, a legislator from the heavily liberal 19th LD, was elected Mayor. He still resides in the office and is a heavy favorite to win a fourth term.
Boise was never going to be able to be dominated by Republicans. Many conservative leaning voters have fled to the lower tax and a transient, college population has descended on the city. These voters lean more left of center. Worse for the GOP is the population of the North End has shrunk but it is merely because these voters have spread further out in Boise, maximizing their vote. Republicans, in an effort to appeal to their suburban and rural base also largely abandoned the issues that urban voters care about.
In many ways Boise reflects the urban/suburban/rural divide reflective in American politics. The issue set these voters value are entirely different. Further, the dominant party often courts the larger voting bloc. Boise and Ada County are large but their vote does not outweigh the rest of conservative Idaho unlike neighboring Washington State and Oregon.
The Idaho GOP still does have a chance to eventually recapture Boise though it will take time and a concerted effort. More painfully for the party though is it will force the party to back off its socially conservative platform and embrace LBGT rights. This might be to high a price to pay as it would ensure the party would lose many rural voters as well as some suburban backers. But until the GOP does they will continue to have little power in Boise.