Idaho Republicans Need to Change to Win Urban Boise…..And They Won’t

thNo 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.



This Constitutes Good News for Idaho Democrats?

AJ Balukoff (D ) lost by 14% in a political environment that favored his party.
AJ Balukoff (D ) lost by 14% in a political environment that favored his party.

Idaho Democrats are buoyant over a new poll showing they are rebounding in the state.  The poll, conducted by Dan Jone’s for Zions Bank finds that “voters are shifting away from the GOP.”  But are they really?  Many aspects of the poll used to defend this analysis are fairly thin.

Exhibit A to defend this analysis is Jone’s survey finding Independents now outnumber Republicans and Democrats.  According to the last surveys before the election Republicans made up around 40%-50% of voters and outnumbered Democrats significantly (Yougov and PPP).  In Jone’s survey 38% now identify as Independents compared to 32% Republican and 16% Democratic.  Jones sums up the data thusly, “Many independents might be voting Democrat by 2018.”  Technically true, and the world could end by then as well.  Neither is likely.

First off, fewer voters identifying as belonging to a political party after an election is fairly common.  Consider results from the recent 2014 midterms.  On the eve of the midterms Gallup found Republicans outnumbered Democrats nationally and in numerous individual states.  But a mere two quarters later and the electorate has returned to normal where Democrats outnumber Republicans and far fewer voters ID as true Independents. This partly is a result of voters identifying with individual candidates and their party before and after the election.  But once that feeling fades voters fall back on the Independent label.

Secondly. just because a voter ID’s as an Independent does not mean they really are.  It has been well documented since 1992 that many Independents when pushed will identify as “leaners” to one party or the other.  These leaners will actually behave in some cases more partisanly than actual partisans.  Short of the GOP nominee advocating for genocide it is hard to see many right leaning Independents voting Democratic.  In a state as red as Idaho Democrats need some sort of cross-over support to win statewide races (paging Jana Jones).

Lastly, new variables will be involved in the 2018 elections.  We will have a new GOP nominee (no more Butch Otter) and a new Democratic nominee (most likely).  The state of the economy, the political mood, etc. all will have changed from today.  To make a blanket statement “Many Independents might be voting Democratic in 2018” is like saying their might be water left in the oceans by the same time-frame.  It’s an analysis that lacks analysis.

Jone’s survey does have enlightening tidbits for both parties.  Only 44% of Idahoans believe the state is headed in the right direction and it is easy to see why education dominated the 2015 session when 17% of voters identified it as the most important issue facing the state.  Republicans answered it in part with Tiered Licensure and no offense to those who advocate a Democratic takeover they could not take down a two-term incumbent plagued by scandals and allegations of underfunding schools.  He still won.  A new Republican in 2018 won’t feature that baggage.

I have written before on the weakness of the Democratic bench in the state.  When you only hold 21 legislative seats, a handful of County Commission seats and not a single, statewide Executive or federal office your bench is pretty weak.  Republicans face no such issues and have their choice of many top tier, battle-tested candidates.  Democrats can only hope for the same.




Idaho Republicans Set to Hike State Fees in Name of Transportation/Nix Tax Reform

9153_12658_McCall_Idaho_Roads_mdThe saga of transportation funding and tax reform in the 2015 legislative session goes back to the beginning of the session.  Powerful entities, such as IACI, indicated just how much they wanted tax reform.  By reform I mean cuts.  But other issues, transportation and education specifically, have garnered much more of the legislature’s attention.  Combined with numerous other issues; gambling, tanning beds, and education funding, tax reform and transportation funding were pushed to the end of the session.

What has resulted have been two weeks of transportation and tax reform bills dying and rumors swirling of a potential bill being amended by the Senate to include over $150 million in fee and gas tax hikes.  But I am getting a bit ahead of myself.  Let’s start at the beginning.

Before the session began the Governor made clear he wanted the $262 million road maintenance shortfall projected by ITD to be dealt with or at least minimized.  The primary limitation the Governor set on the legislature in this endeavor was that it would include no money being shifted from the general fund.  The Governor did this in an effort to make sure money allotted for education would not be spent for other purposes.  He also indicated he would like the revenue to be created primarily through user fees and a gas tax hike.

Raising revenue in a red state is always a difficult proposition.  In a legislature full of conservative Republicans the idea gets even dicier.  With education dominating the legislature for so long dealing with transportation and tax reform was always going to be on the back-burner.  But, in early March it began to become clear the House was going to try to work on both as education (Teacher Pay Ladder) was all but finalized.

What came of these efforts were HB 310, 311 and 312.  All attempted in some way to tackle transportation and tax reform.  HB 311 called for an elimination of the sales tax on groceries, a flat income tax of 6.7% for the top three income brackets and a gas tax hike of seven cents.  HB 310 called for shifting funding from the General Fund to transportation and HB 312 called for higher vehicle and registration fees.

All three narrowly passed the House to varying degrees but were dead on arrival in the Senate.  By unanimous consent the Senate killed HB 311 by sending it back to the Transportation Committee and will not bring up.  HB 310 will not be heard as it violates Otter’s funding preference.  Due to the fact that revenue generating bills can only come from the House it is likely the Senate will attempt to modify HB 312 and likely make it far more expense.

While certain to make Senate GOP leaders and the Governor happy it is unclear if such an effort could pass the House.  Members want to show their constituents they did not just vote for a tax increase (called fee hikes by politicians). Rather, the idea of a tax shift through tax reform is more appealing because it is revenue neutral.  But when the state needs revenue and it can only be generated through user fees and gas tax increases the options are extremely limited.

We should not be surprised to see in the next day or two a major rewrite of HB 312.  In it, don’t expect much on tax reform.  The Senate seems unlikely to go for anything impacting revenue even if it is something as popular as eliminating the sales tax on groceries.  Also expect to see a major revenue expansion from the House’s initial $61 million.

Good to know Republicans cannot do tax reform but they can raise revenue just as easily as any Democrat.

Idaho Democrats Search for Answers

AJ Balukoff
AJ Balukoff

It’s easy to assume Idaho’s Democrats are unified.  After all, they are such a minority in the legislature (20%) and often ignored they tend to vote as a bloc against any high-profile GOP effort (such as abortion and Add the Words).  Further, every Democrat is on record saying they would expand Medicaid and in 2013 every Democrat voted to establish a state health exchange. But repeated defeats by significant margins in every statewide race (constitutional and federal) since 2006 has left the party searching for answers and appeal to young families populating the state’s suburbs.  This search has largely led to two conclusions.

The first conclusion argues until Idaho’s demographics change Democrats will lose.  And if Democrats are to lose they should do so standing on principle.  The second conclusion centers on a more hopeful answer; find and recruit candidates that can appeal to Idaho’s rural and suburban populations.  In other words, stop nominating people from Boise and Sun Valley.

However, this is easier said than done.  Since 2006, almost every statewide Democratic candidate has come from Boise.  In 2010, the party’s gubernatorial candidate Keith Allred was from Boise.  In 2014, only one statewide candidate did not hail from Boise, Jana Jones, and it is no coincidence she easily outran every other Democratic candidate.  So perhaps Democrats would be best served by trying to move outside their geographic bases for candidates.

Honestly, the Democratic base would likely vote for a former Republican if he had a real chance at winning.  Despite every legislative Democrat being pro-choice, Allred and Balukoff called themselves pro-life.  They won every progressive bastion in the state.  Both Allred and Balukoff opposed gay marriage.  They still dominated progressive areas.

But candidate appeal is only one part of the solution.  Until Idaho Democrats can divorce themselves from the national brand they can run every candidate from North Idaho and they will still lose. You don’t accomplish that by running candidates who mirror the national party’s major themes.  For example, Balukoff championed hiking the minimum wage.  Jana Jones spoke glowingly of the IEA and Hollingsworth attacked Republicans for closing their primary.  These don’t divorce yourself from a national party that views conservative voters with disdain, allies with unions and wants to federally hike the minimum wage.

Unfortunately, the truth may be that Democrats can only do so much to overcome their disadvantages.  The party is done in by its electoral base.  Democrats must largely cater to urban interests whereas Republicans appeal to rural and suburban.  It is hard for any Democrat to overcome the stereotype they are beholden to Boise/Sun Valley progressive interests.  Still, Balukoff managed to do a credible job last year aided by the opening Otter left him on education and corruption issues.

Still, Democrats would not do themselves any harm by nominating candidates from outside Boise.  After all, at this point, it can’t get any worse for Idaho Democrats.

Idaho’s Legislature Showcasing What Divides America

House State Affairs Chairman Thomas Loertscher sponsored HB 154 on the House floor.
House State Affairs Chairman Thomas Loertscher sponsored HB 154 on the House floor.

Since the Idaho legislature gavelled into session leadership in both chambers promised to focus like lasers on jobs, transportation funding and education.  And while all these issues have dominated the docket they have not been what has stolen the show this session.  Cultural issues have.

If there ever was any doubt what divided America more than economic or racial issues it has been settled.  Okay, it’s been settled in Idaho; culture.  Such a divide has been showcased on two occasions and perhaps a few more to follow before the session ends.

LBGT rights have long been a galvanizing issue for Idaho Democrats and the majority party’s ignorance of their plight played a big part in Boise turning blue.  But it took over nine years for Idaho Republicans to even allow a hearing on a bill that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and preference.

The bill, H2, was presented before a joint session of the House and Senate State Affairs Committees.  After three days of testimony not a single Republican (out of 13) voted for the bill while all four Democrats voted for the bill.

Merely a month later HB 154 was introduced.  The bill, relating to chemical abortions would require women to see a doctor to get a prescription to provide an abortion inducing drug.  Introduced in the House State Affairs Committee the bill was passed along party lines.

When HB 154 hit the floor a mere day ago it was expected to pass.  But how it did so has to be considered unexpected.  In a 55-14 vote not a single Democrat voted for the bill (expected) but not a single Republican voted against the bill.  This included vulnerable Republicans in legislative districts encompassing Lewiston in the North and Sun Valley.

Much as cultural issues have come to dominate federal politics so do they also appear to be taking over Idaho’s politics.  Only here, one party has commanding domination of the state.  As I hinted above, this is not a new phenomenon in Idaho.  All of Boise’s legislative districts went for Obama in 08 and 012 while every other region of the state went for Romney and McCain.

At the legislative level it has taken more time for cultural politics to start heavily influence voting.  Consider the ultra-sound bill of 2012.  That session, the bill passed the Senate 23-12 and five Republicans voted against it.  House leadership did not even take up the bill suggesting their Caucus was split on the issue.

Not so with this bill.  Instead, this bill garnered strong support for and against along straight party lines.  Perhaps after 2012 and 2014 where few members lost reelection legislators feel empowered to vote more on culturally ideological lines.  But the subtext of the votes on HB2 and HB 154 is clear.  Idaho’s politics is as much cultural as partisan.

Democrats Downballot Losses Are of the Party’s Own Making

vote-elections-voting-boothOnce a hallmark of the Democratic party’s strength, control of state legislatures and Governorships, the party now controls a mere 30 state legislatures and only 19 of the nation’s 50 Governors mansions.  Now, a new DNC report showcases why this has happened,.

According to the report, the Democratic party since 2008 has lost 69 House seats, 13 Senate seats, 910 legislative seats, 30 legislative chambers and a whopping 11 Governorships.  Notably, the party only controls four of the eleven Governorships in states considered competitive for the 2016 Presidential race (Colorado, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Virginia).

The report hints at several reasons why the Democratic Party has suffered such heavy losses since 2008.  The first, the party has failed to focus enough on state legislative races.  Another reasons is the failure to groom future candidates.  Third, the party has failed to communicate a clear and concise message. The report cites other reasons but these are the three that stand out.

But, the report misses other very important factors.  The first is the party that holds the White House almost always gets smashed in midterms (minus Clinton 98 and GW 2002).  The elections of 2008 and 2010 were carbon copies of 1980 and 1982.  Republicans romped in 80 and were soundly rebuked in 82.  Democrats triumphed in 2008 only to be crushed in 2010.

Another factor is something the Democratic Party had little control of; generational change.  Many of the legislative chambers that switched allegiances in 2010 came from the South where older, traditionally Democratic white voters are dying off and being replaced by younger Boomer and Millennial Republicans.  Redistricting after 2010 only compounded the problem with traditionally Republican constituencies being drawn into safe districts.

However, by 2014, many legislative chambers and Governorships in the South were GOP.  So this explanation does not explain why Republicans could win swing chambers in Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota and Maine and also take Governors mansions in blue states like Maryland and Illinois.  Further, many of the party’s gains in the House came in light blue Congressional districts.

The DNC report misses the mark on Democratic struggles at the state and local level largely because like the RNC 2012 election autopsy it attempts to present a rosy picture for the future of the party.  There is no rosy future for the Democratic Party at the state level.  The party’s heavy bleeding of white, working class voters has damaged them in even deep blue states like Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts (all states the party lost btw).

The primary reason for Democratic struggles is clear.  The Democratic coalition is top-down heavy and many of the party’s core constituencies do not show up in midterms (drop-off voters).  But, less clear and not mentioned in the report is why Democrats struggle to relate to voters in state elections (ie. white, working class). Unfortunately, it is a problem the party made for itself.

Due to the unwieldy nature of the Democratic coalition the party has forged a modern coalition based on culture and cultural issues play a far more prominent role in federal elections.  Debates over cultural issues such as abortion, gay marriage and welfare often take center stage in federal races.  Meanwhile, cultural issues are often downplayed in state races and Republicans in state races tend to focus on fiscal issues.

Two examples stand out. In Maryland, then GOP gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan announced he was pro-life but said he would not seek to change the state’s abortion laws.  His opponent relentlessly focused on the issue and lost while Hogan largely won because of his focus on spending and its results.  In Illinois, then GOP candidate Bruce Rauner announced he supported abortion rights and gay marriage.  There was little his Democratic opponent could do but to paint him as a Mitt Romney look a like.

Worse for the Democratic Party is that short of GOP implosions seen in 2010 (Colorado) and 2012 (Indiana, Missouri) the party’s appeal on cultural issues only goes so far.  In Colorado Senator Mark Udall used more than half of all his ads to attack now Senator Corey Gardner on abortion.  While Udall did win women he was crushed among Republican and Independent men.

As if it could not get worse for Democrats voters value issues differently in state races.  Fiscal issues tend to dominate.  This suggests that Democrats do not just suffer from a drop-off problem among voters but they struggle to translate support at the federal level to the state level.  Consider that in Illinois among voters who somewhat approved of Obama (using as a proxy for voting in 2012) Rauner won 23% and 11% of those that strongly approved of the President.  Quinn managed to win only 7% who strongly disapproved of the President.

Structural weakness also plays a part in this drama.  The first is fairly obvious in the form of redistricting.  Democrats suffer even more than the GOP in redistricting largely because their voters are often packed into a few, large metropolitan areas.

Second, the party is unable to sustain a strong bench.  Unlike the GOP that has a strong bench of young Senators and Governors the Democratic Party has few.  Further, the GOP can count on strong future statewide candidates due to their control of state legislative chambers (paging Marco Rubio and Joni Ernst).

Third, and likely most important for the party’s success is it creates a lack of institutional knowledge and pressure.  Without institutional pressure there is little demand for the party to change.  Without institutional knowledge the party lacks leaders to implement such change.  As the DNC report indicates, there is little institutional pressure for the party to reform.  Hence, “Voters like our policies but…”.

The DNC report is a good start for the party but it should go much further.  A full report is expected in May but don’t expect it to cover the party’s structural deficiencies.  Instead, it will be full of flowery and hopeful rhetoric about the future and the need to expand the party’s constituencies.  Unfortunately, the way the Democratic party is set up now that is a herculean if not impossible task.


Teachers Unions Besieged On All Sides

chicago-teachers-union1It is tough to be a union these days.  Besieged on all sides from Republicans AND Democrats, the public, and businesses unions have been under assault since Obama took office.  Once able to count on the solid support of Democrats, unions have found that Democrats don’t feel they need to walk in lockstep with them to win elections anymore.

It’s not surprising to note unions fighting with the GOP.  In Wisconsin, unions spent millions to defeat Scott Walker only to fail three times.  Both Michigan and Indiana became a right to work states in 2012.  Wisconsin appears set to join them in the next few weeks.  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie partnered with than Newark mayor Corey Booker (now Senator) to expand charter schools in the city.  In all cases unions, particularly teachers unions, opposed such efforts.  But Democrats are also increasingly in conflict with teachers unions.

Take the case of Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel.  A seasoned politico, the former Obama administration official won his inaugural mayoral race with strong backing from the NAACP and Chicago’s Teacher union.  Since that time it has gone nowhere but downhill.  Elected in 2011, a mere year later Emanuel engaged in a tussle with unions that ultimately saw them go on strike before some of their demands were met.  Emanuel got significant concessions as well.

Now, as he gears up for his reelection, his shaky prospects appeared tied to his education agenda which has cut salaries and pensions for teachers and closed dozens of low performing schools.  Unions have spent heavily to defeat him but his challengers are subpar at best.  The only question is whether Rahm can hit 50% and avoid an embarrassing run-off.

Chicago is not an isolated incident.  Reflecting perhaps the only ideologically conservative aspect of Obama’s administration former Obama officials have embarked on attacking teachers unions over things they see as detrimental to education including tenure, outrageous salaries and overly generous pensions.

Obama has also jumped on the education reform bandwagon, His education effort Head Start which emphasized student achievement and teacher evaluations to be based in part on student performance has never been embraced by the AFT and NEA.  Common Core, strongly supported by the President, has enraged both unions and conservatives, though for different reasons.

Other Democrats have taken on teachers unions but in less direct ways.  Mario Cuomo’s reelection bid in 2014 was complicated by a contentious primary where his lack of support for teachers and support of charter and private schools was attacked.  Now, Cuomo has proposed a 2015 budget that would make a conservative proud including expanding the number of charter schools to 560 from 460 and using teacher evaluations to fire bad teachers and limit tenure.  Unsurprisingly, unions have balked and attacked the Governor.

But teachers unions

are increasingly finding their support isolated.  Instead of working with administrators and politicians many unions are increasingly in conflict with such individuals.  They also are losing the public.  California illustrates such a trend.

In 2012, Students Matter, a nonprofit group founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch, filed a lawsuit against California’s tenure system on behalf of nine inner city High School students.  The suit alleged that California’s tenure system kept poor teachers from being fired, better teachers from being hired and disadvantaged poor and minority students stuck in failing inner city schools.

In June 2014, California judge Rolf M Treu agreed stating, “Evidence has been elicited in this trial of the specific effect of grossly ineffective teachers on students. The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”

Unions have found an ally in Democratic Governor Jerry Brown who appealed the ruling in an effort to get support for his reelection bid.  Treu did stay his decision until the appeal by Governor Brown made its way through the process.

Such a case from California illustrates how little support unions are receiving from the once friendly public.  Polls consistently show voters value and respect teachers but they see a clear distinction between a “teacher” and a “teacher’s union.”

In 2012 Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance asked both teachers and the public how they felt about teachers unions.  They did it in two ways.  They asked the following, “Some people say that teacher unions are a stumbling block to school reform. Others say that unions fight for better schools and better teachers. What do you think? Do you think teacher unions have a generally positive effect on schools, or do you think they have a generally negative effect?” Participants were asked to choose one of five responses: very positive, somewhat positive, neither positive nor negative, somewhat negative, and very negative.

Between 2009 and 2011 participants generally were more favorable to unions but in 2012 the numbers flipped.  Whereas in 2011 29% of the public held a very positive view of teachers unions only 22% did in 2012.  Most striking, in 2011 58% of teachers had a positive view of teachers unions but in 2012 that number dropped to 43%.  However, when given only two options 71% of teachers gave their unions a positive image while the public split down the middle: 51% said unions had a negative impact, while 49% said their effect was positive.

The nuanced views of the public can be displayed by a simple example here in Idaho.  In 2011, the Idaho legislature passed what was termed the Luna Laws.  These laws mandated tenure be eliminated, collective bargaining further limited and all students to take at least one online class.  The IEA with help from the NEA and AFT fought back and launched a petition to have a referendum on the laws.

While the laws all fell in 2012 it is notable how the laws were attacked.  No mention of unions were made in advertisements for repealing the laws but rather the laws would harm teachers and students.  And while the laws fell virtually every Republican in the legislature who voted for the laws was reelected.  Many of the Luna Law ideas were re-passed in 2013 and have yet to breed much controversy.

It is unclear how one views teachers unions significantly impacts their votes.  But both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans are clearly becoming united around the idea our education system needs serious reform.  Unions, defending the status quo, are increasingly losing allies among both the public and political parties.