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Boise blue

Most Idaho Democrats had to content themselves with vicarious pleasures on Tuesday; their in-state races were mostly a long string of disappointments, and for the first time in well over half a century the party is left without a single elected representative above the level of state representative.

We’d guess, though, that one finder of a silver lining was David Bieter, a nonpartisan mayor of Boise who wasn’t even on the ballot Tuesday – he will be up for re-election in May. The numbers were bound to give Bieter some cheer. Especially the numbers in four legislative districts.

Go back to the top of the decade and you’ll find Boise legislators who were Democrats, three of them bunched in one district, District 19 in the north end of town. There, in that little corner, they were unassailable, but mostly lost when they ventured into other districts.

Four years ago, though, there were signs of progress, with a couple of state Senate seat wins in the neighboring district. Two years ago, in 2004, they expanded on that a little, so the map of the district looked like this.

Ada districts in 2004

Clearly, the Democratic strength was expanding outside District 19 into its three neighbors (the purple areas indicate mixed delegations of three per district).

This year, they consolidated, and strikingly took over those districts, really made them their own. These districts now look like this.

Ada districts in 2004

District 17 had some stunning numbers. Senator Elliot Werk, D-Boise, elected four years ago in something of an upset owing to an extraordinarily hard-working campaign, stomped on the terra this time, sweeping 67% of the vote. And his new Democratic House colleagues, Sue Chew and Bill Killen, pulled 58% and 57% respectively against liked and established Republican incumbents in a district that had never elected more than one Democrat at a time.

Three other Republican losses in the area – of Representatives Debbie Field, Julie Ellsworth and Jana Kemp – were eye opening too. Field particularly was often described as the kind of likable politician who’s very difficult to beat; this year she had the added plus (or was it a minus?) of running successful gubernatorial candidate Butch Otter’s campaign.

Of a sudden, four Democratic legislative districts – they now look clearly Democratic – have been established in Boise. For the first time since the Great Depression, a majority of Boiseans now are represented exclusively by Democratic legislators. And – getting back here to Bieter – the mayor must be happy about this, because he is a Democrat, draws much of his support from Democratic networks, and is expected to find his chief opposition drawing from a Republican base. Abruptly, his city looks a lot easier for a Democrat to hold.

What you have just seen is almost the extent of good news for Democrats in Idaho this election. But not quite. Another semi-related legislative point needs making.

One of the big trends in Democratic-Republican splits has been the urban-rural split; in the Northwest, for example, the larger urban areas have trended Democratic, and other areas (especially rural) Republican. The centering of the Democratic vote in Idaho in Boise – it now has a Democratic base equal to or greater than all the rest in the state combined – reflects that. It also suggests a few other things.

Another of the most urban districts in Idaho – most compact within a city – is District 33, within the city of Idaho Falls. That city has not sent a Democrat to Boise since the 70s, but it is doing so this time, with the election of Jerry Shively (who defeated veteran Jack Barraclough). Shively may be an aberration; his political strength came from his many years as a popular high school teacher, during which time he got to know a large swath of the people in the district. But it could also be the cracking open of a door. Another compact urban district, District 4 in Coeur d’Alene, saw a failed Democratic comeback attempt in a House seat but also a Senate campaign, by Democrat Steven Foxx, that pulled within a couple of hundred votes of incumbent Republican John Goedde. That district may be shifting a little too.

Others show less change. Lewiston appears unchanged from the last few elections, sending one Republican – Joe Stegner – to the Senate and two Democrats to the House. And the Chuck Oxley case study – he being a staffer for the state Democrats who filed for a House seat at Meridian, partly to test the possible growth of a Meridian urban Democrat core – didn’t much pan out. (He pulled just 33%.) Pocatello remained a close-fought turf where Democrats sometimes but not always win.

Idaho is what it is, again – on the whole, Republican. With that one notable change in the capitol city.

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