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Beyond the Tide: ID 1

Third of four posts on competitive congressional contests in the Northwest.

Those Idahoans – some Democrats and some Republicans – convinced at the end of May that the nomination of Bill Sali would open the door to a Democratic nominee in the 1st congressional district of Idaho, obviously were shown on election day to be . . . not entirely right.

close districts mapNot entirely wrong, either. We’ve become convinced that an opening did exist, but the Democrats did not wind up taking advantage of it. That was not for lack of an appealing candidate or energetic campaign, both of which they had. Whether a similar opening will reappear in future elections is uncertain, but Idaho Democrats would be wise to focus a good deal of attention in this area.

Before going further, we should restate the outlines here. In its recent voting patterns, Idaho is as blood red a state as any in the country, laying reasonable claim this year to the top of the list. It elected no Democrats at all above the level of state legislator. In the first congressional district, Republican Sali defeated Democrat Larry Grant 50% to 45%; in the race for governor, Republican C.L. “Butch” Otter, a veteran elected official, defeated second-time Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brady 53% to 44%. Those were not massive wins, but a few local Republican disabilities should be noted. Otter’s campaign was relatively weak and accumulated bad headlines from the beginning of the year all the way through to about election day. And Sali was poorly regarded by a number of fellow Republicans, insulted and even threatened by two state House speakers of his own party and was blasted during the campaign by other Republicans, notably the candidate who came in second to Sali in the Republican primary for the House seat. Atop that was the hope generated by what looked like, and what in many places was, a national Democratic tide in the mid-term elections.

The easy response to these races and some others (such as those for state controller and superintendent of public instruction) is: A working majority of Idaho voters look for the “R” by the name and vote accordingly, and no other considerations enter in. And in most recent elections there’s been little evidence to the contrary.

This time, some evidence of a more complicated story does exist.

Idaho District 1

The first hints (and we noted these here) came in late summer. One was a poll by Greg Smith Associates, showing Grant leading in the race 21% to 15%. Those results were rapidly turned into a partisan chewtoy, but the far more significant finding got less public attention: A massive undecided percentage, more than 60%. Even in hindsight, that may have been higher than the actual, but it certainly pointed to a reality of the contest. It was too big a number to not reflect something serious going on.

About the same time, the Sali campaign made regular and repeated mentions of the need for Republican unity. This was unusual; such unity had been simply a given after nearly all recent Republican primaries, however hotly contested. It was not a given now, as the Sali campaign’s approach indicated, and suggested again that significant numbers of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents were uncertain what they would do.

In the second half of October two more polls were conducted in the race, one by the national Mason-Dixon firm and the other by Smith, and their results were nearly identical. They showed the two candidates running close but again a big undecided, about a quarter of the electorate. The results were similar, with the undecided only slightly smaller, in the race for governor.

We know from a variety of other contests in Washington and Oregon – and reports of others elsewhere too – that the late Republican get out the vote effort brought out a significant red vote at the end. But that generally accounted only for two or three percentage points.

Let’s fine-tune this a bit. We’ve seen enough evidence, and gotten individual reports from enough people, to establish this much: Something, somewhere in spring or summer, caused a large portion of Idaho’s Republican-voting voters to question whether they would stay that course in November, at least in the case of the first district and probably some others as well. Whatever it was, wasn’t enough to make them bolt or join the Democratic Party, but it was enough to make them seriously question their existing voting patterns. Then, when the decision finally had to be made in early November, a big majority of them decided to “come home” and vote Republican again.

What was that first lever that caused so much indecision? And what triggered the “come home” decision at the end?

The first remains completely unexplained, though we’ll examine it further. The latter may have been something as simple as what one knowledgeable correspondent suggested: These are conservative people, who stick with what they’ve done before in case of a close call. Maybe so. Or is there more to it?

Look at the overall numbers and the win-loss record, and Idaho looks as much like a Republican monolith today as it did four or eight years ago. Apply a magnifying class, and you can see a different, possibly evolving, picture.

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  1. msolomon msolomon November 17, 2006

    Or just maybe it had something to do with the enormous independent party expenditures (RNCC, Club for Growth, RGA) made on behalf of Sali and Otter in the last weeks of the campaign. The worst R’s that money can buy.

  2. gregsm gregsm November 20, 2006

    That’s exactly the kind of mindset that helps explain why Republicans keep on winning in Idaho. It’s NOT just a matter of money — it’s (to paraphrase James Carville) the issues, stupid! (Not you, msolomon — I’m just paraphrasing J.Carville)

  3. gregsm gregsm November 20, 2006

    (I’m not sure what “awaiting moderation” means…..)

  4. gregsm gregsm November 20, 2006

    As James Carville might say, “It’s the issues and viewpoints, stupid!” The point is that no amount of money can elect a candidate on the wrong side of issues and/or with viewpoints opposite those of the electorate.

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