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Reshaping Republicans

There’s been some chatter in Idaho political circles about the idea that Democratic legislative sucesses, few as they are, have made the Republican caucuses ever more conservative – and so, the operative control of Idaho’s legislature ever more conservative.

To which the essential reply is: Well, yes, they have.

Some Democrats seem to have been made uneasy by comments like those of Betsy Russell of the Spokesman-Review, who asked in her blog, “Could it be that by electing more Democrats, Idaho voters actually bought themselves a more conservative Republican Legislature?” And proceeded to answer yes.

We agree with Russell’s analysis, and we’ll take it a few directions further.

The concept of winning Democratic legislative seats at the expense of knocking off “pretty good for a Republican” Republicans is one that some Idaho Democrats are having a hard time with. Nationally, Democrats in places like New England and the Great Lakes for years had a hard time with it. They got over it, with results the nation saw last month.

So, they might recall, did Republicans over the last three decades, as they went after historically conservative Democrats. The national Democratic Party was for decades split between its liberal, moderate and conservative portions, but Republicans solved that problem for them starting in the 80s and more sweepingly in the 90s, as the GOP became the dominant political party in the south, turning that region into its strongest big base. This was partly a process of philosophical sifting out: Conservatives migrated from the Democrats to the Republicans, and the Republican Party – which for decades also had wings across the spectrum – came to be much more conservative. That made them much harder to beat in the south, and a number of other places.

But that dynamic has two sides, and we saw it most strikingly this year. Vast areas of the Northeast and the Great Lakes last month – following more subtle tendencies in the last couple of elections – swept Republicans from office. Those regions rapidly are becoming a Democratic base, in part as Republican voters who are liberal or moderates – and in those parts of the country, there were still plenty of them – moved over to the Democratic column. Nationally, we seem to be moving toward a completion of the philosophical party switch that began in earnest in the 60s, as the Democrats move toward something called liberal and the Republicans called something called conservative.

An earnest caveat right here: Those two terms about political philosophy are so badly abused and misinterpreted that we use them only under extreme protest. For purposes of this article, we’ll use the terms as they are most commonly used, but that is so imprecise that the reader is hereby given grave warning about them.

To recap quickly: Where have the Republican gains from Democrats taken place? In places where relatively conservative Democrats – those most like most Republicans – once held sway. And where have Democrats picked up? In places where Republicans acted less like stereotypical “conservative Republicans” and closer to the ways of Democrats.

You can see this all over. In Washington state, Democrats picked up a big batch of Republican seats in the state legislature last month. Did they get them in the conservative reaches of rural Washington? No, not a one. Not a single one. They got almost all of them in the Seattle suburbs – in the areas where Republicans, by and large, have had to compromise the kind of conservatism that their rural bretheren had stuck to. (The only exceptions east of the Cascades were in two Spokane-based district – also heavily suburban.)

Two years ago, the Idaho Democrats gained two Senate seats, both in the Boise area. The two Republicans who had held them – Sheila Sorensen and Cecil Ingram – were solid members of the Republican caucus (read: they were not liberals by any reasonable definition) but among the most moderate members of the caucus, among the easiest for Democrats to deal with. In replacing them with Democrats, the Idaho Democrats removed from the Senate caucus two of the members who were most inclined to work with and compromise with them.

This year, much the same happened on a larger scale when Idaho Democrats won five Boise House seats. Like Sorensen and Ingram, these mostly were Republicans who – partly because of where they lived, which is to say places which were less hard-edged conservative and includes more Democrats in the population – who, while certainly partisan loyalists, sometimes were found toward the moderate side of the conservative Republican caucus. Their departure leaves a larger percentage of that caucus in the hands of more conservative members.

Where Democrats go at this point toward picking up more legislative seats is unclear. But the single most logical piece of turf that seems to stick out is Latah County, whose legislative district currently elects one Democrat and two of the most moderate Republicans in the Idaho Legislature, Gary Schroeder and Tom Trail – moderate enough that they have often infuriated other Republicans (because of philosophy) and are almost partisan outliers.

Many Idaho Democrats have resisted seriously going after them, in part because they admire their stands on education, the environment, worker rights and other subjects. But if they want to pick up votes, places like Latah – moderate Republicans and all – are where they will be found. Both Schroeder and Trail have substantial local popularity, and we’re certainly not predicting they’ll be beaten (and surely not easily) anytime soon. But when one day they do leave the legislature, there’s a good chance Democrats will take those seats – will, at least, if they exert themselves.

And if that happens, the Republican legislative caucuses will become a little more conservative.

Democrats in turn may find that if Republicans – becoming increasingly conservative, including in their ranks ever-fewer Schroeders and Trails and Ingrams and Sorensens – occupy a narrower philosophical tent, that tendency will over time open more ground for Democrats to exploit. That is the strategic eventuality Democrats will face, that the Republicans they like best and appreciate most are those most directly standing in their way. (That is what the Republicans learned nationally a long time ago.)

These are trends, of course, and trends do not mean destiny. Both parties, or either, could upset all of this by embracing, rather than expelling, their moderates. Or by redefining themselves.

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