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ID: Signs of change?

Examination of Idaho elections has become something resembling an expedition of researchers digging up fragmentary and very subtle clues about an ancient civilization. The clues being sought after following an Idaho election concern this question: Is Idaho’s “conservative” politics changing, or not?

Not in a decade and a half have the answers changed dramatically. Occasionally you spot something here or there to indicate alteration at the edges, but nothing to suggest a sea change.

Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey latched onto a useful metric for his piece today on the election: The primary battle between Senator Shirley McKague and her challenger, Representative Mark Snodgrass, in fast-growing Meridian. It’s a clear and undiluted metric between two Republicans but of clearly different sorts. McKague is described (fairly) as “a self-professed ‘firebrand conservative’ and ‘lapsed’ member of the extremist John Birch Society. A reliable vote against change . . .” Snodgrass is “pro-life and pro-business,” but also considered a relative moderate in the Idaho House (he’d probably be considered in the middle or slightly to the right of the Republican caucuses in Washington or Oregon); he has also worked on regional infrastructure and other needs, the sort of changes McKague routinely opposes. Both candidates were backed by solid organizations.

A clear contest, all right. McKague prevailed, 53%-47%. Not a big margin. But she won. The close margin suggests some softening in the appeal of the hard-line message; the final result indicates it still has enough appeal to win.

The District 14 House battle between Majority Leader Mike Moyle and write-in Nancy Merrill, a former Eagle mayor, indicated something similar. Write-ins rarely generate significant numbers of votes and almost never win above the small-town level, and uncommonly even then. Merrill lost decisively, of course, but the 31% she did get indicates something serious, some genuine feeling of revolt, is bubbling out there is west Ada.

Can you find a few scraps of evidence that something may be going on to change the situation? Maybe, a few. But the point doesn’t bear pressing very far.

But it’s still not enough to win. Further evidence of that? In the District 14 Senate race, incumbent Stan Bastian was unseated, but not by the anti-growth insurgent – Saundra McDavid – but rather by Chuck Winder, very much an establishment candidate backed by much of the state Republican establishment. In that race, the primary voters had a chance for revolt, but decided otherwise.

And you can look in southeast Boise, where Julie Ellsworth, the long-time legislator tight with the Statehouse crowd, easily beat hard-campaigning Gail Hartnett. Or in District 9, up in the Hell Canyon county, where Otter appointee Diana Thomas was ousted in favor of one-time Helen Chenoweth staffer Judy Boyle, of the old-style resource industry (Sagebrush Rebellion) movement.

1st District Representative Bill Sali, essentially without campaigning, pulled 60% against his little-known challenger, Matt Salisbury. On one hand, that’s not an especially impressive incumbent result. But . . . that’s still a strong majority in-party, a much stronger result than he had going for him two years ago. And any thought that there might be a reaction brewing against Republican Senate nominee Jim Risch – against the Republican establishment that’s happily supported Larry Craig all these years – runs up against Risch’s primary win of 65% in a field of eight candidates: A very strong win by any reasonable standard. Where’s the evidence of voter outrage?

If there’s a growing push for change in Idaho, it’s growing slowly. Democrats hoping for a different-than-usual result in November need to find some way to speed it up, or be swept under once again as they have in every general election for the last 16 years.

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