Writings and observations

Previewing Idaho post-election, part 1

The general election is a week and a half out and many of its eventual results are yet unclear. But we can begin to see some of the outline of post-election Idaho, and it is likely to be different political place.

That’s likely to be true whatever happens in the unfolding contests at least somewhat up for grabs – U.S. House (in the first district), U.S. Senate. When the votes are tallied a week from Wednesday, even if a Walt Minnick or a Larry La Rocco do manage a win (possible albeit difficult), Idaho will remain a very Republican place. All of the state officials (none up for election this year) will remain Republican. The legislature will stay overwhelmingly Republican – there seems little prospect that more than very few seats of the 105 will change parties. (If more than are countable on the fingers of one hand actually do, that could mark a truly massive and rare national wave akin to 1932.) Most of the courthouses will be little changed.

Two highly significant changes, setting a stage for ongoing development of Idaho politics, could develop out of this election, though. And over the next few election cycles, there’s a real chance they could change the state in big ways.

One, maybe the lesser, is consolidation of Democratic support in Ada County.

This is not a given. The 2006 election, and the mayoral election the year before, revealed clear Democratic majorities in the city of Boise, substantial enough to seriously challenge the age-old Republican dominance of Ada County. Of course, we can’t yet know whether that will in hindsight look like high water, with some retreat this year. But we will have a good handle on that a week from Tuesday.

Our speculation, though, is that this year’s election is more likely to lock in a growing Democratic presence in Ada County – the state’s top population center – with the prospect that it could become dominant and expand to nearby counties. There’ll be at least three clear indicators of whether that’s happening.

First, look at whether Democrat Barack Obama is able to win Ada County. In the last two general elections, Democratic presidential nominees won only one county in Idaho – Blaine. Ada County went to George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 with 61% of the vote each time. And yet . . . there’s serious speculation Obama might be able to take Ada this time as well (and maybe Latah or Shoshone?), and if he does, that would be a big indicator. (Don’t take this, of course, as a suggestion that Obama is anywhere near winning Idaho overall.)

Second, watch to see whether Democrats can hold on to all or nearly all of their Boise legislative seats. (They’re unlikely to expand into the suburbs, at least this cycle.)

Third, watch the Ada County Commission race of David Langhorst, the Democratic state senator who left a safe legislative seat to run countywide against a Republican incumbent. He may win, and if he does, Democrats will have a majority on the county commission – not unprecedented entirely, but certainly a rarity.

If those three things happen – and all are distinctly possible – Ada County is turning, and Democrats may find they have an actual significant voter base to work with in the years ahead.

The other big area of change could involve the ongoing structure and focus of the Idaho Republican Party.

There have been times in modern history when Idaho Republicans have been fractured, most notably (in very recent times) in the mid-to-late 80s up to 1990. After big losses in 1990, Idaho Republicans (with no small assist from then-Chair Phil Batt) came together and minimized internal conflict. They talked (to oversimplify) about Reagan-style conservatism and generally encouraged a broad buy-in of that. To the right of the country, but it worked to develop a solid working majority in the Gem State.

In part owing to their success, that unity has begun to unravel in the last few years. You could see it most clearly in the 2006 1st district Republican primary election, as bitter a primary as Idaho has seen in a long time. You saw it again in the battle this year over control of the party structure.

All of that may be just prelude to what’s coming next.

If John McCain loses, decisively, his run for the presidency – as looks the case – and Idaho becomes a political minority within the country, the Republicans in charge in Idaho will have some difficult decisions to make: How do they respond? They could simply bunker in and decide Idaho is going to be something other than what America is; but if Democrats are able to solidify their gains in Ada County, they will be observing a long-fused time bomb in their midst if they don’t respond in the right way.

(A quote from a new New Yorker online piece: “Everything that worked for forty years has suddenly not just stopped working, it has become self-defeating. Republican candidates, strategists, and pundits are like witchdoctors who keep repeating the old incantations over and over, their voices rising in furious shock, to no effect. That’s the sound of an era ending.”)

The guess here is that there will be two responses, growing out of the current factioning in the party and maybe exemplified by two national figures, both highly plausible candidates for the presidency in 2012, and both popular among Idaho Republicans. But not necessarily equally popular among all Idaho Republicans.

One will be Mitt Romney – so call that side of the equation the Romney Republicans. They are more Main Street, business oriented, pragmatic (in the sense of being not especially ideological) and more wedded to the party than to the “cause,” relatively willing to compromise (at least to a point). You can imagine elected officials like Jim Risch, Mike Simpson and Mike Crapo being good examples of this group.

The other group, of course, would be those inspired by Alaska Governor Sarah Palin – social conservatives, highly ideological, more interested in the cause than in the party. The most obvious well-known example, presumably, would be Representative Bill Sali.

What’s easy to imagine now is Idaho Republicans naturally dividing into Romney and Palin Republicans, with the divisions that hit the party structure earlier this year starting to manifest in primary and other contests. You can also imagine the whole structure of Idaho politics starting to shift if, in years ahead, that development smacks against a growing urban Democratic base. (What happens after that could be hard to easily foresee.)

So watch closely on election day. You just may see the early signs of thaw in Idaho’s long political deep freeze.

(We’ll revisit some of these thoughts shortly after the election results are in . . .)

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