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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The Wood River Journal, the weekly newspaper at Hailey, is ending publication effective today. Its assets (including its archives) have been sold to its long-time rival at Ketchum, the Idaho Mountain Express.

Call this one a little surprise, and a really short term in newspaper ownership. The Post Company (publisher of the Idaho Falls Post-Register) bought the Journal in April; the in-state ownership sounded at the time like a new life lease for the Hailey paper.

The Journal (and predecessors) had published for 127 years. From one of its last articles:

Faced with a deteriorating economy and falling real estate market, the Journal’s owners have reluctantly concluded the Valley cannot support two newspapers. The assets of the Journal have been sold to the Idaho Mountain Express.

“We are deeply saddened by this,” said publisher Jerry Brady, president of the Journal and Post Company, which has been managing the newspaper since May 1. “All of us who tried to save the Journal and its long tradition gave it our best shot. However time and capital ran out on us. Sale to the Express was the best course open at this time.”

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Two weeks from now we’ll have a much clearer idea of how well the various pollsters did, which will be notable in some races. In the case of the Idaho 1st House District, where Republican incumbent Bill Sali is being pressed by Democrat Walt Minnick, polls are all over the place.

But one out today in that race, from SurveyUSA, has some especially interesting crosstab information – if it pans out. (The poll was conducted last weekend; 4-point margin of error). From the descriptive sheet:

For Sali, the problems are acute, and assailing him from several directions, with the numbers suggesting that the freshman Congressman is his own worst enemy.

Despite the fact that Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) led Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in Idaho’s 1st district, 57 percent to 37 percent, Sali not only trailed Minnick in the horse race, his net favorable rating was the same as Obama’s: minus-14. The survey found Sali’s favorable/unfavorable rating to be 33 percent/47 percent, and revealed Obama’s to be 37 percent/51 percent.

Conversely, Minnick’s net favorable rating was a solid plus-22 — the same as McCain’s. The poll showed Minnick’s favorable/unfavorable rating to be 45 percent/ 23 percent, and McCain’s to be 53 percent/ 31 percent.

Furthering the narrative that Minnick’s position in the lead might be more a function of Sali’s negatives than the Republican Party’s problems nationally, the GOP was still seen as “best equipped to handle the economy” in this poll by a margin of 54 percent to 37 percent.

Among the survey’s additional findings: Bush’s approval rating in the district was 35 percent, with 56 percent disapproving; Congress’ approval rating is an abysmal 9 percent, with 78 disapproving — the lowest in any poll conducted for Roll Call this year.

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Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin

We raised the question a while back having to do with vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin‘s main link to Idaho, her time at North Idaho College and the University of Idaho. The question concerned her frequent changes of venue during her college years, involving thoe institutions and others in Alaska and Hawaii.

A piece in the Los Angeles Times today, looking into Palin’s college years, clears up some of that, and some more; it’s a good read for anyone interested in the connection. It isn’t especially either positive or negative, but it does fill in some curious gaps.

Her near-invisibility at the University of Idaho does remain a curiosity, though. Turns out that Jim Fisher, now editorial page editor at the Lewiston Tribune, once taught her in a 15-student upper-level class, but doesn’t recall her at all. Neither does her academic advisor at UI.

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Finally, here’s the picture in Washington state, where as in Oregon the presidential is in no serious doubt, but the next top race – for governor – is genuinely close.

For governor (there being no U.S. Senate race in Washington this year):

And the closest U.S. House race, in District 8, with limited polling but an intriguing trend line:

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The presidential race in Oregon seems to be a progressively foregone conclusion, but that Senate race – albeit with a blue tilt – is absolutely a popcorn watch.

Now the more exciting Senate battle:

As in Idaho, there’s not really enough data for a solid chart in the one hot U.S house race (in district 5).

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At the Atlantic blog run by Andrew Sullivan, you periodically see posted composites of polling information, showing trend and status. These are usually noted under the heading, “reality check.”

Seems about right. And at two weeks out from election day, seems a fair time to run them out for the Northwest. Major races in Idaho first.

Senate race:

There is a chart for the first U.S. House district race, but the polling it represents is thin for compilation purposes.

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Got an e-mail on Thursday from friends in Kitsap County, where they just voted by mail: “What a great day!” They noted their presidential choice – which in Washington state seems not much in doubt – but not their gubernatorial. And that one is in some doubt.

It will not be as close as the last one, in 2004. 133-vote margins just never happen, except maybe once. We should have a pretty clear idea on election night, or the morning after at least, who will be governor the next four years. But, while we continue to suspect that Democratic Governor Chris Gregoire will narrowly outpace Republican challenger Dino Rossi, it’s not likely to be by much. This isn’t likely to be an early-evening call.

What with ballots out and cast, the newspaper endorsement picture in Washington is wrapped up now.

Gregoire’s corner includes the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Tacoma News Tribune, the Spokane Spokesman-Review (just today), the Vancouver Columbian, the Portland Oregonian, the Everett Herald (today), the Kitsap Sun (today), the Bellingham Herald (today) and the Mount Vernon Skagit Valley Herald. The Tacoma, Everett and Spokane papers are reversals from four years ago, when they backed Rossi.

Rossi got backing from the Seattle Times (today), the Tri-City Herald, the Yakima Herald-Republic and the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. The endorsements at the Tri-Cities and Walla Walla are reversals reversal from 2004, when those papers endorsed Gregoire.

The Rossi endorsements generally focused on the budget, noting that Gregoire has increased spending just ahead of dark money days. (The Gregoire arguments tend to be a little more broadly-based.) The Tri-Cities argument, though, is so specific it merits a review here:

And as much as we admire and respect Gregoire — and even understand to some extent why west-side politics may have constrained her giving meaningful support to the Areva project — our first loyalty is to the Tri-Cities, which remains bitterly disappointed over this loss.

Areva represented the possibility of adding a $2 billion uranium enrichment facility and 400 high-paying jobs to the Tri-Cities but is gone now for good.

But instead of growing our nuclear future, we’re worried about Richland losing its existing fuel fabrication plant and its 600 good jobs.

When upgrades are needed in Richland, will Areva spend the money here or just build a plant next to its new uranium enrichment facility in Idaho?

The fact is the Herald’s gubernatorial endorsement probably was Gregoire’s to lose, and lose it she did.

Areva probably will cost her votes in the Tri-Cities, though it may draw a blank elsewhere.

In all of this, you get some feeling of closeness. There’ a little endorsement movement toward Gregoire, but it’s not everwhelming. This thing is tight.

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The Idaho Statesman becomes the first Idaho paper to endorse for president (so far as we’ve seen – if you’ve seen any to the contrary let us know). And in a state that will go for Republican John McCain, but in a city that probably will go for Democrat Barack Obama, it went for Obama.

Highly notable (and useful) was this line toward the end of the end of the editorial: “In what, by comparison, pass for measured moments, McCain and Palin simply insinuate that the Democratic ticket is out of touch and elitist. It’s not only a bogus claim – given Obama’s and Biden’s backgrounds – but it’s a silly form of reverse snobbery. Our nation has to stop equating intellect with elitism and viewing intelligence with scorn and skepticism. Considering the problems at hand, there is no better time than now to change our thinking.”

Some lowest-common-denominatorism is to be expected in political campaigns, but at least we should aspire to better.

Side note: Does this mean Republican Jim Risch will get the nod for U.S. Senate? (See: Oregon, endorsements . . .)

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Of course this was what the Oregonian was going to do: Never any question about it. It endorsed Democrat Barack Obama for president and Republican Gordon Smith for (re-election to) the U.S. Senate.

On the first, this: “In the century and a half that Oregon and The Oregonian have been making presidential choices, there has rarely been a time when the nation so desperately needed a sharp change in direction. To provide that change, The Oregonian strongly urges voters to support Barack Obama.”

On the Senate race: “It is a close, contentious and very negative contest in which both men can make cases for themselves. With his seniority, record of moderation, ear for the concerns of Oregonians and willingness to break with his party when the circumstances call for it, we think Smith makes the better case.”

Maybe the more key reference was this: “The goal of the Democrats at this moment in history is to gain unquestioned control of the legislative process. In the Senate, that means establishing a 60-vote, filibuster-proof supermajority. The generic nature of their efforts in support of Merkley suggest they are more interested in getting their 60 votes than they are in the welfare of the citizens of Oregon. Merkley’s own campaign has focused on his party’s views of national and international issues and, where Oregonians come into the picture, they are often illustrations of those broader topics.”

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Since the Bladine family in 1928 bought the newspaper at McMinnville (then called the Telephone-Register, now the News-Register) it has listed itself politically as “Independent Republican.” In presidential campaign endorsements, it is has been universally Republican – until now.

Today’s endorsement editorial breaks the pattern of 80 years, backing Democrat Barack Obama. (The paper has mixed its other endorsements, backing Republican incumbent Gordon Smith for the Senate, for example.) It was not a limp endorsement, either: “Only one candidate stands for change in this year’s presidential race — Barack Obama. Obama’s intellect, temperament and ability to inspire are precisely what we need after a disastrous eight years under George W. Bush.”

The owner and publisher, Jeb Bladine, offered a column that offered some explanation for the break: “Others on our editorial board passionately believe that Barack Obama, not John McCain, should become our 44th president. By power of ownership, I could have overturned that vote. But much as I believe in a moderate Republican philosophy, I also see the need for dramatic action seeking to break the deadlock and malice that has marred our political landscape for too long.”

And to his fellow Republicans, this: “The Republican Party needs transformation and resurgence, which just might begin after the national rejection coming in November. Meanwhile, the country needs to unite behind someone who can elicit a national willingness to sacrifice for common goals related to energy, the economy, health care and international diplomacy. I hope Barack Obama is that leader.”

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On a day when the Chicago Tribune endorsed a Democrat for president, for the first time in its 160 years; and when the Los Angeles broke its decades-long precedent of declining to endorse anyone for president – both went for Democrat Barack Obama – the Northwest come up with a startling endorser of its own.

The Vancouver Columbian ordinarily endorses toward the right, and usually Republican on the presidential level – it went for George Bush in 2004. But not this year. From its endorsement editorial today:

“As for judgment, Obama chose a running mate who neither hurt him in the polls nor diverted the spotlight from the main man on the ticket. McCain’s choice has done both. McCain tries to masquerade this recklessness as the virtue of a maverick. Would he use that same recklessness in appointing Supreme Court justices and Cabinet members? Which candidate in recent weeks has shown a presidential demeanor? Which could best restore worldwide respect for the U.S.? Which man has tried to soothe — not stoke — rancor in the homestretch of this campaign? Clearly, that man is Obama. . . . America’s comparison between the upstart reformer and the venerable war hero inexorably returns to the qualities of leadership and judgment. Obama wins that comparison, and his message of partnerships at home and abroad seals the deal for us.”

Watch this space tomorrow, for what we anticipate will be another endorsement stunner . . .

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This seems like a small, minor incident – well, it is that. But because it reflects something larger, maybe a little attention is warranted.

The location was downtown Boise, outside the Grove Hotel, where a few minutes hence a debate would begin between two congressional candidates, Republican incumbent Bill Sali and Democratic challenger Walt Minnick. A reporter from Boise’s KTVB-TV was interviewing Minnick spokesman John Foster. Then, according to KTVB:

“During the interview, someone loudly yelled and was laughing during the interview at the Grove plaza. Bilbao and Foster initially ignored the intrusion, but quickly noticed the source of the heckling – Sali and members of his staff. Foster stopped the interview and noted the commotion. ‘I am sorry I was a little bit distracted,’ Foster said. ‘I think at some point you even have to question his maturity.’ Foster said he saw Sali making faces at him and holding up ‘bunny ears’.”

Asked about this, Sali essentially suggested that the Minnick people needed to lighten up.

This isn’t a big issue, of course. But there is this: One of the key arguments against Sali is that he isn’t serious, that he doesn’t take a solid, mature view to his job. Yes, Sali advocates can counter to that, but the perception at least is widespread, and Sali’s people have to be aware of it. Given that, why would they feed the narrative this way, and at a time when seriousness of purpose actually does seem to be a recognizable virtue among politicians?

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Here’s putting the odds at even or better that Oregon House Democrats reach their much-sought goal of 36 seats – enough to enact almost whatever they choose, given their party’s control also of the Senate and governor’s office. A simple majority, which they barely have now, is enough for many items, but a lot of fiscal decisions require 36 votes, which has meant at least five crossovers from the Republican caucus – hard to get.

Two months ago, thinking here was that Democratic gains of two or three sets seemed strongly probable, four a little bit of a reach, and five conceivable but less than likely. But as with so much else this year, that seems to have changed.

Take a look at the Oregonian‘s Jeff Mapes blog post today on the legislative seats most likely to change parties – his top 10 list. Apart from two odd cases* all the seats mentioned are Republican.

Eight of those most-likely-to-switch seats are House Republicans, and some of those are members – like Scott Bruun, Linda Flores and Chuck Burley – we’d earlier on figured too tough to view as very seriously endangered. But not any more, owing largely to the larger political atmosphere and the changing party registration figures that reflects.

Number 10 on Mapes’ list was the seat we focused on yesterday, the District 24 House seat held by Republican Donna Nelson, a seat until recently considered nearly safe Republican but now teetering on the edge. And we’d have added District 18 to Mapes’ list – making for nine readily identifiable endangered Republicans. (Mapes does list another five apparently competitive races, three of them involving currently Republican seats.)

Not all will lose, but: Five? Very possibly. Maybe probably.

He quotes one Republican: “I think the Democrats have a chance to reach their wildest dreams,” and remarked generally, “I’ve never heard Republicans sound so grim when you can get them talking frankly and off the record.” And he remarks later, “Journalistic fairness would like me to put an R here. But no one I talked to made a credible case for a Republican pickup in the House.”

*The two that really belong in a whole different sort of category . . . The Bend-area Senate seat held by Ben Westlund (now running for state treasurer) is technically Democratic, since Westlund changed parties; but when he was last elected to it, in 2004, he was elected as a Republican, so the change is real for the actual senator (Westlund’s successor likely will be Republican) but not for the district as such. And Portland Senator Avel Gordly, also retiring from the Senate, was last elected as a Democrat, served as an independent during much of the last term but more recently returned to the Democratic fold. She will be replaced, almost certainly, by another Democrat (Jackie Dingfelder); so we’d argue that constitutes no partisan change at all.

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Mike Simpson

Mike Simpson

The magazine Esquire has released its lists of the 10 best and 10 worst members of Congress, and among those top and bottom 20, the Northwest is represented once – on the good side – by Idaho Representative Mike Simpson.

The lists overall, by the way, are balanced by party – half D, half R. (It’s also done a presidential endorsement, for Democrat Barack Obama.)

Here’s what it said about Simpson:

“More than any other representative, Simpson lives by the philosophy that democratic representation is a matter of finding not advantageous positions but common ground; not of manning the ramparts but of parleying to prevent war. Has another member of his party ever joined the ACLU for a fact-finding spell? Has any made a habit of meeting with conservationists to learn their wants and fears? Do any work as he does to temper partisanship in the name of progress? None that we could uncover. His constituents reap the benefits.”

Alaska Senator Ted Stevens did make the list of 10 worst.

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