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ID: Change in CD1?

There’ll be a big change in the representative Idaho’s 1st House district gets the next couple of years – a soft-spoken pragmatist. Democrat Walt Minnick, replacing an ideologue prone to controversy and conflict, Republican Bill Sali. In personality, Minnick is a lot closer in style to the new senior senator, Mike Crapo, than Sali is. In policy, Minnick is doubtless well aware that he can go only but so far, and may well take advice from Crapo (and probably from some Democrats too) that he join the Blue Dogs.

Minnick will of course be immediately targeted by any number of Idaho Republicans, and the 2010 Republican primary for the 1st might even be as crowded as the jam-packed ’06. Point A here might be that, we all saw what emerged from that one, so caution in making predictions is warranted. Point B would be that – the closeness of Tuesday’s result and the difficulty Republicans have had in winning this seat (just four years in the previous 40) notwithstanding – any anticipation Minnick will be a pushover would be misplaced. When Democrat Richard Stallings defeated Republican incumbent George Hansen in 1984 (just after Hansen’s felony convictions), a long line of Idaho Republicans figured he’d be easy pickings in 1986. Stallings went on to win that year decisively, and twice more after that in landslides. Could as easily be that Minnick is in this seat for a spell.

All sorts of analysis suggests itself coming out of this win – which we had considered possible but somewhat short of likely – but the most immediate seems to be this: What in the 1st district changed, just enough, to allow Minnick a win?

map of 1st district

Start with the fact that this was a close win, 50.6% in a two-man race. When Minnick writes in his post-election email about going to a fitful sleep on election night, not whether he’d win or lose, that makes sense. There could have been no certain way of knowing until the mid-morning hours arrived. A few things had changed, just enough, to allow for it.

There were more votes in the 2008 race than in 2006, but that’s normal since presidential years always poll higher. This is a case where percentages illuminate a little more.

The 2006 race included two independents, but when you calculate Sali only against Democrat Larry Grant, Sali prevailed with 52.7%. The difference between then and this year could be reasonably seen as the difference of 2.1%. Reflecting that, you find that while Minnick’s percentage was better than Grant’s in five counties – Ada, Benewah, Bonner, Kootenai and Washington – it actually fell in four: Clearwater, Latah, Lewis, Nez Perce. Minnick’s ’10 campaign strategist may want to take note: There could be some room for gain in North Central Idaho, picking up on some of the percentages there that Grant got.

So where did Minnick pick up the extra votes to push past Grant? Mainly in three counties.

Sali won Ada County by about 3,000 votes two years ago, and lost it by about 5,000 this time. The 1st district doesn’t include a lot of Boise, which has been trending blue, but maybe enough of it to help make some of that difference. That Ada County swing was the biggest factor boosting Minnick, all by itself enough to offset any losses in the North Central and much else besides.

The other two key counties adjoin in the Panhandle, Kootenai and Bonner. Minnick lost Kootenai, but only narrowly, by a little over 700 votes out of more than 60,000 cast; in 2006, Minnick lost by almost 4,000 – a major difference, roughly equating Minnick’s winning margin. The difference in Bonner, which Sali narrowly won but Minnick decisively won, was nearly as significant. This turned out to be one of those years, apparently, when the Kootenai-Bonner area was feeling a little less conservative than it sometimes does.

None of this should be pushed too far. Look at the legislative and county races and you don’t see a lot of difference between 2006 and this year; if anything, the Republican margins overall were tighter two years ago. Minnick-Sali did not fit into the pattern easily. It stood apart from it.

So strategic lesson two might be this: The larger population centers might be more amenable to Minnick than some of the smaller ones. (He did better than Grant, by a couple of points, in big-population Canyon County too.) Could it be that, over time, Sali wore less well in the larger centers than in the smaller ones? Maybe. Could be that the reverse is true.

There’s a lot more to say about this fascinating race, and what’s to come. We’ll be back with more soon.

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