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ID: A decade gone by

One in a series of posts about changes, or lack thereof, over the last decade around Northwest politics.

You can say of Washington and Oregon that there were major changes in politics over the oughts. In Idaho, not so much – or at least, they’re harder to spot.

Let’s start with the score sheet from 10 years ago, as the dreaded new millennium hit:

Office Republicans Democrats
U.S. Senate Craig, Crapo 0
U.S. House Chenoweth, Simpson 0
Governor Kempthorne 0
Lt. Gov. Otter 0
Statewide ofcs 5 2
St Senate 31 4
St House 58 12
Co Commissioners 99 33

Now here’s where we are today, 10 years later:

Office Republicans Democrats
U.S. Senate Crapo, Risch 0
U.S. House Simpson Minnick
Governor Otter 0
Lt. Gov. Little 0
Statewide ofcs 7 0
St Senate 28 7
St House 52 18
Co Commissioners 104 27

Very close to a wash. Democrats picked up one of the congressional seats, no small thing, and gained a little ground in the legislature (three seats in the Senate and six in the House). But Republicans gained two statewide offices the Democrats had a decade ago, and added to their under-recognized courthouse strength. And those start-of and end-of decade numbers were not aberrations; they closely reflected the state of Idaho politics for each cycle through the decade.

The Republican dominance has been overwhelming, and there don’t seem to be many gaps in it. Here’s another way to look at it. In the last decade, there have been three contests for the U.S. Senate (once with an open seat), 10 for the U.S. House, and 14 for partisan statewide elective offices – a total of 27 contests for major office. Of those contests, Republicans won 25 and Democrats won two. This is too lopsided to explain away by an occasional weak candidate or campaign.

This kind of political freeze is a remarkable thing. It is a lot different than the story in Washington and Oregon. But it is also a lot different than Idaho traditionally has been. The 90s in Idaho were an arc from something not far from parity between the parties at decade’s beginning, to overwhelming Republican dominance at decade’s end. The 80s were less dramatic, but still represented great Republican strength around 1980 diminishing by decade’s end. Earlier decades went through cycles and transitions too, but not this most recent one. The pendulum, which once swung with some regularity, seems stuck in place.

Magnify down to the local levels, and you see not a lot different. Kootenai County, decades ago solidly Democratic and then for a couple of decades a swing county, has settled for approaching two decades now as solidly Republican. Canyon County, which in theory should be more competitive and once showed signs of moving that way, gives little indication of it today (though that may change somewhat). Of the northern Idaho counties once considered a Democratic base, only Shoshone generally can be said to remain so, and Nez Perce and Latah could be considered swing counties.

The small Democratic gains in the last decade have come in two kinds of places: central urban areas and resort/tourist centers. They have turned the city of Boise Democratic and may be solidifying small Democratic bases in the other larger cities in the state (enough to elect a Democrat to the state House in a central Idaho Falls district, for example). Teton County may be majority Democratic now – it was competitive in 2000 – and Valley County shows signs of competition (though that could collapse with the Tamarack Resort); and Blaine County is ever-more Democratic and even liberal. If those trends continue, Democrats may in the tens pick up more urban-area votes in places like Nampa, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho Falls and maybe Twin Falls.

Maybe. It’s been slim growth so far.

We’ll be coming back to this in the months ahead. For now, these raw numbers should be an indication that something large and significant has happened in Idaho politics, probably both structurally and in the hearts and minds of Idaho voters themselves. After all, they could turn Idaho politics upside down in a single election, like the next one – if they choose to do that. And how and why they make their choices is, again, a matter we’ll return to.

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