A down cycle

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This election year, hot nationally, is a down cycle for Idaho.

Politically, that is, in a way that has nothing to do with specific parties or candidates. This is a year when relatively little on the state level is on the ballot – no governor (or other statewides) or senator.

It happens once every 12 years, every third presidential election. The last low cycle was in 2000, before that 1988, before that 1976. Sort of a political Halley’s comet effect.

That usually means a subtly lower level of energy, and lower level of attention from outside; national people, political, journalistic and money types, are interested in a state first if it’s a presidential battleground (as Idaho clearly is not) and secondly if it has a strong Senate or gubernatorial race up. After that, attention usually shifts to other states. Oregon, which is in a near-down cycle this year (no governor or Senate, but a few statewides) is in a similar position. Washington, with a runaway Senate race but a very hot contest for governor, gets more national interest.

This can matter, because the outside influence has effects on races down below. Contact nationally is diminished a little. Campaigns are sometimes a little smaller and less noisy, budgets sometimes (not always) a little lower. In-state attention to the campaigns often seems to be down, just a little.

Does this translate to a partisan benefit for anyone? Generally, doesn’t seem so, at least based on past cycles. And that has been more or less the case in the last few down cycles.

In 2000, Republican dominance established in most of the previous decade was quietly maintained. That year, Republicans gained three legislative seats, which was the average change over the course of the three previous cycles. The first district U.S. House race was interesting because then-Representative Helen Chenoweth-Hage was opting out, and Republicans had an energetic primary contest. But the November general election was an easy win for now-Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter.

In 1988, remembered now as a relatively good Democratic year in Idaho, the numbers actually show something of a holding pattern. There was no partisan legislative seat change at all, and very easy re-elects for both U.S. Representatives, Republican Larry Craig and Democrat Richard Stallings.

In 1976, there was a gain of five Republican legislative seats, which balanced an eight-seat gain by Democrats in 1974 with a 10-seat gain by Republicans in 1972. (Seats tended to shift around a little more in those days.)

This year, there’s little expectation in Idaho that the November results will leave very great difference in the state’s elective offices, either the U.S. House or legislature, more likely a continuation of existing trend lines.

Of course, the presidential election this year might give down-ballot Republicans some boost. That might be countered, in a few legislative races, by competitive races in districts where Democrats ran reasonably strong but lost in the Republican wave year of 2010.

But if this isn’t one of those years when political attention flows Idaho’s way, there’s some reason for that.

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