An Idaho battleground: The suburbs

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Most of Idaho stable politically: For a couple of decades now its Republican/Democratic votes have varied hardly at all. Idaho generally isn’t a likely candidate for very much change in this year’s elections and the next few beyond.

But there are a couple types of areas that bear some watching. The area of Idaho that is, or ought to be, the most interesting politically is – the suburbs.

Washington or Oregon illustrate what I’m talking about. Oregon was mostly Democratic in much of the 80s; in the mid-90s Republicans staged a comeback, which ebbed into Democratic majorities in recent years though as elsewhere they made some pushback in 2010 (and its state House now is tied between the parties). Washington’s story is similar.

Most of those states changed little in these ebbs and flows. Rural areas were Republican and stayed so. The most urban – close in to Seattle and Portland – were Democratic and if anything became more so. What shifted was the suburbs. In Oregon, the long-Republican second-largest county in the state (Washington) changed sides about a decade ago and has since been reliably Democratic. Most of the people there live in Portland suburbs and smaller urban centers in its orbit – not so different from Meridian and Nampa in Idaho. When Republicans gained in 2010, that happened almost exclusively in Washington County and other suburbs around Portland; the central urban and the rural parts of Oregon barely moved. Again, the same dynamic has happened in Washington state.

Could it happen in Idaho? Point one is that there’s no significant evidence that it has – yet at least.

The real suburban areas in Idaho are two: west and north of Boise and north and west of Coeur d’Alene. Depending on how you count, these suburban areas account for six or seven legislative districts out of 35. The Boise suburbs, including places like Meridian, Eagle, Kuna, Middleton and to some extent he city of Nampa as well, have been solidly Republican … always. Since the New Deal era western Ada has elected hardly any Democrats, just two in 1990 to the Senate, lasting one term each. Few general elections in the area since 1990 have even been competitive, even when the Democrat is running a strong campaign. The same has become true in Kootenai County; more than two decades back, areas like Port Falls were politically competitive, but not now.

There are a few tests of these propositions coming up in this year’s election. The biggest are two legislative races in District 15, which includes part of Boise city (on the west side) but long has had a suburban feel. District 15 has been solidly Republican for decades, the last exception being one Senate term held by a Democrat after the 1990 election. This year, Democrats have a pair of strong candidates running strong campaigns, Betty Richardson, the former U.S. Attorney and congressional candidate, for the Senate, and Steve Berch, who ran a strong campaign (which nonetheless was swamped) in the old District 14, for one of the House seats. There are indications one or both might succeed – not a prediction here of who will win, but a suggestion that these may be really competitive races.

Indications, but not much more. They will be significant test cases. As districts closer in to Boise’s core shifted to competitive (16 and 18) or even Democratic (17) in the last decade, 15 shows some signs it may do that as well. If it does, other suburban districts later may as well. We may learn something interesting about Idaho’s suburbs when we see the results in November from those two races.

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