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Has the ground changed?

idaho RANDY

Think for a moment of political news, background and impressions, falling from the skies upon the electorate, like rain. It may be the rain that soaks you and makes you wet and miserable or it may be the rain causing flowers to bloom and crops to grow. Depends on your perspective.

A good deal of such rain has fallen in Idaho’s campaign seasons this year. From the batch of scandal-like problems associated with Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter (private prison, broadband for schools and more), to the financial issues attached to Treasurer Ron Crane, to the personal assessments of Secretary of State candidate Lawerence Denney, to the many missteps of Superintendent of Public Instruction candidate Sherri Ybarra, and others too, there’s been a lot, especially of the negative kind. Republican candidates, who are the kind that almost always, in the last 20 years, have emerged winners in the November elections, have provided a lot of it.

This rain of bad headlines, gaffes, missteps and so on has been seized on by people watching Idaho’s elections, and with reason. Such problems have, in years past, derailed any number of Idaho candidates, and some of the complaints and criticisms have been serious enough to go to the heart of the jobs these people are seeking.

A meaningful political analysis has to go one step further, though. Even flood-level amounts of rain won’t make the crops grow or the flowers bloom if it does not fall on receptive soil. Rain falling on concrete simply runs off, at least in the short term.

Idaho’s electorate (to carry the analogy one uneasy step further) used to be gently rototilled, open to new information and ideas and news, willing to adjust its views. It has become less so in the last couple of decades – much more hard-packed, less receptive, than it used to be.

People looking for changes in, say, the governor’s race, need to look not just at the rain but at something that would churn the hard-packed soil, to make it more receptive to changes in the environment.

Maybe it’s there and just not very visible, but so far I’m not seeing much change on the ground. Nor am I picking up many indicators of it.

To explain this a little further, here’s a small plot of Idaho political ground where conditions may be more receptive: The race for Superintendent of Public Instruction. One factor is the many problems Republican Ybarra has faced, and the steady campaign of Democrat Jana Jones.

But as important as that is the ground surrounding Idaho voters’ relationship to the office. It was the last statewide office surrendered by Democrats, in 2006, and then only barely, so voters in recent years have been accustomed to and may be comfortable with a Democrat there, in a way not true in other offices. The job has been held for eight years by Republican Tom Luna, amid recurrent controversy, and in 2012 Luna’s signature education overhaul effort was decisively rejected by the voters. This was a distinctive message from the ground, a clear rejection of a major education policy backed by the state’s Republican establishment. The growing number of school levies, too, with their variable results, probably has affected voter attitudes toward education and state government.

In education and education politics, in other words, there’s been some churning of the ground. With that as a prerequisite, the steady rain of Ybarra’s problems – reaching a voting public listening to and absorbing the information, combined with a capable Jones campaign, may be enough to make a difference in 2014. The elements, at least, are there.

Has there been underground churning going on elsewhere? If you see many other Democratic wins on election day, that probably will mean there has. But if so, they’ve been quiet and underground.

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