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Can Idaho Democrats come back?

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The voice on the other end of the telephone belonged to a nice lady who hailed from Wisconsin. She and her husband, who she described as an outdoor enthusiast, had moved to Wallace 14 years ago.

Wisconsin is a state with two strong political parties, and while in recent years the Democrats and their union allies have been outmaneuvered by Governor Scott Walker to the point where critics feel Wisconsin Democrats are somewhat moribund, their organization looks postively dynamic compared to Idaho’s.

The caller wanted to know whether I could come speak to a discussion group of about 25 mostly Democrats and would I be willing to share thoughts on whether there would ever be a Democratic resurrection. Here’s the gist of what I said.

The Democrats can once again be the majority choice of Idaho voters, but it is going to take time, hard work, a major reframing of the issues they focus on and the mother’s milk—money.

Here’s what has to happen: the new State Chair, former State Senator Bert Marley from Pocatello, has to visit all 44 Idaho counties. While there he must interview the county chair and emphasize the paramount obligation to find qualified Democrats to contest for every office on the local ballot. Additionally, they must fill every precinct committee slot.

If the county chair cannot do that Marley should replace them with someone who can get the job done.

Conversely, Marley owes it to these county chairs to find qualified candidates to contest every statewide and federal office. The bottom line is a party cannot start up the comeback trail without contesting every position on a ballot. One cannot win an election with nobody on the ballot, as is the case all too often.

Secondly, Democrats have to thrust forward the kind of talent that has put time in grade developing the personal relationships still critical to winning elections. Butch Otter has won three terms as governor not because of his do-nothing, risk nothing policies. He has won because he spent 14 years as Lt. Governor traveling the state building the kinds of personal relationships with donors, party workers and constituent interest groups essential to achieving ballot success.

Nothing against Steve Allred or A.J. Balukoff, the D’s last two gubernatorial nominees. Both are fine individuals but neither had spent the time in-grade developing the necessary political relationships, nor had they served in other partisan offices.

Next, the Idaho Democratic Party has to attract back the lunch-bucket carrying Democrat—the hard-working, tax-paying dirt under the finger-nails miner, or logger or farmer who started migrating to the Republican party after they felt deserted by the left-leaning, super liberal element of the party.

Others call these folks Andrus Democrats. Whatever one terms them, they along with many independents and Republicans (Andrus received as high as 30% of the Republican vote) voters carried Andrus to victory four times with two of those gubernatorial races providing the highest winning margins in Idaho history.

The Andrus formula falls under the umbrella of what he calls the three “E’s:” the Economy, Education and the Environment. He authored the phrase, “First one has to make a living; then, they have to have a living worthwhile.” In other words one has to have a job.

Consequently, he focused on policies which enhanced job creation and expanded the economic pie—but not at the expense of erxisting businesses. New business had to pay its on way. He did not believe nor did he offer incentives that in actuality were subsidies at the expense of existing business.

Secondly, he knew how important quality educational offerings were to business leaders looking to relocate their business and their families. His steadfast support for education including better pay for teachers was steadfast and constant.

Third, he knew how important Idaho’s quality of life was to the numerous citizens who enjoyed all forms of outdoor recreation. For that reason he was as supportive of wilderness areas and wild and scenic rivers as he was of national recreation areas and multiple uses on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands.

Andrus saw these as issues around which people could unite. He avoided trumpeting the numerous social issues that divide people, and which made it all too easy for Republicans to define Democrats.

His advice today would be don’t let your opponents define you, reframe your messages, get back to basics, avoid fear-mongering, and be for the three “E’s.” When Idaho Democrats start listening and acting on the advice of their most successful office-holder ever, the comeback will start.

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