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Local factors

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One of the hazards of punditry is a tendency to wrap things up in a neat package – a nice simple conclusion and overview of what usually was a messier reality.

Last week I pointed out a trend line in the recent Idaho primary election, in which relatively “establishment conservative” candidates, some challengers and others incumbents, tended to do better in seriously contested races than the more ideological insurgents. As a broad-picture view, I still think that was a reasonable take.

But a series of communications from the field over the last week reminded me that elections are a more complex thing than one simple trend line will allow. Why did someone win or lose? The reasons may be many, and the big picture might be only a piece of the story. And maybe not so big a piece.

One of the key primary contests was in District 15, in western Boise, where incumbent Patrick McDonald was challenged by Rod Beck, a veteran of legislative campaigns. Beck has been allied with the more insurgent side of the party, and McDonald with the more establishment conservatives (he got primary backing from Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter, Senator Jim Risch and others). The race fit within the overall trend.

But there was more to it than that. One caller pointed out that McDonald and other Republicans in the district organized hard and pursued door-knocking intensively, even trying to visit every registered Republican in the district several times. That as much as other considerations probably paid off on election day.

In District 23, centered around Elmore County, Republican voters tossed out both incumbent House members – Pete Nielsen, given to viral quotes and sort of a member of the insurgent side, but also the much less controversial Rich Wills, backed by more establishment conservatives like Otter. Nielsen’s loss fit within the framework, but people who have watched the race develop note that personal and campaigning factors played a role there. Why did Wills lose? I suspect one factor is that he was pulled in by the undertow; when Nielsen got only 22.1% of the vote, and Wills lost with 44.9%, it’s easy to suspect a spillover effect was involved. But so too may have been a strong campaign from Wills’ opponent, Christy Zito.

Then there’s the case of Ron Nate of Rexburg, who narrowly survived a challenge from Doug Ricks. Ricks was a newly-minted candidate, but he was well positioned. Like Nate he worked at Brigham Young University-Idaho, and his father is the veteran former state senator and Lieutenant Governor Mark Ricks, a significant figure among establishment Republicans; Otter endorsed the younger Ricks in the primary. Nate was top-ranked in the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s “Freedom Index,” which loosely helps measure where you’re at on the insugent-establishment scale. A high rank like Nate’s marks you as an insurgent, and Ricks’ campaign zeroed in on Nate’s opposition to school spending bills and other insurgent causes.

The result was close; Nate won with 51.6%, a thin lead for an incumbent. But he didn’t come across like many of the insurgents from, say, northern Idaho. His language and tone seemed lower-key (befitting the Rexburg ethos).

And the insurgent side did score a few wins, even taking out a couple of legislators (Merrill Beyeler from Leadore and Paul Romrell from St. Anthony).

Overall, I think the initial impression of what happened stands. But there’s also a lot more to see in the details.

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