Idahoans have chosen Butch Otter to be governor for the last twelve years, despite not thinking too highly of him. A recent poll showed he had a “net approval” of +12 while the state had a “Republican partisan lean” of +34, so he was actually 22 points behind any generic Republican. Idaho’s partisan lean was the third highest in the country.
A high-priced political consultant from back east presented some information to Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry 4 years ago about Idaho politics. He explained that Idahoans just weren’t politically engaged. His graphic evidence showed that ten times more Idahoans Googled “otter” meaning the cute river or sea mammal, than “Otter” the governor.
I always did a lot of door knocking when I ran for State Senate. I would knock and wait, then introduce myself, “Hi, I’m Dan Schmidt your state senator.” The most common response was, “You are?” and a look of surprise. I would ask about their concerns and explain why I thought they should vote for me. If the door didn’t slam, I would usually ask how they decided who to vote for. I’d hear: “Oh I decide based on the person, what I know about them.” That’s the myth people want to believe about their decisions, that they are informed and make wise choices. The truth is, most people can’t name who are their elected representatives, let alone what they stand for or any work they have done. It’s pretty hard to stay informed on all the details. And it’s boring. Netflix is better.
When an electorate is not engaged, there is usually low participation and certain default choices. Idaho voters show up in presidential year elections at a 70-80% participation of registered voters (which is less than 60% of eligible voters). Midterm years (like this year), it’s about 50-60% of registered voters.
There is no doubt partisan affiliation is the default setting when the voter decides to participate and only has limited information. The very strong Republican Party brand in Idaho right now is complicated by the question “Which Republican Party?” If the polling is accurate, Proposition 2/ Medicaid Expansion has pretty strong statewide support. Even a slim majority of Republicans seem to support it. Yet Republican Lieutenant Governor candidate Janice McGeachen successfully got the state Republican party to condemn Prop 2.
The last time Idaho Republicans went through this sort of test was when Otter (not the cute one) had the gumption to have a fight over establishing the state-based health insurance exchange (Your Health Idaho). Many Republican legislators were condemned by their local county party committees for their support of this brave initiative. YHI went on to be the most popular state exchange in the country; indigent and Catastrophic Health Care costs plummeted, reaping the general fund a tidy return and decreasing Idaho’s uninsured rate significantly. But that bitter fight left some deep scars in that big tent Republican Party.
Will Republicans shy away from an intramural fight before the November election? Some aren’t afraid to make their stance known. Twenty Republican House members signed on to opposition of Prop 2 last week. Most moderate Republican candidates I’ve heard aren’t willing to commit. And if their brand is strong enough, and the voters aren’t too engaged, maybe it won’t matter for them. They might welcome being mistaken for a cute water mammal.