Before getting much further into this year’s political season, Idahoans might take a moment to reflect on a slice of their political history, a 30-year stretch unlike any other comparable period in Idaho … ever.
That would be the last 30 years, from 1990 to 2020. In the stretch between general election day in November of 1990, and extending almost surely beyond November this year, Idaho will have been dominated overwhelmingly politically by one party: the Republican.
There are no indicators that will change any time soon. For now, so far, we can safely say that stretch has run for three decades.
At this point back in the summer of 1990, that isn’t what many people watching Idaho politics closely would have predicted, and it definitely would not have been a common prediction even after November 1990.
That year as a whole had its struggles and rises and falls, but when the books were closed on 1990 Idaho politics, what had happened was that the state was as close to tipping toward Democratic control as it had gotten since 1958. Democrat Cecil Andrus won a fourth term in a landslide, and the party held two other statewide offices. Both of the U.S. House seats went to Democrats, one of those in a landslide. The state Senate was evenly split in a tie. Democrats picked up seats at the state House and at the county level as well.
That was the picture 30 years (minus a few months) ago. Idaho politics has looked nothing like that since. After that election in 1990 Democrats became a rarity above the legislative level and sparse even there. Democrats won election to congressional seats in Idaho just twice in all that time, and not much more often to lower-level statewide offices. Many were wiped out in 1992, even more in 1994, and by 1996 their levels were sliced roughly to the mini-minorities where they have resided ever since.
It’s been three decades of overwhelming dominance by Republicans.
My point here is to note how unusual this is. That is much the longest period either party has had sweeping control in the state.
Idaho Territory started out as Democratic turf (beginning with all those miners from the Confederacy), but that lasted only about a dozen years before the parties became competitive. By the time of statehood in 1890 Republicans had an edge in the state, controlling most major and lesser offices and the legislature. But that control didn’t last long; in 1896 they were swept out by Democrats, Populists and breakaway Silver Republicans who together dominated the state for another half-dozen years.
From then to 1920 the parties seesawed and ran a series of close-fought elections, and the legislature switched hands periodically. Idaho like most of the rest of the nation went strongly Republican in the 1920s (owing not wholly but partly to a split between Democratic and populist groups). Then in the 1930s Democrats dominated again in the New Deal years, nearly the whole decade. The 1940s saw another series of close contests and split wins between the parties. The early 1950s were mostly Republican, but toward the end of the decade the Democrats shot to a brief period of strong dominance.
Note the numbers of years through all this: Significant partisan changes often happened every half-dozen to a dozen years.
Then things slowed.
In 1960 the Republicans recovered, and over the next 30 years, up to 1990, the two parties engaged in serious competition, with Republicans prevailing most often but by no means always. From 1960 to 1990, Democrats never controlled either chamber of the legislature but they elected at least one member of Congress for every election cycle but one, and they held the governorship for 20 of those 30 years. Idaho was not a purple state but it often was competitive.
And then, after 1990, it stopped.
The reasons are many and complicated, too many and too much to get into here.
But at this junction, looking at the historical patterns and what may (or not) lie ahead, the question begs itself: How many more years before Idaho politics comes unfrozen? And under what circumstances might that happen?