There was a line, in the middle of a well-crafted Politico story about the increasingly bitter conflict among Idaho Republicans, that highlighted an idea most Idahoans today would dismiss as fantasy. But the thought got at least some backup from Idaho’s state Republican leadership.
The idea is that Idaho’s Republican split might have the result of moving the state toward something closer to politically competitive.
It came in a discussion of the heated intra-party battles familiar in recent years to Idaho Republicans: “That threat, that ruby-red Idaho could somehow turn purple, may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. As recently as the mid-1990s, Democrats were still competitive in Idaho, even as many other western states, including Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, were more strongly Republican. Those three are now blue spots on the electoral map.”
Before you dismiss that as just an ill-founded media report, consider the point - a smart analysis - from state Republican Chair Tom Luna, who noted that those three states back in the 90s, like Idaho today, could be described as “a fast-growing state where Republicans were fighting with each other.”
In further support, I’ll throw out as well a bit of history from a generation before that.
It’s found in a new book (disclosure: I have just published it) called An Idaho Democrat, written by a Democrat who, years ago, won major office in the state and did well politically when that wasn’t supposed to happen. He describes the shifts and transitions in Idaho politics over the last few generations, and some of the granular detail that made Idaho politics different in the middle of the last century.
The Democrat is Tony Park, once the state’s attorney general (he held that office when I moved to Idaho in 1974) and has been active in the state’s politics since the 50s. The title of his book isn’t inadvertent: It is very much about what running and serving as a Democrat in Idaho is like and about.
He had some interest in politics from his high-school days and was a regular contributor of irritated letters to the editor of the Idaho Statesman, which was staunchly conservative then; Park had come up as an admirer of Frank Roosevelt and Harry Truman.
After starting his law practice in Boise, he got involved in local politics, and quickly realized he hadn’t chosen an easy path: “I was extremely ambitious, but the prospects for a Democrat in Boise in the early to mid-sixties were not promising. Ada County was solidly Republican, as was the state.” Ada County had not elected a Democrat to the legislature or the county courthouse in decades, and those places were his initial targets. Ada County was a sufficiently tough nut to crack for Democrats in those days that Frank Church lost a race for the state legislature before, a few years later, winning statewide for the U.S. Senate.
So he doesn’t sound surprised - not in retrospect but probably not at the time either - that he didn’t win those early races, for Ada County prosecutor in 1964 and the Idaho House in 1966. He learned about campaigning, however, and kept his losses closer than Ada County Democrats usually had. He also became involved in intensively organizing local Democrats well beyond what they’d done before.
In a day when voters were willing to split their ballots, as many did, steady campaigning and organizing made a difference. In 1970 Park saw enough progress that as Democrats looked around for a candidate to oppose an appointed Republican attorney general, he said he was interested. The Republicans, who had seen their party fractured in 1966, remained so in 1970, while the Democrats - who had been split significantly in 1966 - largely had patched up their differences.
“The more I looked at it, the better I liked it,” Park wrote, and he wound up winning; most of the statewide offices would go to Democrats that year.
Is there a lesson here for politics now?
It matters whether you’re organized, whether you’re campaigning hard on the ground and keeping in close touch with people, and whether your side or your opposition is united or divided.
Even in these odd days for politics, some of the basics are eternal.