While much of the nation watches rapt on election night to see who wins where, what will Idahoans have to watch?
Idaho, by and large, is commonly regarded as a baked-in done deal: If an “R” rather than a “D” is attached to the name, then - with some exceptions, as in the city of Boise and a few other places - that candidate will win. The Republican for president, for Senate, for legislature and so on. For example, the FiveThirtyEight website, one of the most careful numbers analysts around, never assigns 100 percent probability to almost anything but does put (dryly) the likelihood of a Donald Trump presidential win in the Gem State at more than 99 percent.
That’s not quite the end of the story. In cases like Idaho, and other places - this applies to both parties - part of the story is in, not just who wins, but by how much, and where. These details have their own stories to tell.
To tell them a little more clearly, it helps to set some benchmarks against which the numbers on election right, or election week, can be measured.
For example, four years ago, Trump won in Idaho with 59.2 percent of the vote. That left a little more than 40 percent for others, but Democrat Hillary Clinton accounted for just 27.5 percent of it. An independent, Evan McMullin, got much of the rest. (Four years before that, Mitt Romney got 64.5 percent.) With no third party candidate on the ballot this time, what’s Trump’s percentage? Well above 60 percent, more like Romney, or below it?
The state hasn’t been polled a lot. The most frequent polling has been by SurveyMonkey, which is not a highly rated pollster; its numbers in September and October have put Trump at around 58 percent and Joe Biden at around 41. But that’s not a lot to go on.
At the U.S. Senate level, Republican Jim Risch, like Trump, gets a 99-plus percent chance of winning in Idaho. One poll from late summer by Spry Strategies showed Risch at 53 percent and Democrat Paulette Jordan at 28 percent, an advantage of about two to one, with a large chunk of voters undetermined. Six years ago, Risch received 65.3 percent of the vote (and six years before that, 57.7 percent). How does this year’s percentage stack up to those earlier numbers?
You can pose similar questions for the U.S. House members. In the first district, Republican Russ Fulcher two years ago received 62.7 percent of the vote against a low-key Democrat (and a tribe of independent and other candidates); Fulcher’s opponent this year, Rudy Soto, has been highly energetic and visible. And in the second district, Republican Mike Simpson in 2018 took 60.7 percent against Democrat Aaron Swisher (his opponent again this time), which was actually his lowest general election number since he won the office in 1998. How well will Fulcher and Simpson do this time? Are the numbers from recent elections indicators of a crack in the wall, or just minor fluctuations in the status quo?
The Idaho Legislature, overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans as it has been for close to three decades, is not likely to change much: The odds are that the Senate, with its six Democrats and 29 Republicans, and House, with its 11 Democrats and 59 Republicans, will not shift dramatically.
But there may be changes, and probably will. At least one Senate seat, in west Boise, is a strong prospect for flipping from Republican to Democratic control, and a few House seats (I’m watching a couple in Moscow and Idaho Falls especially) are also prospects. Republicans are not sitting still either, and the party’s new chair, Tom Luna, has made clear that winning back some now-Democratic seats is a high priority for the state party, and in Idaho few Democratic office holders are really safe.
On the local level, a number of county offices (I’m keeping an eye here as well on Ada County, where two commission seats flipped Democratic two years ago) merit watching.
So it shouldn’t be said of Idaho a week from Tuesday that there’s nothing to see here. The drama is lower, but the lessons could be meaningful.