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Back to Big Sky

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Ever upward, we tend to think: Bigger is better, more is merrier.

But not always, and credit the University of Idaho for figuring that out.

When it has come to Idaho football, the example of Boise State University has loomed over all. BSU has moved to big time, though now in the Mountain West Conference after a 2011 flirtation with the Big East Conference.

The UI Vandal program has never quite reached those heights, even early on. Back in the mid-70s, looking for a college to attend and uninterested in one that would be football-obsessed, I found the UI amenable. From the end of World War II to the early 80s, the Vandals posted winning seasons in just three years, 1963, 1971 and 1976.

Still, a correspondent of mine (and a highly loyal Vandal) has suggested that “If an institution is going to have intercollegiate football, it should at least be competitive and enjoyable (preferably by winning), produce good memories for the associated social events, and be a common topic of interest for alumni: ‘How 'bout them Vandals?’"

From that perspective, UI did well for a stretch with the first year (1982) of Dennis Erickson as coach, through to 1995. The school may not have have become the national team BSU did, but it scored winning seasons consistently through that period. Athletics-based enthusiasm at the institution may have been higher then too.

Various factors no doubt contributed, a series of strong coaches among them. But the UI’s participation then in the Big Sky Conference, whose members overall were competitive with the UI, no doubt helped. The institution had long been a Big Sky member (and was a charter member in 1963) through its losing years too, but when other factors came together the more local conference may have helped. And local Idaho boosters could fairly easily make their way even to away games in places like Washington, Montana and Pocatello (Idaho State University).

As the Wikipedia account notes, “Idaho experienced its best years in football from 1985 to 1995, when it made the I-AA national playoffs in ten of eleven seasons with four different head coaches, reaching the semifinals twice. After 18 years in Division I-AA, Idaho returned to Division I-A competition (now called the FBS) in 1996 in the Big West.”

The collapse followed. In this new century, the Vandals have bounced around other affiliations including independent, and maybe not coincidentally saw its winning seasons turn to losers. This year, the Sun Belt Conference said that UI (and New Mexico State University) would be dropped from their group after 2017.

So on Thursday there may have been some air of resignation to word that UI was returning to Big Sky. President Chuck Staben said that “I understand the magnitude of this decision and the strong opinions that surround it, both for and against, but joining the Big Sky Conference is the best possible course for our athletics program and for our university. We have carefully weighed our options and concluded that competing as an independent with an extremely uncertain future conference affiliation would be irresponsible when we have the alternative of joining one of the most stable FCS conferences.”

Not exactly the words of hyperconfidence (and just as well), but as he suggests, this likely was the best move. It suggests retrenchment; it suggests a backing away from the big time. But that’s far better than more of the kind of seasons UI has been experiencing recent years.

From across the way

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Democrat Branden Durst represented the southeast Boise area in the Idaho House for two terms after his elections in 2006 and 2008, and then for about a year in the Idaho Senate after his election in 2012. In November 2013, having half-moved to Washington state, he resigned.

This year, situated full-time in southern Pierce County (county seat: Tacoma), he’s running again, now for a House seat in Washington’s 29th district.

In the early days of most of our western states there was nothing unusual about running for office, sequentially, in multiple states; many of Idaho’s early lawmakers did, spreading expertise gathered in sundry statehouses. In more recent decades, political people in most states have found more electoral strength in emphasizing local roots over job experience. Among recent Idaho legislators, only Senator Steve Vick, R-Hayden, comes to mind as having been elected to another state’s legislature (the Montana House). If anyone knows of another in recent years, let me know. Nationally, it’s not unknown, but rare.

The similarities and differences of running in different states surely offer some insights single-state candidates don’t see. I asked Durst last week about some of those.

He is running in District 29, a mostly suburban area reaching south of Tacoma, including such communities as Lakewood and Parkland. That area actually is a lot like Durst’s old southeast Boise district, including its at-present Democratic lean. Durst is challenging an incumbent Democratic representative, David Sawyer of Parkland. There’s also a Republican, Rick Thomas, in the race.

For all that Washington is classed as a Democratic “blue” state in the presidential election, its legislature is split closely between the two parties, with a Republican Senate and Democratic House.

A number of legislative issues track across state lines. Public school financing is a hot topic in Washington. There as in Idaho the state supreme court has said the legislature has not adequately addressed that funding, but in Washington, the court has gone further and held the legislature in contempt, and imposed fines. It’s a subject of widespread discussion.

One obvious campaign difference from Idaho is the “top two” element. Durst and both other candidates in the August primary election each are seeking to do better than come in third; whichever two do progress on to November, even if they’re of the same party. November becomes a runoff. Mostly around the state this still means a Democrat and a Republican running against each other in November, but not always.

Another difference, which pops up in the practicalities of running, is that outsiders have a harder time there gaining traction than they do in Idaho. In Idaho, candidates can (and often should) do a good deal of work before formally filing for office in March, but they don’t have to. In Washington, most of the campaign finance, organization and other work is long since done by the time a candidate formally files in May. Major endorsing organizations too have made their donation or other support decisions far in advance of May, Durst said, and “if you’re new to the political process you’d have almost no chance of being successful.”

They need more resources too than in Idaho. A legislative district in Washington has several times as many people as those in Idaho, and campaign budgets and organizations typically are several times as large. In 2014, Representative Sawyer and his main opponent each spent more than $90,000, but that’s on the low side; many competitive campaigns in Washington have quarter-million dollar budgets. That’s far more than the norm in Idaho.

“In Idaho, individual candidates have a little more control over their individual destiny,” Durst said.

And he said that in Washington, “there’s much more transparency in finance here,” with state agencies that require extensive filing of campaign and personal finances. The downside is that this can rapidly become complex and difficult: “people are expected to pay for a consultant, and consultants aren't cheap ... That would be unheard of in Idaho.”

Still, he said, the basics are the basics. Knocking on doors and shaking hands is not so different in any state.

“The fundamentals are the same, wherever you live.”

Redirected role

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As unexpectedly skillful as Bernie Sanders turned out to be as a presidential candidate, he may be positioned now to be even better in another capacity: Movement leader.

The Vermont senator has done a terrific job getting as far as he has in the presidential primary. Starting with almost nothing in the presidential run against presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, he battled very nearly to a draw. Up until the New York primary, he retained a plausible route to the nomination, scoring some overwhelming wins along the way.

New York turned a page. To win the nomination, he would have to take a majority of the pledged delegates nationally, and after yesterday that means he would need overwhelming wins almost everywhere still on the calendar. Wins he probably will get (Oregon, likely, for one), but not on that scale. That's not going to happen.

The typical response to this kind of situation is to "suspend" the campaign - call a halt, keeping the organization technical alive for a while to allow for additional fundraising to pay off the bills.

Sanders' response may be a little different, and in the interest of his cause probably should be.

He still has money and enthusiasm, and he can leverage them. He could stay active through the rest of the primary season, into June and California, winning as many delegates as he can. The object would not be to defeat Clinton, whose eventual nomination is close to a lock now. The point rather would be to form a large and powerful bloc at the convention, and beyond. It would not constitute a nominating majority, but it would be so large a portion of the overall delegation that it could not be safely ignored. It could make demands. And it could apply pressure, as it has for most of a year now, on Hillary Clinton.

When Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 he did it with a massive organization organized extremely well. Had he kept it operative as an active grass roots effort supporting his administration's efforts, a great deal of the history since - notably the off-year elections of 2010 and 2014 - might have turned out quite a bit differently. At this point, even while falling short of the nomination, Sanders has an organization as large and enthusiastic, and capable of financing itself, as Obama had, and maybe more so. If Hillary Clinton is elected president, she might well run into the same kind of Republican brick wall - even if Democrats retake the Senate - that Obama has. A Sanders-led grass roots organization could both serve as a counterweight to that brick wall, and push Clinton into more ambitious efforts than she might attempt otherwise.

There's an old story about Franklin Roosevelt that tells of one of his political allies urging the president to undertake some program. Roosevelt was not opposed, but he saw the political obstacles, and the possible overall political cost to his administration, if he tried launching it on his own. His response to the ally: "Make me do it."

In other words, pressure me into doing it, in such a way that the political forces in favor of passage amount to not just me, but also much more.

You could consider it a sort of value-added shadow presidency, that Sanders could pursue if he keeps his organization intact and active beyond November. What could happen as a result might be no small thing.

Judicial architects

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Idaho may soon fill a critical job vacancy that opened when Edward Lodge announced in September 2014 his intent to “assume senior status” - more or less, semi-retire – the following July.

That would allow a deep breath of relief on the underpopulated Idaho federal bench, which long has sought more judicial help. The Obama White House and Idaho’s two Republican senators, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch (both lawyers by profession), have agreed on David Nye of Pocatello, a 6th district judge, to fill the job. Kudos all around.

Pause a moment on the 6th judicial district aspect. The 6th, which is on the state not federal level, is based in Pocatello and includes counties to its south and east. It is one of the smaller Idaho judicial districts, but it has outsized federal impact. One former judge from the 6th (from 1987 to 1995) is Lynn Winmill, who now is the chief federal district judge in Idaho. Another (from 1995-2007) is Randy Smith, now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, who maintains an office in Pocatello.

Winmill and Smith have in common a political background running political party organizations. Winmill once chaired the Bannock County Democrats, and Smith once chaired the Idaho Republican Party. Still, you’d probably find most attorneys in Idaho agree that those backgrounds seem not to have interfered with their judicial work. As with Lodge, their reputation is of being good, fair judges.

The new federal nominee, Nye, worked for the same law firm, Merrill and Merrill, that Smith did before his move to the bench. He has far less visible political background than the two other judges, which may help in his selection now. And he’s gotten good marks for his judicial work. Crapo and Risch are asking the Senate to push his confirmation through.

Last week, Idaho Democratic Chair Bert Marley pointed out that the senators have at the same time refused even to consider another court appointment by the president, Merrick Garland for the U.S. Supreme Court. Garland, somewhat like Nye, seems to have not a lot in the way of political involvement in past years, and there’s been little to no argument against his merits. So, Marley asked, what gives?

Risch told McClatchy News the difference was between a lower-level judge and one on the high court. The district judge is “not involved in being an architect of the culture of our country, which is what a U.S. Supreme Court judge does. The U.S. Supreme Court is very, very political, just like Congress is, just like the president of the United States. People wring their hands and say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible, you shouldn’t bring politics into it.’ How do you not bring politics into it?”

The role of “architect of the culture” is a piece of Supreme Court job description I’ve never seen before (you won’t find it in the Constitution) and, as Marley said, seems to run directly into the critique of many Republicans who decry activist judges, most especially on the Supreme Court.

It also downplays the powerhouse role federal district judges often play. Supreme Courts, after all, hear a fraction of the cases they’re asked to review. District or circuit judges in effect decide a whole lot of law. Reviewing Winmill’s impact on Idaho in a book a last year, I wrote: “He ordered a delay in megaload shipments over Highway 12 and said the Forest Service had to take some responsibility for them. He killed state laws related to abortion on constitutional grounds. He ordered dissolution of the St. Luke’s acquisition of the Nampa-based Saltzer Medical Group, citing anti-trust laws (creating major implications for more medical mergers in the area; that case is still on appeal). He said the federal government has to reconsider if it has acted as thoroughly as it can to protect sage grouse before declaring the species endangered. He delivered a split decision on the protesting rights of Occupy Boise. He approved a state Republican Party push to “close” its primary election to registered Republicans only.”

How do you not bring politics into any of these things? The answer is, the best we can do at any level of court is to hire fair judges. Would Nye and Merrick be fair judges? That seems to be the relevant question.

Better water

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Water is critical everywhere, but Idaho notices more than most when the water levels are off.

And things go better when they’re not.

Idahoans see it in the stream levels, and in so much else of what they do. In the populous areas of southern Idaho, when water levels are low, people go for each other’s throats – not in a physically literal sense anymore (although there is some history of that), but in the courts, and in business. Low water levels determine whether a farm or an industrial business gets the water to survive, to stay in business. Courts, and the state government, determine who gets water and who goes parched.

The effects ripple. A good water year can mean overall prosperity and a sense of community. Poor water years can tear at the social fabric.

So if, in some ways, Idaho has a little more upbeat feel this year than last, you can find some of the reason as I do in reviewing the water levels.

I check them every week, starting with a web page updated daily by the National Resources Conservation Service, called “Snotel narrative.” (You can see it at their site.) The data are technical, and the lines I follow are described this way: “The Accumulated Precipitation Percent of Average represents the total precipitation (beginning October 1st) found at selected SNOTEL sites in or near the basin compared to the Average value for those sites on this day.”

It gives you a feel for how the snowpack, which as the year goes on will dictate much of the water flow, is developing compared to the historical norms, in all the basins in Idaho. A reading of 100 is normal; higher is more water, lower is less. Great variations can mean flood or drought.

Five years ago, for example, the Northern Panhandle area was at 106 – just a bit above normal. The Salmon basin was at 98, the Boise at 106, the Little Wood 103, the Henry’s Fork 96, the Bear River 78 – the lowest in the state. So in 2011, the state overall was running just about average.

Last year at this point, here were the figures for those same basins: the Northern Panhandle 97, the Salmon basin 87, the Boise at 89, the Little Wood 70, the Henry’s Fork 76, the Bear River 71. The lowest last year at this time was the Medicine Lodge and Camas Creek area (in eastern Idaho) at just 61 – a sign of a very tough water year to come. In fact, the whole state was running short of water, and the legal battles and economic tensions were running high.

This year, things have changed.

A week ago, here is what the comparable reading show: the Northern Panhandle 121, the Salmon basin 112, the Boise at 114, the Little Wood 105, the Henry’s Fork 97 (tied for lowest in the state, with the Snake River above the Palisades Dam), the Bear River 100.

Quite an improvement.

The U.S. Geological Survey last week released a series of drought area maps covering the period up through March. Idaho’s – which last year was piled in with eerie shares of yellow, orange and even dark red markers of strong drought warnings – this year is producing only a few widely-scattered dabs of lightest-level drought warnings.

Don’t be surprised if some of the tensions around the state don’t ease off just a little as the months ahead progress. Plentiful water makes for some happy civic medicine.

Long game

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I'm trying to play this out . . . this whole Republican contested convention thing. How does that work if, say, no one walks in the door without having in hand an adequate number of delegate votes for president.

Let's game it out; or at least, weigh the probabilities. Call it a mental exercise to clean out a few cobwebs.

The best odds now favor businessman Donald Trump coming close to the major number of 1,237 votes, but falling short maybe 50 to 100. (He may still get there, but after Wisconsin the probabilities are running just slightly againn.) Texas Senator Ted Cruz is maybe 250 short of him; that gap could be closer or narrower, either one, by the time contests end in early June. Cruz is running much the better campaign, but Trump still has strong polling advantages in both of the magilla states of New York and California.

There will presumably be some attempt, after the statewide votes are done as of June 7, at a limited non-aggression pact between them. There will be attempts by other interests - maybe hoping for a third contender to ride in as a dark horse - to change the rules, to allow for additional possibilities for the nominee other than those two. Trump and Cruz have a joint interest in defeating that, so they may try and shut down rule changes. Both candidates would be interested in adjusting the rules in their own individual interests as well, so maybe any non-aggression pact would be reliant on allowing no rule changes at all. They could pull that off as long as, between them, they keep effective control of most of the delegates at the convention.

Okay: Suppose we then go to the first ballot with no significant rule changes. Both candidates will have been hustling hard to scrounge additional delegates in an effort to reach 1,237. (Those could come from undeclared officials who are automatic delegates, and maybe some from the few other candidates, like Marco Rubio or John Kasich, won.) It's possible, probably not likely, Trump could be close enough in his pre-convention count to pull that off. Cruz' campaign has been good at collecting stray delegates and probably could add significantly to his count, but enough to reach 1,237 before the first ballot? For now, that seems unlikely.

So we get to the first ballot and delegate votes are cast. The probability is that Trump comes in first, but still a little short of the magic 1,237, and Cruz comes in somewhere around 100 to 150 behind him, with a small scattering of other votes unwilling to line up behind either.

Then it gets interesting, because many - not all - of the delegates bound to Trump and Cruz on the first ballot are "released" on the second to do as they choose. (Most of the rest are similarly "released" after the second.) Presumably (and this may be a hotly-challenged point), the second round of balloting also will feature Trump and Cruz, and no one else. Will others be added? The existing rules don't seem to allow it at this point, allowing (as Cruz has repeatedly pointed out) a threshold of support in at least eight states, but that could be a matter of interpretation. It could be that after the second ballot, a well-organized effort might be able to come up to that threshold.

On that second ballot, who picks up? Well, more likely, it's: Who drops? Some of Trump's delegates may be there only as party officials fulfilling a role and, once unbound, they may start pushing for someone else. Who?

That would seem to suggest a serious organizing effort well in advance of the convention for someone else lying in wait, to become the recipient of those stray Trump and Cruz votes once they're available. But who will that be? House Speaker Paul Ryan seems likely to disown any efforts of that sort. But someone ought to be ready, otherwise chaos - in the form of dozens of possibly contenders, including local favorites from various states - will swiftly surface. If that happened, and it isn't brought quickly under control, you could get into a series of sudden cascading conflicts that could lead to ballots 3, 4, 5, 6 and beyond. This could go on for days.

Part of this relates to how many votes would Trump and Cruz each lose once delegates become unbound, a question no one yet can answer. (Could they persuade a few crossovers?) By the time they walk into the convention, they probably will have maxed out - at least for the moment - on the number of delegates they can easily get. After the second ballot, their numbers may be smaller but their opponents may have multiplied, absent some kind of strong organizing effort up front.

If there is a major organizing effort up front, Trump and Cruz could use that as a lever to keep their troops in line, at least for a while. And they could re-up their non-aggression pact in opposition to some new third contender, because they surely would, between them, continue to command the loyalty of more than half of the total delegates.

And that's about as far as I can take this exercise for the moment: A cycle of failed nomination votes with a built-in dynamic that keeps anyone from breaking free with more than half the total number of delegates.

Eventually, sheer exhaustion may take over, some key player or more than one will drop out, and someone will emerge. How long will it take for that to happen? The longest national party convention, the Democratic in 1924, took about two weeks and 103 ballots. That nomination, by the way, went to the lesser-known John W. Davis, after the two top contenders at the start of balloting pulled out. Davis went on to lose in a landslide to Republican Calvin Coolidge.

And that was with a mighty incentive the delegates of 2016 won't have: They didn't have air conditioning back then.

How long might the Republicans stay in Cleveland? A long time unless someone, somewhere, beats the odds.

State primary reflections

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When the Idaho Legislature adjourned on the early side this year, the common comment was that they had to get home to deal with the primary elections coming up.

Well, some of them did. About a third of Idaho’s legislators do face primary contests, and since the bulk of the state is one-party territory, that’s where challenges will occur if they’re going to at all. Those elections will nonetheless be worth a close watch for indicators for how Idaho is changing. If it is.

Nearly all of the legislative primary contests are on the Republican side – I counted just three on the Democratic, and just one of those involves an incumbent (Representative John McCrostie of Garden City). Of the Republican contests, some seem likely to split into the “insurgent against establishment” mold, though not all do. Some may become quite personal.

A few challengers jump out because they’ve been visible before. Marvin “Chick” Heileson of Idaho Falls twice ran hard against U.S. Representative Mike Simpson but this year localizes his sights to the Idaho Legislature, and specifically to veteran Dell Raybould of Rexburg. Heileson was a hard-charging Tea Party candidate against Simpson, with support from Club for Growth and an issue base focused on national subjects. What his state-level campaign against Raybould will look like is unclear.

But we may have a better idea of the campaign to come over in Boise, where Rod Beck is running again. Beck, who served several terms in the state Senate and has run unsuccessfully for higher office and the legislature since, this year emerged as state chair for the Donald Trump presidential campaign. He is challenging a very different kind of person, second-term House member Patrick McDonald. McDonald, a former U.S. marshal for Idaho with a career in law enforcement, has been a generally uncontroversial and low-key representative. But Beck (whose projects have included closing the Republican primary to party members only) has a way of stirring things up; watch for some headlines over in District 15.

That however will be one of the few cases of primary contest excitement in the Boise area. Most of the primary contests are located in more rural reaches of the state.

The most significant could be in the far north, in District 1 – up by the Canadian border. There, the new (as of this session) co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, Shawn Keough, is being challenged again in the primary, this time by Glenn Rohrer. Keough has been challenged regularly from the activist right, four times before this year in the last decade. She won the first first three by lopsided margins, with two-thirds of the vote or better. In 2014, however, she was down to 53.8% of the vote, and Rohrer has started early and energetically this time.

That may be the contest which sets the political tone, more than any other, for this year’s Idaho primaries. Both U.S. House seats have primary challenges to the incumbents, but these were late-emerging and have the look of longshots. There is also, actually, a primary contest between two would-be standard bearers for the Constitution Party (one of those being the frequent contender Pro-Life from Letha), but that’s not likely to impact the state a great deal.

This is a season of intense national discussion and dissension over what the two national parties are all about. For a sense of where Idaho politics plays into that, and may be going, the legislative races may be as good a place to look as any.

Goldwater v. McGovern

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For all the recent references to the aftereffects of the presidential runs of Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Democrat George McGovern in 1972, there's been remarkably little comparison of how the two parties responded to those mega-losses.

And the responses were different, and those differences reverberate today.

The losses were roughly comparable in scope. Goldwater lost to incumbent Democrat Lyndon Johnson by 486-52, winning only his home state of Arizona and five states in the deep south (which historically had been deemed Democratic - this was a key point in their transition toward Republican). McGovern lost similarly in the popular vote, but even more heavily in the electoral, 520-17.

Both candidacies came from the philosophical edges of the respective parties, the Republican right and Democratic left. Both were preceded by warnings of leaving the vital center behind - big losses were widely predicted. And in each case the party's center nominated the next president (Republican Richard Nixon, Democrat Jimmy Carter).

Just below the surface, other things happened.

The reaction of Goldwater's supporters (not so much Goldwater himself) was not to give up and acknowledge they'd gone too far, but rather to double down and keep their eye on the long game. They did not heavily challenge for the presidency in 1968, though Ronald Reagan did make a significant appearance, but instead began building for the future: Media, think tanks, investments in personnel, whole new news media (eventually, talk radio, Fox News and much more), pushes to gradually move the party rightward and challenge liberal Republicans. It was a long game indeed, but it paid off. 16 years after Goldwater's loss the right was triumphant, electing Reagan and launching a generation of politics in which something like Goldwater-style conservatism was the dominant driving political force in the country. Republicans did not always win, but even when Democrats did they had to respond to the world world of Goldwater and Reagan.

Compare that to the way Democrats responded after the McGovern loss. There was virtually no talk afterward of doubling down on moving leftward; nearly all the Democratic strategic talk was of trying to recapture the center, of moving right. In contrast to the infrastructure building on the right, the reaction on the left was more of a defensive crouch. Before the 70s the word "conservative" had been in some decline as a proud political description; from the mid-70s onward, it was owned by Republicans and waved as a proud banner. During that same period, the word "liberal," which mostly had been happily embraced by liberals for years, was attacked and left undefended, and until very recently was avoided by most Democrats.

Times change, and both parties are struggling now with the changes they are coping with - that the country is pushing them through.

Organization Republicans now have, partly because their own preferences and partly because of the way Democrats have acted, a couple of generations of ideological inflexibility - it's all they know. Now the Republican base has split wide as millions (many of those we call Donald Trump supporters) has recognized weaknesses (or at least, areas of strong disagreement) in the acceptable ideology. The logical end game for a politics based around Goldwaterism has come in view.

And Democrats? They're more flexible, somewhat better able to manage changes, but still not easily. Even after the Barack Obama wins of 2008 and 2012 there's still something of the defensive crouch, but only in part of the party. The Bernie Sanders campaign, and a movement (whether tightly or loosely organized over time) stand to move the party away from a defensive position, and put it more on offense for the first time in half a century. It is where the Democrats might have been a decade or more ago if it had taken some of the lessons movement Republican conservatives did way back when.

Or at least there's the potential. 2016 seems to be a time of some philosophical crackup and realignment. It is one of those points when the tectonic plates stand to shift. Who will observe wisely, and who will be carried along? Who will be on defense, and who on offense?

Where safety lies

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Some weeks ago I chatted with several leading Idaho Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton for president. Asked why they preferred the former secretary of state over Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the core of the answer was that Sanders would be too risky a nominee.

Meaning: He’s viewed as a left-wing extremist, and the “socialist” label would be death in, at least, Idaho. Clinton, in relative terms, was the more centrist and therefore “safer” choice. So far as I can tell, this was the prevailing view across most of the Idaho Democratic leadership.

Nationally, the odds favor Clinton winning the nomination over Sanders. But in the light of last week’s caucuses let’s revisit the subject of Sanders and Idaho. In those meetings, where turnout busted historical records, Sanders demolished Clinton, with 78 percent of the vote (and he won every county save for the smallish Lewis). And the same day in Utah, which bears some demographic similarity to southern Idaho, Sanders did even better. That’s not the general electorate, of course, only participants in the Democratic meetings. But their unusually large size (for caucuses) coupled with the overwhelming result surely carries a message.

Many of the caucus meetings were much larger than expected, and many participants waited in long lines – four to five hours in Boise – to participate. The actual process often took more hours still, vastly unlike the normal duck-in-duck-out voting in primary and general elections. (A lot of Democrats have complained about the caucus procedures, which also excluded many who wanted to vote but, for illness, employment or other reasons, could not get to the sites on time.)

Consider too: These were public votes, not secret ballots. When Idaho Republicans cast ballots in their recent primary, no one ever saw who you supported. At the Democratic caucuses, you had to publicly endorse your candidate. If you were going to support that New York-accented Democratic socialist from Vermont, as nearly four out of five Idaho Democrats did, in the face of opposition not only from the majority Republicans in the county all around you but also most of the state’s Democratic leadership as well, you were doing it as publicly as if you’d taken out a display ad in the newspaper. More: You had to look those people in the eye.

That may not be so big a deal in Latah County or Blaine County, or in Boise. But think about those Democrats in Madison County – which has been called, with justification, the most Republican county in the nation – and in Cassia, Franklin, Lemhi, or Payette. The culture in these counties, in nearly all of Idaho, is overwhelmingly conservative and Republican. Local Democrats most typically keep their heads down. But in significant numbers, in support of a candidate labeled as far-left and “socialist,” they were visible last week.

One astonished Magic Valley woman commented at her caucus, “Hey, 140 people in Jerome. I am not alone.” What they did took serious fortitude. (As it would if you were a Republican caucusing for, say, Ted Cruz in an overwhelming liberal Democratic locale.)

What does this imply for politics in Idaho and beyond?

Maybe, maybe, that something is changing in Idaho. It may indicate that there are plenty of Democratic sympathizers out there, unorganized (“unchurched”?) who have little in common with most of the state’s Democratic establishment. Many Idaho Democrats for years have tried to position themselves not to lose, or at least lose badly, and shaped their message to mesh at least partly with that of the Republicans. Maybe these Democrats out there, and possibly others as well, are signaling now they would be more responsive to something else.

After the caucuses, state Democratic Chair Bert Marley, a superdelegate to the national convention with an unbound vote, said he would vote there for Sanders. That may be a first step to one of the most useful things leading Idaho Democrats could do in the months ahead: Make contact with these super-determined caucus goers, and find out whats motivating them. In many respects these people seem to be the new majority among Democrats in Idaho, and maybe elsewhere.