A miracle of sorts is developing among Idaho’s Democrats: A three-way contest for the position of party chair.
Call that a small but real mark in the plus column for the Democrats, along with the fact that, unlike the last state Republican chair contest, this one has foregone bitterness or battles. But then, this isn’t a job most people would want. It doesn’t pay, but it can be time consuming and intensely absorbing. The end results of those efforts are likely to be – however adept and hard-working the chair may be – crushing defeat and blame, generally undeserved.
The Idaho Democratic chair has attracted some highly skilled political people over the years, but it has limited authority and is commonly thought to be something much closer to “powerful” than it actually is. (Same goes for the Republicans.)
Still, the chair can influence politics in the state to a degree. This is written before the vote electing the new chair, so I don’t know who it will be, but the advice that follows would apply to any.
Party chairs (any party) have two basic useful functions: Building and strengthening the organization, and serving as its spokesman to the public. (They sometimes play a role too in candidate recruitment, which Democrats in recent cycles have done relatively well.) With that in mind, three ideas suggest themselves for the incoming Democratic leader.
1. The top organizational priority should be filling precinct spots. Form a special task force and chair it, with the specific goal of filling as many of those precinct vacancies as possible around the state. And then give those precinct people some specific and visible work to do.
With focused attention, more can be done in this area than most Idaho political people think. In the 2014 election the Republican candidate for governor, C.L. “Butch” Otter, won by a big margin. Care to guess in how many out of about 1,000 precincts his Democratic opponent, A.J. Balukoff, got no votes at all? I counted only three. There were lonely Democrats casting their defiant votes in very nearly every precinct and in every county in Idaho. The chair should be setting out finding those scattered seeds, carefully planting and watering them.
2. Use such bully pulpit as you have first and foremost to describe what the Democrats are about. Not, that is, about what this or that individual Democrat is proposing: Your job should involve defining the party and what it wants, as distinct from the Republicans, and spreading the word. A whole lot of Idahoans have been given to think Democrats are the spawn of Satan, and that’s not much exaggerated. Democrats in Idaho will continue to lose until this starts to change.
3. Use your position to talk about the Republican Party and what (in your view) it’s all about. Not just the latest bum headline, not just this office holder or that one, but the party itself. And not the fact that it controls all the political levers in Idaho – that just sounds whiny. And certainly not that “we need two parties.” (That offers no help about why anyone should choose yours.) Talk about why you think Democrats are right and Republicans are wrong. And you should be just that blunt.
Whoever you, the next chair, turns out to be, you’ll probably get more blame than you deserve whatever you do. But there is some potential for at least making the job count.