The Stuck Pendulum
An Idaho Paradox Politics Sequel
by Randy Stapilus
The Stuck Pendulum: An Idaho Paradox Politics Sequel
Copyright 2015 Randy Stapilus
cover photo by Eric Hunt (taken September 1997)
Please visit my website at
Please remember to leave a review for this book at your favorite retailer.
Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.
Table of Contents
From time to time I’ve fielded the suggestion of updating the 1988 book Paradox Politics, about public affairs in Idaho. Through the 90s I did that, in a way, by writing a series of political almanacs about the state, examining the shift and pull of politics from the big picture (things like presidential, gubernatorial and Senate races) down to the the microscopic (at the precincts). It was an interesting exercise, and educational, for a while at least. It also became intensely time consuming during a period when I wanted to move on to other things.
There was another factor too: Idaho politics had very nearly stopped changing. I mean that from the early 90s, since 1992, to present – as this is written in 2015, a span of time approaching the main scope of Paradox – it has changed, in the aggregate, on a partisan level, hardly at all.
This isn’t really a debatable proposition; you can choose any number of metrics to nail it conclusively.
Here’s one: The number of Democrats, in total, in the Idaho Legislature.
Since the early New Deal era, Democrats controlled the Idaho Legislature for just one term, after the election of 1958, when it had 62 of 103 members (combining both the Senate and the House of Representatives). In 1960 Democrats slipped to 49 out of 103, narrowly losing control of both chambers, but remaining closely competitive for a few more elections. Reapportionment for the 1966 election cost Democrats a few more seats, and some conservative Democrats switched parties in the 60s, but in 1970 they were still at 45 out of 105 – a minority but still not too far from striking distance of winning one of the chambers. The Reagan wave in the 80s significantly cut into the Democratic numbers, but in the 1986 election, for example, they still stood at 36 out of 126. In 1998, they built that number to 39, and in 1990 came back to 49, actually reaching a tie in the state Senate.
What you could see through all those years was a certain pendulum effect, voters moving back and forth – a clear Republican lean, but not absolute or overwhelming control, a situation in which a significant number of seats were, in any given election, genuinely up for grabs.
Between 1990 and 1992 came a then-unnoticed (by anyone I know of) dividing line, after which the number of seats realistically winnable by a candidate either party, in “swing districts,” shrank greatly, and the vast majority of seats became safely Republican, and a handful becoming safely or generally Democratic. In 1992, emerging from that election when they had 49 seats overall, Democrats shrank to 32 out of 105, losing about a third of their numbers.
In 1994 they tumbled to 21, down yet another third.
And in 1996, incredibly, they lost nearly another third of those numbers, slipping down to 16.
From 1990 to 1996 Idaho Democrats lost two-thirds of their legislative seats. It was the biggest swing by either party since the Great Depression era.
Nor had either party had been down to such small numbers since the 1930s, and those were in days when partisan control of individual seats was apt to switch, widely and broadly, from election to election – seats were often likely to change in control. This time, from 1992 on, the large number of Republican and small number of Democratic seats stayed in place.
Since 1994, there has never been more than seven Democrats in the 35-member Senate, and no more than 19 Democrats in the 70-member House. The number of seven Democratic senators seems to have becoming almost institutionalized, while the number of House Democrats usually has bounced between 13 and 16.
But it’s not just the totals that have been static: The districts have been static too.
Most of the Democrats have come from four districts in Boise which have become steadily more Democratic over the years – in 1986, several of these were competitive but none were reliably Democratic – and from a central Pocatello district, which has remained Democratic (though it was competitive in the 70s and 80s), and from a district based around the liberal Wood River Valley (which in the 80s was far less Democratic than now, though at this writing it does have a Republican state representative). The few Democratic strongholds have become more Democratic, even while the overwhelming majority of the state has become more Republican.
Are there any competitive areas left at all? The districts based around Lewiston and Moscow certainly are; they have seen seriously competitive races ever since the early 90s (as well as before). Both districts saw hotly-contested campaigns in 2014, including the two closest state House races that year. The central-cities districts at Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls have shown occasional sparks of competition, though only intermittently. There are some indications that another west-Boise district may be moving from red to purple. But that’s about it, based on actual voting evidence from the elections of 1994 to 2014. Theories bounce around about Democratic growth around Nampa or Twin Falls districts, and maybe that will happen eventually, but as of 2014 there was no serious data indicating that any of the remaining 35 districts around Idaho – that would be 25 of the 35 – are within realistic striking range for Democratic candidates, or have been at any time since 1994.
What you see at the Idaho Legislature largely obtains through the run of state politics.
No Democratic presidential candidate has received as much as 37% of the vote in Idaho since 1976 (when Jimmy Carter collected 37.1%). Whether the name on the ballot has been Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, Kerry or Obama has not mattered: The percentages have fallen within a narrow range. (The low through those years has been Carter in 1980, at 25.2%.)
Since 1990, the Democratic peak for gubernatorial candidates has been 44.1% (Jerry Brady in 2006) and a low of 29.1% (Robert Huntley in 1998). If you run for governor of Idaho as a Democrat, in recent years and likely in 2018, that’s the range of votes you realistically can expect to receive, until such time as the political environment changes.
And the only change you can safely assign to the Republicans through all those years is the common description of “they’ve gotten more conservative” (whatever that may be taken to mean) over time.
So all of this suggests a simplistic story when it comes to talking about the quarter-century since Idaho’s politics really was a paradox. The book title fits the subject then a lot better than it does now.
And yet . . .
Politics is never entirely static, not in Vermont or Georgia or Arizona or California or even Idaho. People are not permanently-programmed robots. They make decisions over time based on different things, cast different judgments, and create new results. Are there changes under the surface, or changes that simply haven’t been much observed?
Let’s take another look at Idaho since 1988, when Paradox Politics hit the streets, and see what other conclusions we may draw.
The last swing left
Looking ahead to the new decade, 1990 was shaping up – structurally – as a large year in Idaho politics, maybe one that would shape the state for some years to come.
It was one of the occasional election years featuring both a governor’s race and a senate race, and the Senate race in particular stood to have generational import, since three-term Senate James McClure had announced his retirement. McClure would have had an easy and direct path to a fourth term if he’d wanted it. But an open seat raised other possibilities. Democrats had been advancing in the last two cycles, and a further advance in 1990 might amount to a consolidation of gains, to a position of strength they hadn’t seen since the early 60s. Winning the Senate seat would have been a major coup, after a decade since the defeat of Democratic Senator Frank Church, and might have ensured a major-office berth for the party for quite a few years to come.
But there were no guarantees. Many major races in Idaho in the last couple of election cycles had been close, and the centerpiece of the coming year, the governor’s race, was as good an example as any. In 1986 Democrat Cecil Andrus, who won in a landslide his last time on the ballot (1974) and since had served four years as secretary of the Interior, had kept alive the gubernatorial streak by his party, but only barely: The best-known active politician in the state had won with only 50.2% of the vote. Andrus entered 1990 with no major or obvious political disabilities, but re-election in 1990 could not be taken for granted, and if Andrus folded, so might many other Democratic gains.
There was another factor. The 1990 Idaho legislative session was one of the hottest in the state’s history, probably more heated and controversial than any in the 25 years since. The politics that resulted from it could have gone in any of several directions.
It might have been a cautious session.
Over the previous decade, two legislative leaders served to personify an aggressiveness in approach that discomfited some Idahoans: Tom Stivers, who was House speaker from 1982 to 1986, and Jim Risch, who was Senate president pro tem (the top leadership post in that chamber), from 1982 to 1988. Both would be considered mainstream within their parties’ caucuses, but their styles were blunt. Stivers retired from the House in 1986 amid a cacaphony of controversy over his approach more than anything else. A close contest within the House Republican caucus determined his replacement as speaker would be the quieter, mellower and more centrist Tom Boyd – a clear indication of what House members thought was needed in terms of public perception. (The perception of not just part but of all of the voting public was a cause for concern by many legislators at that time; hard edges were not in style.) That House development was mirrored in the Senate two years later, when, in the highest-profile and most expensive legislative race of the year, Risch lost his Senate seat to a Democrat, Mike Burkett. His replacement as pro tem was the more calming and easy-going Mike Crapo of Idaho Falls – a change in direction as obvious, and as much remarked upon, as in the House.
Underneath those developments, however, the conservative activism of the earlier Reagan-inspired 80s, which supported Sagebrush Rebellion legislation and the new Right to Work law, had not gone away. The national arrival of a less ideologically-oriented George H.W. Bush in the White House probably contributed to more local splits about where and how far to push changes. While the Republican establishment ordinarily expressed few issues with Bush, the party structure, and growing parts of the grass roots, grew dissatisfied.
In some places, the fierce topic of discussion would be taxes (Bush’s “read my lips” pledge against, and then signing on in favor).
In Idaho, the flash point turned out to be abortion.
The subject had been a point of discussion in Idaho politics for some years, but it moved to the front burner in 1989 with the Supreme Court decision for Webster v. Reproductive Health Services in July. Webster, the first major court decision cutting against the direction set in Roe V. Wade in 1973, upheld a Missouri state law seeking to limit (or at least restrict state involvement with) abortions. The case got the attention of both sides; in Idaho, pro-life activists explored what legislation Idaho might pass to restrict abortion.
The options were many, and a long series of meetings by a House committee reviewed more than a dozen bills, from small-bore to highly ambitious. It settled on one of the most restrictive options, House Bill 625; if it became law and was approved by the Supreme Court (a challenge to it was widely expected), it would have been the toughest law limiting abortion in the country. That prospect drew bigfoot national news media to Idaho, and for a couple of months Idaho was a ground-zero point in the American culture wars. The Senate passed HB625 by a vote of 25-17, the House by a vote of 47-36.
The bill became the signature measure of the session, by far the leading topic of political discussion around the state.
Once the bill was sent to Andrus for his action, he held on to it nearly as long as he could before hitting the constitutional deadline for action. The time, more than a week, gave activists on both sides a chance to make their case, and the emotions did not dim as Andrus, who personally described himself as pro-life, seemed to indicate he was uncertain what to do. “Most people assumed that Andrus would end up signing the legislation when it came before it,” his friend and long-time press secretary Chris Carlson wrote in his biography of the governor.
Finally, he vetoed it, in maybe the highest-profile single action by an Idaho governor from then to now. His comments were not notably philosophical; his concerns with the bill concerned specific provisions in it, and he has said he had then and still does concerns about Roe v. Wade. It was, Carlson said, the lack of exceptions for extreme cases and a lack of compassion in the specifics of the bill that led to his veto.
At that moment, no one was sure how the veto would play out politically. More than a few Republicans thought Andrus would pay a big price for vetoing a pro-life bill in a state assumed to be – correctly no doubt – as pro-life.
It didn’t work out that way. Politically, the decision had the effect of energizing many Democrats and deflating many state-level Republicans.
Andrus was quite aware of other politicians who lost offices over taking pro-choice choices, and knew he was taking a risk, but he did not wind up as one of the casualties. One reason was the widespread reputation of the bill as putting Idaho on an extreme position on abortion, rather than taking a more modest step back. Even many pro-life Idahoans drew back from it. The stance of this measure was emphasized, ironically, by the wide variety of bills introduced which had provided comparison points, and some of which Andrus presumably wouldn’t have vetoed.
There were specific indicators of the voter response, when a number of Republican legislators that year pulled far less than their accustomed voter percentages. Most remarkably, the prime backer of House Bill 625, state Senator Roger Madsen, was defeated by a Democrat in one of the more Republican legislative districts in the state; abortion was by far the big issue in that race. It was the only significant public controversey Madsen ever encountered. Low-key and likeable, he later returned to the Senate and still later was appointed director of the state Department of Labor, where he served under four governors and received broadly favorable notices. That Madsen was swept out in the torrents of HB 625 spoke to the subtler divisions in the Idaho electorate over abortion. Many years would pass before any other abortion bill nearly so ambitious would pass the legislature.
That reflected too the deep divisions among many Republicans, the activists in the ranks and the cooler heads who had in some cases been elected to leadership spots. (On a national level, it reflected the supporters of then-President Bush against those of Patrick Buchanan.)
That also meant Republicans failed to generate a strong enough opponent for Andrus in 1990. The last two Republican nominees for the office were incumbent lieutenant governors, both with broad backing in the party. For 1990, no one was able to serve as that kind of unifying figure. The candidates included two senators, Rachel Gilbert (a high-profile and acerbic Boisean) and Roger Fairchild of Fruitland, the Senate majority leader, and one newcomer, financial advisor Milt Erhart of Eagle. None seemed to be the right temperature for the electorate. Gilbert didn’t catch on in eastern Idaho and seemed too urban, and Erhart had no substantial ties or connections to the party organization. Fairchild narrowly won the nomination, but he was not considered a strong candidate. His troubles seemed to be symbolized by his experience the day he announced for office: Among other problems, his ex-wife showed up and became the focus of attention). Republican money people and organization people as well placed their bets elsewhere, and Andrus outspent Fairchild about six to one. Andrus had begun the year with some popularity but a series of challenges and no certainty of re-election; he finished it with a massive 68.2% landslide.
Democrats benefited in some ways and places in yet another way that year.
In the second congressional district, Democratic Representative Richard Stallings seemed to be approaching the status of the Unbeatable Congressman. It had been quite a ride, from two failed state legislative races and one relatively close loss to Republican Representative George Hansen in 1982. Over the next term Hansen’s legal troubles, which had been an on- and -off thing with him for most of a decade, got much worse: He was convicted of four felony charges related to campaign finance. (Some of those legal conclusions effectively were reversed some years later.) In 1984 Hansen nearly lost his Republican primary to an unknown despite retaining the overt support of the state Republican organization, and reached a photo finish against Stallings, who was determined to try once more, in the general election.
That understandably got Stallings described as a fluke candidate who won only under the most extreme and unusual of circumstances. Few would have been surprised had he been taken out by a Republican in 1986, but the party was deeply split between a cattle call of candidates (including Hansen’s wife), and Stallings has worked local relations hard during his term. He won modestly but clearly with 54% of the vote in 1986, and then dug in. In 1988 the Republican field weakened, and Stallings expanded his percentage to a 63% landslide. In 1990 he was positioned to do even better. Four Republicans filed but none were well-known around the district, and the nominee was a 26-year-old first time candidate. Stallings grew his win that year to 64%. U.S. representatives with a track record like that tend to stay around for a long stretch, and as the 1988 and 1990 elections showed, strong Republican candidates had grown wary of taking him on.
Such landslide wins like Andrus’ and Stallings’ toward the top of the ballot – the one major race cutting the other way was for U.S. Senate, which Republican Larry Craig, then a House member, won – can help promote other candidates down the ballot. And so it did.
The first congressional district, on the northern and western side of the state, had been electing Republicans steadily since 1966. That year Republican Ada County was added to the district, and its new southern environs made it not overwhelmingly but much more Republican. (In more recent years, since the 1970s, the city of Boise has been split between the two disitricts). Fromm 1966 to 1990 the seat was held by three men who each went on from there to the U.S. Senate: James McClure, Steve Symms and Larry Craig, who left it to run for the Senaste in 1990. All had been natives of the southwest Idaho region around Canyon, Payette and Washington counties, and came up through the political structure of that area; McClure and Craig had served that area in the state Senate. So when Parma attorney C.A. “Skip” Smyser, a state senator as well connected politically and in the state’s business structure as those three had been, announced for the seat, he seemed to have good odds to win. He easily won the Republican nomination. Also to the point, the Democratic nomination was hotly and at times angrily contested.
That Democratic nominee, Larry La Rocco, was a former field staffer for Senator Frank Church but also a failed candidate against Craig for the 1st district (in 1982), had won the three-way primary with just 43% of the vote, and his chances at first seemed not especially strong. Smyser seemed likely to win if the normal political equations in the 1 st held true.
His campaign was effective, however, and Smyser was branded as a Boise attorney interested in any of a variety of political posts rather than this one specifically. Abortion filtered into the campaign, when LaRocco blasted Smyser for voting for HB625, and on school funding and other issues. LaRocco also had some neighbor-district advantage: The Washington state House district bordering the Idaho 1st was held by Tom Foley, then speaker of the U.S. House, and who took an interest in the Idaho race. Wilderness was much discussed too; it cut in part for Smyser, but La Rocco was able to cite personal experience as a mediator on the subject, which probably put him in a position stronger than most Democrats. In a strong Democratic year, La Rocco won with 53%.
The governorship and half the congressional delegation went the Democrats, but that was not all. They also elected an attorney general, Larry EchoHawk, for the first time in 20 years. The state auditor’s office was held for about three decades by a Democrat, Joe Williams, but age was wearing on his appeal; in 1986 Joe Williams nearly lost, was held to 51% of the vote. In 1989 Joe Williams retired, and Andrus appointed a relative of his, J.D. Williams, to replace him. The younger Williams, also a Democrat, had regularly won offices like county prosecutor and mayor in his very Republican home territory of Franklin County, but lost his one try for major office in 1982, for attorney general. He was not a sure thing for election in 1990 even as an incumbent, but Republicans here too held a conflicted primary and failed to coalesce, while Williams learned from his earlier loss and campaigned intensively. Running against the same man who had nearly beaten Joe in 1986, J.D. raised his own percentage to 58% in 1990.
Nor was that all.
While still a clear (though growing) minority in the state House, Democrats reached a tie in the Idaho Senate, 21-21, the party’s best legislative showing in 30 years. Republicans maintained general control there only through the tie-breaking vote of Lieutenant Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter, who Democrats had unwisely left unopposed in a year when he might have been vulnerable.
The pendulum in 1990 had swung distinctly left.
The 1990 election did not make Democrats the majority party in the state, but if it had been close to being representative of what followed, it could have signaled a closely competitive Idaho politics.
Instead, the swing back to the right roared swiftly and fiercely in 1992, and then a little further in 1994, then still a little more in 1996, before easing off slightly and then settling down.
And freezing in place.
Back to the right
The Democratic wins of 1990 reflected to some extent the party’s growth and development through the 80s, and its ability to recover from tough election years, especially 1980, and 1984, not coincidently years when Ronald Reagan was on the ballot. In off-years, they could make progress, electing governors in 1982 and 1986, building toward a little more.
1990 was better for Democrats than most Democrats had expected, and there were plenty of reasons for both that and for the collapse that would follow.
Some of those reasons related to candidates and political activity.
Andrus’ popularity and reputation drew out Democratic candidates who might not have been materialized otherwise, and the Democratic roster generally was stronger in the late 80s than it had been for a while, or would be again. Much of that slowed in Andrus’ final term, as he made clear early on that 1990 had been his last race, and he would not be on the ballot again.
The party organization drew on more institutional strength in the 80s than it generally would in future; the Ada County organization in particular reached a peak in the later 80s. Although Right to Work legislation passed first the legislature and then the voters in the mid-80s, its full impact on Idaho’s labor union organizations, and their political organizing help to Idaho Democrats, only began to be fully felt in the early 90s.
Republicans, who often have squabbled among themselves (as majority parties typically do), were especially conflict-prone in the late 80s. Despite their large numbers and deep bench of strong prospect candidates did an unusually weak job in 1990 of candidate recruitment for offices up and down the ballot, fielding significant numbers of candidates but to many cases not finding the strongest possible contenders. In the main exception to that rule, the U.S. Senate race, which drew two experienced and well-backed contenders in U.S. Representative Larry Craig and Attorney General Jim Jones, the Republican did win, decisively, in the general election.
The landscape – the subject matter terrain – also favored Democrats more in 1990 than it would in most years. The big issue that year was abortion, which in many circumstances or under other conditions would favor Republicans in Idaho; in that year, however, the referendum was over not the subject generally but a specific bill widely seen as extreme. Even a quarter century later, through decades of conservative Republican statehouse control, there’s been no serious renewed attempt to pass it, though many other abortion-related measures have arisen, some of which have passed (and some of which have been thrown out by courts). In contrast to many of the dozen or so years before, taxes were not a high-profile issue then.
All these circumstances were in the process of change. Andrus personally would remain popular, but from the time shortly after his 1990 win that he announced that he would not run again in 1994, his centrality in Idaho politics began to slip. The Democratic bench began to weaken. Idaho Democrats elected in 1990 soon found themselves in different circumstances, and weren’t able to easily adapt to them.
The first of those was that the Republicans sat themselves down and got their act together.
The Republicans, chastened by 1990, caught themselves a break by then electing as chair Phil Batt, a former lieutenant governor and longtime legislator who was one of the few Republicans in the state both broadly accepted and respected as a party leader and tough enough to extract compromises out of the factions. He recalled in his memoir, “We held self-assessment and motivational workshops across the state, concentrated on what united us, and determined what divided us. I threw myself into this effort with great gusto, traveling to countless meetings and recruiting effective precinct committee members.”
That he did, and it generated results. The diminished infighting and improved Republican organization and candidate recruitment, done in time to help with the 1992 election, were observed and remarked on at the time, and Batt’s role in the transition was critical. Among other Republicans at the time, possibly only James McClure might have done as well, but even McClure had less experience in pressing people into the kinds of compromise needed here. Batt himself long has contended that the best thing beleaguered Idaho Democrats could do for themselves would be to improve their internal organization and build up their precinct and county structure, much as Republicans had earlier.
Republicans picked up their candidate recruitment game in 1992 too. Headed into that year, Senator Steve Symms was in political tough shape, partly because of personal issues and partly political. Polls showed him losing a planned challenge to Democrat Richard Stallings by a dozen votes, and vulnerable as well to a Republican primary challenge. In August 1991 Symms announced he would not run again, and shortly after Boise Mayor Dirk Kempthorne entered the race. That alone wasn’t enough to draw a conclusion that the pieces were being moved into place by something more than simple candidate decisions. But this was: Phil Reberger, the ace campaign manager and staff director for Symms who had engineered his defeat of Frank Church in 1980, smoothly transitioned from Symms to Kempthorne’s operation in late 1991, and continued work with Kempthorne for more than a decade, after his return to the governor’s office. Not only Symms and Kempthorne personally were involved in those transitions.
One of the sharpest strategic decisions happened shortly after the 1992 election, when a large chunk of voters gave independent but conservative-sounding Ross Perot one of his best results anywhere in the nation. A significant number of moderate Republicans had, late in the 80s, become turned off by more conservative activists (whom they liked to call “flat earthers”). In 1990, some of them appear to have “stayed home” and cast no ballot, but in 1992 many sided with Perot. Who would get those votes? Idaho Democrats after 1990 failed to organize carefully or develop a coherent message to address them (something the Bill Clinton presidential campaign nationally was careful to try to do), but the Republicans under Batt developed a party message designed in part to appeal to those Perot voters. In 1994, many of them seem to have returned to the Republican Party.
One more new development may have added incrementally to the Republican edge in 1994: That was the first year of same-day voter registration. Up to then, voters needed to register at least a week before election day, but the law changed for the 1994 election allowing registration at the voting place. The number of voters who took advantage of that provision was not large – it was 31,704 – but it matched closely with new or fast-growing precincts where many newcomers to Idaho lived, and which voted strongly Republican. For whatever reason (perhaps they disliked the bureaucracy of having to file something twice to cast a vote) the change seems to have added a bit to Republican vote totals – an extra percentage point, maybe two in some cases.
All these factors no doubt contributed to the swing away from Democrats after 1990.
One less noted at the time but obvious on examination was to the uncommonly low voter turnout in 1990, which looks far less impressive for Democrats if you look at raw vote totals rather than percentages.
One of the long-running received truths about Idaho politics, easily demonstrated over the course of many decades, is that Republicans tend to do better in presidential election years, and Democrats better (relatively) in off-years. The nature of presidential candidates often is held up as a reason for this, but there’s also a simpler reason: Voter turnout, which almost always is higher in presidential than in non-presidential years. 1990 was non-presidential, and the unusually low voter turnout was among the lowest in modern times. And not only that, voter registration as well as ballots cast dropped sharply. They tended to fall most in Republican precincts; the beefed-up Republican organization of 1991 and 1992 was intended in part to reverse that, and it doubtless helped.
In the 1990 governor’s race, for example, Andrus won 218,673 votes in his super-landslide, but that was not so many more than the 193,429 from four years before in a squeaker win. Four years later, Batt would win 216,123 votes for governor – nearly as many as Andrus had won, but only for a modest win. The Andrus win was big in the context of 1990, but not so much – considering the number of votes – compared to most years. If turnout in 1990 had been more like that of the last few elections, in other words, the results would have been more mixed: Andrus and Stallings probably would have won by small margins, for example, and many other Democrats might have fallen short.
Take a look at these numbers of votes in the elections before and after 1990:
year . . . Registered . . . Ballots . . . turnout
1986 . . . 549,934 . . . 392,909 . . . 71.45%
1988 . . . 572,430 . . . 421,213 . . . 73.58%
1990 . . . 540,247 . . . 328,351 . . . 60.78%
1992 . . . 611,121 . . . 491,725 . . . 80.46%
1994 . . . 625,803 . . . 419,330 . . . 67.01%
The turnout consideration clearly was a big difference between 1990 and 1992: The number of ballots cast increased by nearly half, to the point that the electorate was drastically changed. The unusually high-profile 1992 presidential election no doubt contributed to that. The 1992 election was notable as an aberration in its own way: It marked the highest voter turnout in an Idaho general election since 1964, when the structure of Idaho politics (philosophically, geographically and otherwise) was different.
If raw voter turnout were the only factor driving the results, however, the election results from 1986, which was moderately good year for Democrats, and 1994, which was through-the-roof terrific for Republicans, should not have looked vastly different. Not many more ballots were cast in 1994 than in 1986, and the turnout was actually lower. And on the national level, while Newt Gingrich congressional revolutionaries were inspiring Idaho Republicans in 1994, Ronald Reagan was there to inspire them in 1986.
Why were those results so different, across so many candidates and races? Put another way, what happened in Idaho between 1986 and 1994?
Census and other demographic information doesn’t fall neatly for those years, but we can start with a look at population changes from 1980 to 2000, with 1990 as a midpoint.
We know that in 1980 Idaho’s population was 944,127, and in 2000 it was 1,293,953 – an increase of almost a third. We know that increase happened not, in the main, because of naturally increasing population, since the birth rate dropped by about a quarter between 1980 and 2000 – almost exactly the same number of babies were born in 2000 as in 1980, just over 20,000 each of those years. (The death rate, by the way, has remained almost exactly the same.)We do know that Idaho’s population growth slowed, reflecting fewer people entering and more leaving, in the first half of the 80s, but that the trend reversed later in the decade and through the 90s. We know that, by census definitions at least, Idaho has become steadily more urban, from 54% in 1980 to 66.4% in 2000 (and continuing to climb).
Drilling down a bit, we can see that about two-thirds of all of Idaho’s population growth in those years came in two places: The Ada-Canyon county area in the southwest, and Kootenai County to the north, which between them added almost a quarter-million people during that time.
Where did all these people come from? Many places, California prominent among them if only because of population considerations – California is after all the biggest source of people in the west. During the 70s, there was some speculation that newcomers to Idaho might tilt the state left, as incomers brought more of a nationally-representative point of view.
It didn’t work out that way.
Many appear to have been driven by Idaho’s reputational development at the time: conservative, traditional, and less multicultural than, say, many places in California, which even in the mid-80s was poised in the direction of becoming a majority-minority state (as by the 2010s it would become).
Early indicators would include such arrivals as Ron Rankin in 1967, a conservative Republican activist not far in viewpoint from the later Tea Party, and in 1982 Richard Butler, founder of the white supremacist Aryan Nations in Kootenai County. The two were different kinds if people in many ways, but they each represented elements of the broader right wing. The Aryans and associated racist groups in the Idaho Panhandle never got beyond a few hundred in number and were overwhelmingly disliked locally, and never had more than marginal direct impact on Idaho politics. (Aryan activists occasionally ran for local office in the 90s but never received more than a small smattering of votes.) They were highly visible and made many headlines in the 80s and 90s, however, and their message that northern Idaho was a refuge for white people undoubtedly had an effect on the massive growth there. The large number of retired police officers from southern California who settled in Kootenai and Bonner counties in those decades told a large story all by itself.
Orange County conservative activist Rankin was in some ways a good personal indicator of the development of conservatism in northern Idaho. A Goldwater and anti-tax activist, and a Mormon, Rankin decided in the mid-60s he’d had enough of California and its social and cultural changes, and wanted to find a place he might fit in better. He chose Kootenai County, and almost immediately got involved in Idaho politics. His early efforts were quixotic and seemed far from the mainstream – an attempt to recall Senator Frank Church, for example. But in the late 70s, as Idaho’s population began to change (in part as the state attracted more people like him) his anti-tax efforts began to catch hold. He was not the founder of the 1978 One Percent initiative (addressing local property taxes) but he lent it considerable support, and his organizational network in the Panhandle grew year by year.
Rankin was a naturally gregarious political figure; Democrat Mary Lou Reed, who once ran against himself, recalled in one interview, “It was always fun to joust with him . . . Ron Rankin seemed to fill the room. He loved attention and was very, very good at getting it. He was agile at capturing headlines.” He began running for office, generally as an independent, these too being quixotic moves – at first. His run as an independent for governor in 1994 (the year Republican Phil Batt won) irritated Republicans but helped shape the course of debate that year. He lost 10 elections in a row and then, in 1996, was elected to the Kootenai County Commission, where he served six years. He died in 2004.
The idea of Ron Rankin easily winning election to a substantial office in Idaho went from ridiculous in the 70s to commonplace in the 00s.
A bit more subtly, his rise reflected something else: The growth of the Mormon church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) around the state, from the mid-20th century to the early 20st. Adherents of the LDS church made up large and even dominant shares of the population in eastern Idaho even early in the 20th century, but for some decades that is where their support seemed based – and limited to, in Idaho. In the first half of the 20th century, many people in northern Idaho didn’t much care for that church down in the far south, and the church didn’t have many members there. There’s no odd coincidence that no Mormon was elected governor until 1978 or U.S. senator until 1998, and for most of the 20th century the idea of an LDS U.S. representative in Idaho’s first as well as second congressional district would have seen odd – but exactly that happened in 2010.
The number of adherents to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – the Mormons – grew strongly as well, from an estimated 272,670 in 1980 to 343,489 in 1999 – roughly keeping pace with the state’s growth. The traditionally high LDS percentages of population in eastern Idaho remained high, but the percentages in most of the rest of the state grew. Northern Idaho as well as southern Idaho began electing significant numbers of Mormons in the legislature.
Mormons usually describe themselves as conservative and traditional, and overwhelmingly they vote Republican. So too do adherents to many of the other churches which grew fastest in Idaho in the 80s and picking up steam in the 90s. Residents started to see regular construction of new, large, conservative churches, especially in Kootenai and western Ada counties, a number them what have been described as “megachurches,” which in a number of key cases would form the network for conservative political candidates for years to come. A line of Kootenai County legislators would grow from one of those networks; U.S. Representative Helen Chenoweth would be great assisted by another.
These religious changes has roots, but took hold in Idaho mainly in the last quarter, even the last fifth, of the 20th century.
The low voter turnout in 1990 and the high one in 1992 masked a more general and gradual change in Idaho, one less dramatic that the won-loss records seem to indicate, but enough in raw vote numbers to make a big difference.
One factor mentioned at the time was the president: A reaction in Idaho against President Bill Clinton, who favorable rating in Idaho were in fact low. Clinton often was derided (and seldom defended, even by Democrats) in political speech in Idaho, sometimes in vitriolic terms. But the tenor and much of the rhetoric (and even much of the substance) was not much different from the many blasts in Idaho at the last Democrat in the White House, Jimmy Carter, and not much different either from the blasts that would come later at Barack Obama. All three were fiercely criticized in the Gem State, and voting patterns through the presidential elections did not much change – not at all significantly, for example, when the presidency was handed from Clinton to George W. Bush, and then from Bush to Obama. The occupant of the White House seems to have had little effect on in-Idaho voting patterns. With the major exception of 1992, when independent Ross Perot captured a large number of Idaho voters (mainly conservative and many of them irritated Republicans), the percentages of votes for Republicans and Democrats for president have not changed much.
One other factor should be mentioned: Media. Conservative political radio and television programming is not an Idaho-specific development, but together with other factors it surely has had an effect on politics in the state. After the elimination in 1987 by the Reagan Administration of the broadcast Fairness Doctrine, conservative broadcast programming proliferated on radio. The Rush Limbaugh radio program launched in August 1988, and many other similar hosts quickly followed. Many of the Idaho AM radio stations moved quickly to carry Limbaugh’s daily program, and most of those followed up with conservative programming around the clock – much of this occurring in the early 90s when the strong Republican vote began to lock in. In 2015 stations in Boise, Bonners Ferry, Idaho Falls, Pocatello, Sandpoint and Twin Falls carried Limbaugh, whose ratings nationally seemed to be by them in debate; many of those stations had been doing so for a generation. In many of the places where Limbaugh was heard in Idaho over the years, radio listening options were limited, and a daily diet of Limbaugh (and his allied talkers) was simply part of living in many parts of the state. In 1996, the effect of conservative media would be increased by the arrival of the Fox News Channel on the televisions of nearly all Idaho cable and satellite system recipients – which is to say, most.
By 1996 (a presidential year), Democratic vote levels in Idaho were driven to historic lows, and only slightly recovered in 1998. In the years since, little in that regard has changed, other than for a few specific contests.
A succession of governors
Little of any of this was apparent or thought decisive in 1994 when Cecil Andrus prepared to retire as governor. After a flurry of indecision among Democrats (leading to some of the usual hard feelings), Attorney General Larry EchoHawk emerged as the Democratic nominee. Widely respected, a member of the Mormon church and a Native American, he was thought to be a formidable candidate. Republican Phil Batt, running a second time for governor after his stint as party chair, said later that for some months he was doubtful he would be able to break the Democrats’ long hold on the governorship.
But by 1994, even with just moderate voter turnout, the range of demographic and cultural changes – demographic, religious, media and more – was kicking in, close to what would emerge as its ongoing level of strength, and the prospect of a moderate win by EchoHawk was turning into the prospect of a moderate loss. What happened in that race was not entirely a matter of external political geography; some of it was basic campaigning politics as well. EchoHawk’s campaign made several slips. Batt recalled one as being the EchoHawk campaign’s request for Batt’s financial records, to see if he had received federal farm aid funds; the news item was taken in some places as a slap at farmers. EchoHawk also got bad press when he traveled to Salt Lake City to solicit campaign contributions; that was seen as an injunction of the church into politics, and may have cost him Mormon votes. In the end, EchoHawk received about 37,000 votes fewer than Andrus – enough to win in the context of 1990, but not 1994. The loss turned out to be decisive.
Among other consideration, there was this: To this writing, he was the last incumbent partisan office holder to run for Idaho governor as a Democrat.
1994, even more than 1992, was a major celebratory year for Idaho Republicans, sweeping nearly everything in sight, not only the governorship but all four congressional seats, every statewide partisan office but one – Auditor J.S. Williams was the lone surviving Democrat – 84 out of 105 legislative seats, and even large gains at the courthouse level. That election left Idaho Democrats with no real good news at all. And, seemingly, not even the basis for planning a recovery.
Batt moved quickly to put a Republican stamp on the new state administration, making many appointment changes and calling for budget cuts. His earliest efforts were sometimes erratic, in a few cases seeming to appoint more Republicans to boards and commissioners than were allowed. In some, not all, cases, the numbers of members of any one political party are limited, but the qualifications for party membership in Idaho, where there was no party registration at the time, made the whole area fuzzy.
One of Batt’s early challenges, however, was a leftover from the Andrus days, and his approach was not far off from Andrus’. Early in Andrus’ return to the governorship in the 80s he opposed importation of nuclear waste by federal agencies (to what is now the Idaho National Laboratory), even threatening to use state police to stop the import. The dispute didn’t go that far, but led to a lawsuit and to protracted negotiations which continued into the Batt Administration. Batt spent months focused on the problem and in October 1995 signed an agreement with the Department of Energy calling for removal of the existing waste. The state later pointed out, “Idaho is now the only state in the nation that has a court order mandating that federal nuclear waste leave state boundaries by a specific date. No other state in the nation has such a legally binding commitment.”
In 1996 critics of the deal, arguing either that the process was flawed and should have been more public or that the substance was poor, filed Proposition 3 to invalidate the agreement. The ballot issue pitted former state Senate John Peavey of Carey, against Batt and advocates for the national laboratory, who warned that invalidating the agreement would leave Idaho open to receiving many more shipments. In 1996 Batt’s agreement was supported by almost two-thirds of the voters. The agreement has been the subject of debate and discussion over the years. Batt’s deal was largely backed by former Governor Andrus, and the two have since often teamed up to protest – as they did in 2015 – when they have sensed its terms being undermined.
Perhaps heartened by that and other developments, Batt seemed to take command more fully as his term went on, and he appeared to develop growing interest in an unexpected range of policy issues. He began to explore renovating Idaho’s tough sentencing laws and started a series of other projects. Early in 1997 he began raising money and spoke of running for another term; he appeared to be popular enough that a re-election campaign would not be difficult. Batt’s personal popularity wasn’t intensively polled but appeared to be strong, especially in the latter part of his term.
Nonetheless, in October 1997 he announced he would not run again, saying his age was a prime reason. (He would be 76 at the end of a second term.)
That set in motion the first in several rounds of Republican high-office musical chairs. One might have guessed that C.L. “Butch” Otter, who at that point had served more than a decade as lieutenant governor (not to mention a couple of terms as a legislator, and a run for governor in 1978), might have been a top prospect, but his name didn’t much come up.
Instead, the option to run devolved to the higher-ranking top-level Republicans in office, which principally meant the congressional delegation. Senator Larry Craig indicated no interest in returning to Boise, but Senator Dirk Kempthorne emerged as the highest-ranking Republican who was interested. His announcement for governor cleared the field of serious Republican candidates, and set a pattern for the standard procedure on later occasions when one of the major offices in Idaho fell open.
Kempthorne, one of the few people to be elected both governor and senate from Idaho, had something of a blessed political history. It started at the University of Idaho, where he was student body president (just a few years after Larry Craig had held the post). He was a lobbyist for several years, but in 1985 was sought out to run for mayor of Boise by a bipartisan group trying to oust the older regime, in a battle that turned on economic development and the future of downtown. Kempthorne turned out to be highly skilled candidate, and he took over as Boise mayor about the time in the mid-80s when the state’s economy overall began to recover from its doldrums of previous years. Virtually free of controversy during his time at city hall, Kempthorne was overwhelmingly re-elected in 1989, and abruptly had an excellent platform, resume and set of skills for higher office. Linking to the highly skilled Steve Symms political organization, he ran an effective campaign beating Democrat Richard Stallings, who initially had seemed to hold the advantage.
Switching to the governorship in 1998 (but retaining his campaign organization, team and financing), Kempthorne faced only a little-known and unorganized challenger in the primary. In contrast – in mirror opposite to the way Republicans had behaved in 1990 – the Democrats had a field of four candidates, a couple of them highly entertaining but only one – attorney, former legislator and former Supreme Court Justice Robert Huntley – significantly experienced in state politics. Huntley was thinly organized and did not campaign intensively, and wasn’t strongly funded, either. Kempthorne, who was able to transfer many of his campaigning advantages from his Senate operation to the governor’s race, rolled seamlessly toward a universally predicted landslide win.
The race for the Senate seat he left behind was not much different. It went to the top Republican office holder who wanted it: Mike Crapo, who had taken over the 2nd congressional seat Richard Stallings had departed to make his Senate run. Calming and uncontroversial, the Idaho Falls attorney easily won energetic primary and general contests in 1992 for that seat, and light opposition in 1996. His general election opponent was Democratic Boise attorney Bill Mauk, who had chaired the Idaho Democratic Party for several years just before his Senate run. But as in Huntley’s case, organization and money were lacking, and the results in other partisan races around the state raise the question of how much they have helped if they’d been available. (Mauk and Crapo, both highly skilled lawyers, did conduct that year some of the best candidate debates Idaho has seen in recent years, good enough that the tapes should be viewed by prospective candidates as examples of how it can be done well.)
The 2nd District seat was more sharply scrapped over, especially in the Republican primary where four serious candidates emerged. But House Speaker Mike Simpson (a match for departing former Senate pro tem Crapo) decisively moved up, and in the 90s environment easily turned back a comeback attempt by former Representative Richard Stallings.
The musical chairs pattern would repeat, with variations, in the next decade.
Kempthorne would serve just under two terms, leaving about seven months before the end of the second to become secretary of the interior in the George W. Bush Administration.
Although Kempthorne had run one of Phil Batt’s campaigns for governor (in 1982), the two were not close afterwards, and their governorships had a different feel. Kempthorne maintained similar policy approaches on budget and policy overall, though he wound up clashing with the legislature more than Batt had.
Possibly the most visible action Kempthorne took as governor came shortly after the September 9, 2001 attacks, when he set up barriers and shut down public access to areas around the Statehouse. He said that he wanted to protect visitors, especially school children, from possible attacks on a statehouse that had a similar classic look to the U.S. capitol. Critics (this writer was one of them, and for a time one of the more visible) argued his actions were an overreaction, and would do little to block an actual attack. When Kempthorne started his campaign for a second term in 2002, he appeared in a television ad that showed him bounding up the Statehouse steps outside his office and heading inside – an entry that had been closed off, reasons given as security concerns, until just before the commercial was shot. By the time Kempthorne left office, the Statehouse was nearly returned to normal. (And when the Statehouse renovation was completed in the next few years after that, an emphasis was placed on openness to the building.)
More long-range results came from Kempthorne’s efforts to bolster spending on highways and related transportation initiatives, much of it using Garvee bond funding. The effort proved highly controversial in the Idaho Legislature, and in 2003 that and related issues – including a rise of the sales tax to 6% - led to a long-term showdown between the governor and more fiscal conservatives. The session that year lasted 118 days, the longest in Idaho history, and led to some hard feelings after.
Kempthorne had said he would not seek a third term in 2006, which led to quite a bit of speculation about what his future would hold. Some of that was resolved through his ongoing Washington ties, which helped him bring President George W. Bush to the newly-developing Tamarack ski and recreation area near Donnelly, a development Kempthorne had supported as head of the state land board. (State as well as federal lands were located in the planned resort area.) Just a few years later the Tamarack resort would financially crash and head into years of court battles among debtors and creditors, but it had a promising look when Bush visited in 2005. Possibly growing out of that face time, Bush named Kempthorne interior secretary in March 2006, the second Idaho governor (after Cecil Andrus) to hold the job.
The view of another opening in the governorship led to another round of Republican musical chairs. This time, two major and long-experienced office holders were interested in the job: 1st District Representative C.L. “Butch” Otter, who was a former lieutenant governor, and Lieutenant Governor Jim Risch. Otter, who had held his U.S. House seat since the 2000 election, began organizing for the governor’s contest almost before his re-election in 2004, and questions arose about whether Risch, who was clearly interested in the governorship (and said so publicly), would be able to match him.
From Risch’s perspective, the sequence of events that followed must have seemed perverse – and certainly they were unusual in Idaho history, and led to a circumstance that may have be unprecedented in any state.
Risch, a smart political strategist with three intense decades of experience in Idaho politics, maintained well into 2005 his interest in running for the top job the next year, but finally – apparently the face of a heavily-funded and well-organized Otter campaign – backed off, and in November said he would run for a second term as lieutenant in 2006. That is exactly what he wound up doing. But then in March 2006, when Kempthorne abruptly left the governor’s office for Washington, Risch was automatically elevated to the top job. There was still time enough – barely – for him to file for election, which might allow him to keep it, but Otter’s campaign machine had been rolling for a couple of years and wasn’t stopping or slowing. With what had to have been great reluctance, he stayed in the race for lieutenant governor.
Meantime, he made the most of his seven-month run as governor. Opinions would vary over the wisdom of various policies he pursued during that time, which ranged to calling a special session of the Idaho Legislature to change the way public schools are funded through property and sales tax law. But his energy and capability weren’t in doubt: His seven months as governor seemed to operate on high speed, like a whirlwind – but a well-directed one.
The author wrote at the launch of his governorship this about his approach: “On the first regular working day of his governorship, Risch had his staff in place: Chief of Staff John Sandy, and four deputies, in a thoroughly reorganized office. No sluggishness there; he was set to roll. There will be no policy advisors in his office, he said – that position would be ended. Instead, the key staffers would be structured as constituent workers: A brilliantly sharp redefinition that reflects both on his predecessor and on the way he wants to define himself and his office. . . . The old saying has it that the prospect of hanging in a fortnight concentrates the mind wonderfully. This initial shot at an abbreviated term shows Risch in concentrated form, and generally speaking to good effect.”
The 2006 election, then, resulted in placing Otter as governor (defeating Democrat Jerry Brady, who also had opposed Kempthorne in 2002) and replacing Risch back in his role as lieutenant governor.
Otter’s move to the governorship in turn led to a personnel shift for Otter’s old 1st district House seat, but the shifting ripple effects were about to run much wider and deeper, generated from an unexpected direction.
A wide stance
The highest-profile event in Idaho politics in the last generation, one that circled the globe as a subject of news reports and on-the-street discussion, had nothing to do with an Idaho election or Idaho policy, and it did not even begin in Idaho.
It began in Minneapolis, when a member of the Idaho congressional delegation was on a break between plane flights.
He was Larry Craig, Idaho’s senior senator, a prominent figure in Idaho politics almost exactly as long as Risch and Otter – he had served in the Idaho Legislature back in the 70s, in fact, alongside them, and once lost a contest for Senate majority leader to Risch, in 1976. (That loss may have propelled him to run for Congress instead, which he proceeded to do four years later.)
Craig grew up in in the small, remote farming community of Midvale, but like a number of successful small-town Idaho politicians exuded a more urbane air, and even as a freshman legislator was one of the state’s better public speakers. (In delivering a speech or oration he often sounded strikingly like former Democratic Senator Frank Church – in sound and delivery, though not in content.) Starting in the state Senate in the same class as Risch, his ambition was clear but seemed limited – as the failed run for majority leader seemed to indicate – by his relatively non-ideological approach to legislation. In the state Senate he was often considered an unpredictable vote.
That changed when in 1980 he ran for the 1st District U.S House seat Steve Symms was leaving to challenge Church. Craig’s campaign that year, and for years after, would sound much like Symms: He had clearly staked ground on at least what was then the rightward side of Republican turf. In the primary, he turned back competition from former Attorney General Wayne Kidwell, whose campaign never got off the ground, and then won easily in the Reagan Republican landslide of that year. He won without great difficult four more times through the rest of that decade. Craig’s top issue through most of that time was his proposed federal balanced budget amendment.
In 1990 James McClure (himself a former 1st district representative) retired from the Senate, opening that seat. Again when moving up Craig found himself in primary opposition from an Idaho attorney general, this time twice-elected Jim Jones. Craig launched his campaign harder and faster – he seemed well-prepared, and announced almost immediately after McClure’s statement – and was positioned to collect more money. 1990, considering the perfect storm of Democratic advantages falling into place, may have been the worst year for Craig to run for higher office, but his efficient and effective campaign was enough to roll over former Democratic legislator and Boise council member Ron Twilegar, who was a known quantity in Boise but not in the rest of the state. Craig’s was by far the major Republican win in Idaho that year. It bolstered his image as a strong electoral figure, and his light Democratic opposition in the next two elections – two Democrats who never had been elected to any office, and one of them a newcomer to Idaho – indicated that Democrats didn’t take him lightly either.
Through his House and Senate years, Craig became very much a part of the Idaho Republican establishment structure, facing no serious in-party opposition once in office and winning generally easy re-elections in 1996 (over Democrat Walt Minnick, a Boise businessman) and 2002 (over Democrat Alan Blinken, a Ketchum resident but best-known as an ambassador to Belgium). He was active in the party activities and with other campaigns, networking effectively. As his third Senate term wound down, he made clear he planned to run for a fourth term in 2008, and across Idaho political circles his re-election seemed highly probable.
Until June 11, 2007.
On that day Craig was taking one of his hundreds (or is it thousands?) of air flights between Washington and Boise, and spent some time on a layover at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport. He stopped into a rest room there; by the time he left it, whether he knew it or not (probably not, to judge from his subsequent actions), his political career was over. The stall Craig occupied there was next to an undercover police officer investigating reports of solicitation of gay sex in the rest room. The officer reported that “At 1216 hours, Craig tapped his right foot. I recognized this as a signal used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct. Craig tapped his toes several times and moves his foot closer to my foot. … The presence of others did not seem to deter Craig as he moved his right foot so that it touched the side of my left foot which was within my stall area. Craig then proceeded to swipe his left hand under the stall divider several times, with the palm of his hand facing upward.” Craig said his moves were misinterpreted, and (in a soon to be famous quote) was said to have described himself as having a “wide stance.” (Actually, that may have been one of the famous quotes that never was; Craig himself may not have used that phrase, but instead described himself as “a fairly wide guy.”) He was taken to the airport police station after an arrest on suspicion of lewd conduct, and later charged with disorderly conduct.
On August 1, saying nothing publicly about any of this (matching the silence of the Minneapolis police), Craig pleaded guilty to the charge, signing papers that said he admitted the truth of the charges, and paid fines and fees of $575; the papers were filed a week later. Later, he would deny them flatly and say on several occasions, “I am not gay.” (And still later, there would be unsuccessful court battles over his attempt to withdraw his guilty plea, and over his use of campaign funds for paying his large legal costs. Those battles have continued up to the time of this writing.)
He may have hoped the Minneapolis paperwork would never surface, but U.S. senators, even lower-profile senators from states like Idaho, are too well-known for that. The story emerged in the Washington publication Roll Call on August 27, and within hours the story shot around the world.
In Idaho, the reaction to the Minneapolis arrest was a mix of surprise and not-so-surprised. While Craig was married (to the former Suzanne Thompson in 1983; at this writing they remain married), speculation that he might be gay reached back at least to his years in the Idaho Senate. No specific allegations or evidence, much less any news stories, surfaced in all those years, however. The first was a general allegation by a gay blogger in 2006, but although it circulated in parts of Idaho’s news media, it received only limited public attention. By that time, the Idaho Statesman had dispatched reporter Dan Popkey on a long-term assignment, which took him to Washington and elsewhere, to track down evidence of gay incidents. His research was exhaustive, but the results were inconclusive, and Craig flatly denied the allegations to the Statesman.
The Minneapolis arrest surfaced only a few months after that. Not long after, the Statesman ran the stories it earlier had shelved, which did include a number of allegations from various men about Craig, and Craig’s denial of their allegations.
Nationally, and internationally, the story about the conservative senator from Idaho hit international media, and became an hour-after-hour talking point on cable news.
Within a few days, maybe in part because of that jarring reaction, the Statesman called for Craig’s resignation, and the paper was soon joined by plenty of other media.
That was just the beginning of an immense media firestorm. Craig had been a part of presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign structure; after he resigned from it (when the stories about Minneapolis hit), Romney said Craig “disappointed the American people.” Craig replied that Romney “not only threw me under his campaign bus, he backed up and ran over me again.” In a matter of days, hours even, Craig was being disowned by almost everyone who had been long-time political ally, sometimes for decades. Craig was asked to resign from several leadership posts he held in the Senate, and he did.
By this time he also seemed to be leaning toward resigning from the Senate as well. His signals in that direction were strong enough that Governor Otter spoke openly about the prospect of appointing a replacement (though he declined to confirm any specific names were under consideration until he received a resignation letter from Craig).
But then in a quick reversal, Craig said he would serve out the rest of his term, which amounted to a little over a year, and simply not run for re-election. It was for many fellow Republicans, and probably Craig himself, a highly uncomfortable period. But Craig did continue to participate in Senate activities, voting, proposing legislation, appearing in some meetings. His role there was, however, clearly diminished.
It did however open his Senate seat, and Risch – who had been mentioned as a leading prospect for appointment in case of resignation – quickly announced for it, not holding back as he had for governor. His Republican competition was minor, and he easily won in the general election over Democrat Larry La Rocco, a former 1st district congressman. (It was the third time he defeated La Rocco, in races for three different offices: state senator, lieutenant governor, and U.S. senator.)
Risch was re-elected, after running a quiet campaign, over energetic but underfunded Democratic attorney Nels Mitchell in 2014.
The roaring first
Even in the midst of major scandal, then, Idaho politics seldom budged from its reliable conservative Republican anchor. If one major figure was felled, another next in line shifted over reliably, and a series of revolving office holders took charge. These office holders of the 00s and 10s were familiar names – Risch, Otter and Craig from back in the 70s, Crapo and Simpson by the mid-80s. Other Republicans had nowhere to rise.
Moderates and Democrats, of course, came nowhere close to winning.
In all of major-level Idaho politics, in fact, a different kind of scenario happened in only a couple of places.
One is, or was, the 1st congressional district.
It seemed, as this era of the broken pendulum began, an unlikely place for that to happen.
But there were indications. This was the home of the last major office (meaning governor and congressional delegation) held before the Republican tidal wave of 1994 hit. Democrat Larry La Rocco, elected in 1990, was helped with Republican opposition in 1992 not as strong as in some places: That was former legislator Rachel Gilbert, who in 1990 had lost her race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
The Republican tide continued to grow stronger in 1994, and one indication of the change underway was the much stronger three-person Republican field for the office that year. The front runner initially was thought to be former Lieutenant Governor David Leroy, who had only barely lost the governorship to Cecil Andrus eight years before. Instead, the nominee – a surprise to many even on election day – was Helen Chenoweth, an activist on land rights (she was a chief Sagebrush Rebellion speaker in the state) given to making highly quotable statements that shot around the news media. She had never run for office before, and her strong finish in the primary contest came as a surprise. The La Rocco forces initially underestimated her, but in 1994, and with the added advantage of some late negative headlines for La Rocco, Chenoweth prevailed with 55.4% of the vote.
In some ways, she was very much part of that conservative wave class of 1994 – ideological, both a fiscal and social conservative, and a forerunner to the later Tea Party movement. She was the source of many quotable quotes and fostered some conspiracy thinking back home (she held hearings on “black helicopters” invading western states, for example) and was described as “an outspoken supporter of the militia.” She was among the first in Congress to call for impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
Chenoweth was one of the few conservative Republican politicians in Idaho wander close enough to the precipice as to risk defeat, and her first win over incumbent Democrat Larry LaRocco was actually her largest. A young Boise attorney named Dan Williams in 1996 held her to just 50% of the vote (a couple of percent went to a conservative minor party candidate), and in a better-organized race two years later, he held her to just 55% – a shadow of what Chenoweth’s Republican predecessors had routinely scored in re-election votes.
A question for future investigation: Might Chenoweth, saying the doing the same things, have had more secure re-elections a decade or two later?
In 2000, keeping a promise from her first congressional race (one made by a number of candidates the same year but discarded by many of her colleagues), she retired from the House and returned to private life, stepping away from active politics. She married a Nevada rancher, and died in a motor vehicle accident in that state in 2006.
As usual when the seat opened, the Republican primary following was busy, but – also typically – the outcome in this one was never in serious doubt: It would go to the highest-ranking incumbent Republican. In this case that was Lieutenant Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter who, after spending 14 years in a part-time waiting-room office, was looking for something more than part-time and mostly ceremonial work, and took the opportunity to move up in 2000. He would be re-elected, winning strongly if not overwhelmingly in the next two election years. (He took 64.8% in 2000, 58.6% in 2002, an off-year when he faced his most experienced opponent in Democrat Betty Richardson, and 69.5% in the 2004 presidential year.)
In the House he fit in as a conservative Republican very much in the Symms or Craig mold, with occasional exceptions. The most visible was his opposition vote, one of only three by Republicans, against the Patriot Act. He has said that he does not oppose all of the law, just certain provisions; and he also voted against warrantless electronic surveillance.
When Otter opted out of the House in 2006 to run for governor, the result was another big and contentious Republican primary battle in the first district, maybe the most contentious because this time was a true rarity in recent Idaho politics: none of the contenders was an obvious winner, partly because none currently held a major office. Two of them came fairly close: state Controller Keith Johnson and attorney and future state Republican Chair Norm Semanko. The other five candidates included Robert Vasquez, whose primary issue was illegal immigration and former state Senator Sheila Sorensen who was widely described (though not by herself) as the lone moderate in the race. But the winner, with barely more than a quarter of the vote (25.8%), was Bill Sali, an eight-term state representative from Kuna. Sali’s candidacy had been dismissed by many of the long-timers in Idaho Republican politics. He was highly controversial and often at odds with his own party’s leadership, more contentious with fellow Republicans than with Democrats (at least their relationship was better established). But also also was the recipient that year of massive help from the Club for Growth, which poured money into his campaign, and kept his campaign management on a careful and professional course. Sali narrowly won the general election that year over Democrat Larry Grant, but became the first Idaho Republican officeholder in the new millennium to take less than 50% of the vote.
Democrats correctly saw he could be vulnerable: Too many fellow Republicans quietly wanted Sali replaced, and even if a Democrat won initially, they concluded, a Republican could be found to beat him later.
After some jockeying among Democrats (Grant was interested in a rematch), the Democratic nomination went to businessman Walt Minnick, who ran unsuccessfully against Senator Larry Craig in 1996. Minnick ran a focused and well-funded campaign, while Sali, whose Club for Growth backing vanished (somewhat mysteriously) in 2008, ran a slight and not very professional campaign plagued by missteps. The result, in a year better than average for Democrats, was a slender Minnick win, by just 4,211 votes (a 50.6% win).
But could he keep the seat?
Managing to do that under any circumstances would be difficult, but the new congressman’s record doesn’t make an evaluation easy. He made moves to cooperate with the Republicans in the delegation, and that was a positive move, as far as it went. Minnick’s voting record in the House – he was one of the least caucus-loyal Democrats in the chamber, by some measures the least in the House – aggravated Democrats, while not diminishing Republican activism against him.
State Representative Ken Roberts of Donnelly entered early, but dropped out in the fall of 2009. State Representative Raul Labrador then entered, but by that point much of the money and support in the Republican field appeared to have been pre-empted by a newcomer in Idaho politics, Vaughn Ward (who drew on connections with former Senator and Governor Dirk Kempthorne, and elsewhere). Ward was a front runner until about two months before the May 2010 primary, when his campaign imploded spectacularly – a series of statements and actions, almost daily, wiping out his candidacy. Labrador, who ran steady and smooth, was the beneficiary, winning a plurality 47.6%.
Labrador, an attorney born in Puerto Rico with some specialty in immigration issues, was allied with the Tea Party movement, a subject of concern for a number of organization Idaho Republican leaders and organization workers. A number of organization Republicans sided with Minnick for the general election. Minnick ran an intensive campaign, and it was by far the best-funded of any U.S. House campaign in Idaho history, raising more than $2 million; Labrador raised about a fifth as much.
But Minnick made his own missteps (notably an ad linking Labrador, who as an attorney worked on immigration cases, with illegal immigration), and the year was Republican. The election was not close, Labrador winning by abut 24,000 votes. (That election showed, among other things, the very real limits of money in politics.)
Labrador was new to most people in the district, but not to Idaho politics. He had been active in Ada County Republican activities in the 90s, and ran for and won election to the Idaho House in 2006. His one significantly contested race pre-Congress was his primary in 2006 against other Republicans, but he won that with a 46.4% plurality. Running in a strongly Republican district based around Eagle, Star and Meridian, he won landslides in both general elections (65.55% in 2006, 69.1% in 2008).
Statewides and the superintendent
Just one other major office in Idaho has seen some seriously competitive election activity since the mid-90s.
It was not lieutenant governor, where Republicans (at first Otter, then others afterward) held the office steadily without great difficulty. Or secretary of state, where first Pete Cenarrusa and then his long-time chief deputy Ben Ysursa held it with only modest opposition until 2014. (There was a significant contest both in the Republican primary and general election that year; former House Speaker Lawerence Denney won the general decisively.) Or most of the other offices. The office of auditor/controller, the last of the statewide spots held by a Democrat after the 1994 election, and retained by incumbent J.D. Williams in the 1998 election; he opted out in 2002, at which point it went Republican.
The most contentiously-battled statewide office was superintendent of public instruction, which had been held quietly and easily by Republican Jerry Evans, a non-ideological education professional widely respected in both parties. His retirement in 1994 set up strong primaries in both parties, and the eventual winner was Anne C. Fox, a panhandle school administrator with strong campaigning skills whose sound and approach fit in well with the politics of 1994.
She turned out to be intensely controversial from the beginning of her single term to the end, and parent appear to have paid attention. A report from Education Week in November 1998 summed up a number of (not all of) the controversies:
“In her one term in Idaho, Ms. Fox fueled controversy by spending $8,000 to redecorate her offices and firing a half-dozen top deputies while giving her campaign manager a high-level job; she fired him after reports of a 10-year-old charge against him for soliciting sex from a minor. Ms. Fox, a former elementary school teacher and principal, was also criticized for burning bridges to the state school board and others in the education establishment with her support for tuition tax credits and for phonics-based reading instruction.”
So controversial was she that other Republicans began to edge away, and in 1995 talk even surfaced among legislators emerged about eliminating the superintendent’s office as an elective post.
That extreme level of discomfort created a rare opening for a Democrat, and Moscow school principal Marilyn Howard jumped in, defeating in the Democratic primary a candidate backed by former Governor Cecil Andrus, and in November 1998 she defeated Fox. Non-ideological and even non-partisan in overall tone (not drastically different from Jerry Evans), she has an unusual distinction: The only Democrat elected to a major office in Idaho in the last 40 years who has never been defeated at the polls. Mitigating that distinction, of course: She ran only twice, in 1998 and for re-election in 2002, retiring in 2006.
Her 2002 Republican challenger, Nampa school board member Tom Luna – a rare non-professional seeking the office – decided to try again, with a strongly, more polished and better-funded campaign when Howard retired. With the office having returned to its relatively non-controversial norm, voters returned to form as well. Howard’s chief deputy, Jana Jones, was Luna’s general election opponent, and good feelings from that administration probably helped her, but the 51.3% Luna vote indicated a comfort level with returning the office to Republican hands.
Some indicators, especially from his first campaign, suggested that Luna would be a more ideological opponent, with some of the kinds of issues that did in Anne Fox. (He was an education policy official in the George W. Bush Administration after his unsuccessful 2002 race.) However, Luna’s first term was unlike Fox’s in that for the most part it was calm, quiet and worked in general smoothly with education administrators and the teachers’ Idaho Education Association – at least, more smoothly than many of those people had expected.
After his re-election in 2010, however, another side emerged, and Luna’s second term was far more contentious than his first. Shortly before the 2011 legislative session – and without any mention in the preceding year’s campaign – he proposed a package of legislation (“Student Come First”) aimed at limiting collective bargaining by teachers, changing to a merit-based pay system, phasing out tenure, requiring use of online instruction for high school graduation, provision of laptop computers for all high school instructors and students, and more. It was a highly ambitious program, and stunned many Idahoans as much for being dropped seemingly from nowhere as for what it included.
The controversy was intense and immediate. All three major bills passed the Idaho Legislature after heavy debate, and with support from Governor Otter. The debate did not go away, however, and organizers put the measures on the ballot for November 2012 – when voters soundly rejected all three.
That result stunned Luna and other office holders. Otter convened a study group to consider what changes in Idaho law might reasonably be done, but most of the substance of the “Students Come First” effort was rejected.
How Luna might have fared in the wake of that rejection won’t ever be known, because in late 2013 he said he would not run again.
The four-candidate Republican primary that resulted featured only education professionals; one seemed generally aligned with insurgent and tea party factions, but the other three came across as relatively non-ideological professionals, closer to the Evans or Howard style. Their Democratic opponent was Jana Jones, eight years after her close loss in 2006 and with a stronger and relatively well-funded campaign.
And for a time even many leading Republicans thought she would win this time, because the Republican primary narrowly yielded a win by Sharri Ybarra, a Mountain Home educator who was much the least-well-known; she barely campaigned, raised little money and was hardly known outside Mountain Home. (None of the candidates were well known, and Ybarra may have benefited by being the sole woman in a four-candidate race.) Jones appeared well-positioned to win, and hints spread that a number of key Republicans – even including Luna – thought Jones that might be the result.
She came close, taking 49.4% of the vote (211,483); Ybarra won by about 5,600 votes.
Jones’ vote of 211,483, then, may have represented the peak a Democrat could get in a low-turnout general election in Idaho.
The number of registered voters in Idaho in 2014 rose to 793,709, and ballots cast were 445,307 – just 56.1%, lower than the unusually low turnout in 1990.
Notice something else about Jones’ vote total? It was just slightly less than Cecil Andrus’ vote total in his 1990 landslide win.
You wonder: What would have happened if the numbers had risen to historic norms?
Paranoia in the heartland
An unusual thing happened in 2014: Idaho saw a bitterly-fought election between two distinctly aligned factions up and down the ballot, from major offices to precinct levels. The combatants were not Republicans and Democrats, however; the contest happened in the primary, and the contestants were Republicans.
There were established-backed, usually incumbent, Republicans running for most of these offices: Mike Simpson at the 2nd congressional district, Otter for governor, Brad Little for lieutenant governor, Lawrence Wasden for attorney general, among others. By and large, they saw conservatism largely as a matter of keeping taxes, budgets and regulations relatively low and under control, with some concern here and there about social issues. As a group, they and their close associates had been in charge in Idaho for a long time, and saw no need to head in a drastically different direction.
Their opposition included candidates like Bryan D. Smith for the 2nd district House seat, Russell Fulcher for governor (focusing on Otter’s support of an Idaho health care marketplace), Jim Chmelik for lieutenant governor (focusing on lands issues), Chris Troupis for attorney general and others. Their collective tone and approach was a lot different, indeed precisely opposite: That the establishment Republicans were hardly better than Democrats, that they were buying into such efforts as the Affordable Care Act, that Idaho needed major changing and its establishment should be tossed out.
In one news story, Otter – as he campaigned in Meridian – mused, “Did I ever believe in my life somebody would run at me from the right? No, I didn’t.”
Neither, probably, did many other people. But, more or less, that is what was happening in 2014.
Idaho had come a long way from 1990, and the decades before.
The 2014 primary election handed the establishment side a decisive win – Simpson, Otter, Little and Wasden all won by large margins – and, predictably, they all went on to big general election wins in the fall.
The establishment side won up and down the ballot. It won in the occasional legislative races where the slates were conflict. It mostly won as well in the scattered battles for precinct committee seats.
But that did not end the conflict.
The party convention held in June a month after the primary devolved into a shouting match, its delegates still deeply upset by the primary election votes, adjourning after finding itself unable either to elect a new party chair or adopt a platform. (After extended negotiations, it did those things later that summer.)
Republicans had been divided before, but there was a new tenor this time. It was not merely a matter of policy disagreement – there wasn’t a lot of that anyway – but more a matter of fundamental world view. A few more or less establishment politicians, notably Representative Raul Labrador and (after 2014) Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, seemed to be able to speak to it.
Mainly, however, this new group thrived on its outsider status.
It was not urban, at least not mainly: It did especially well in some of the Ada County suburbs, in suburban Kootenai County and in a number of scattered rural areas around the state.
It may – just may – have marked something new in Idaho politics.
Change of some sort may be ahead, if only as a generational matter. The old guard manning the fort – Otter, Crapo, Risch, Simpson, Little, and others – are into Social Security territory, some well past any normal retirement age. Not many more offices or terms are in their futures.
And then? Who will be their successors? Will the hungry agitators of 2014 seize power – and if they do, how will they manage in a way that satisfies both their supporters and the bulk of the Republican Party? In 2015, the Republican civil war has cooled and the overt conflict eased, but the odds are against it having simply gone away. The basic elements underlying the conflict are too real for that.
Change of some sort is in the offing, and might that offer an opening to the long-suffering Idaho Democrats? Or might those Democrats develop a path toward at least more competitive elections in more places?
Did I say Idaho politics has changed hardly at all in the last 20 years? I did, and it’s largely, and shockingly, true.
But nothing and no one stands still forever. Idaho’s population continues to change, in its ethnic base (a rapidly-growing Latino sector), its religious base (the church picture is evolving into different patterns than the state saw in the 90s), its communications systems (the broadcast and other networks that have had such sway in recent years may have less in the evolving Internet) and in other ways. Idaho is becoming more urban: It is approaching the point when half of its population will live in the Boise metro area, and a big chunk of the rest will fall within Spokane’s. That will affect how people process information, and how they vote.
This stage of Idaho politics, from the 90s into the teens, has been clearly distinctive from the decades that came before. How distinctive will it be from whatever comes next?
Thank you for reading this book. If you enjoyed it, won’t you take a moment to
leave me a review at your favorite retailer?
About the author
RANDY STAPILUS is editor and publisher of Ridenbaugh Press, and has written a number of books about Idaho, including Paradox Politics, the Idaho 100 (with Martin Peterson), Governing Idaho (with James Weatherby) and the Idaho Political Field Guide; the most recent before this book was 100 Influential Idahoans 2015. He worked for newspapers in Boise, Pocatello, Nampa, Lewiston and Coeur d’Alene, and his weekly column on Idaho politics runs in several Idaho newspapers. After living in Idaho for about 30 years, he and his wife Linda now live in Carlton, Oregon.
This book is a followup on , the book I published about Idaho politics back in 1988. If you have a copy of that book, great; you may want to consider buying a copy of the second edition, published in 2009; it includes the original text but also some notes reflecting on developments since then. Those notes were only occasional comments, however; this book is intended as the followup.
If you have neither, consider getting the 2009 edition. This book is intended to stand on its own, but it makes the last century or so of Idaho politics a lot more understandable if you read them together.
Other books by Randy Stapilus
Governing Idaho (with James Weatherby)
Idaho 100 (with Martin Peterson)
It Happened in Idaho
New Editions (with Steve Bagwell)
Idaho Political Field Guide
Oregon Political Field Guide
100 Influential Idahoans 2015
Connect with Randy Stapilus
Follow me on Twitter:
Friend me on Facebook:
Subscribe to my blog: http://
Favorite me at Smashwords:
NEXT UP: Crossing the Snake
Scheduled for publication in September 2015, Crossing the Snake will add another dimension to your sense of what’s going on in Idaho. Randy Stapilus, the author of Paradox Politics and The Stuck Pendulum, has been writing columns for the last decade and more, and the best of them are collected here. It will be available soon at your favorite retailer in print and ebook.
Send a mail to [email protected] with “crossing” in the subject line, and we’ll let you know as soon as it’s out.