How our state has swung to the conservative right

Can it swing back?

By Jim Ramsey
Reader Contributor

When we first moved to Idaho in 1971, Cecil Andrus was in his first year as governor. He went on to win three more terms interrupted by a stint as Secretary of the Interior under President Jimmy Carter. Democrats controlled the governorship for 24 years until Republican Phil Batt succeeded Andrus in 1994.

I had bought and was publishing a magazine called The Idaho Fishing & Hunting Guide and, amazingly, Andrus agreed to a one-on-one meeting with me in the governor’s office. And his wife invited my wife, Pat, to a luncheon at the governor’s home because she was a member of the “Newcomers Club.”  I thought,  “What an open and friendly state.”

Frank Church, another Democrat, also served for 24 years as a U.S. Senator, and was chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Affairs committee. One writer covering Church noted that the senator was making a speech in “liberal North Idaho.”

Back when lumber and mining were still providing many jobs in North Idaho and labor unions in both industries were active, their members voted solidly Democratic. Idaho was a well-balanced state politically. But by the 1980s both industries were in decline, and so was union influence. Idaho was becoming a “red” state.

In the 1990s, people started to move to Idaho from Washington and Oregon, but mostly from California when the unflattering term “the Californication of Idaho” was heard (After the Reagan years, California was becoming one of the bluest states in the nation). Idaho’s population grew by 29 percent from 1990-2000, and while some were seeking its unspoiled beauty, “many were conservatives, and they were moving to Idaho where they would feel more comfortable,” according to Jim Weatherby, Boise State University political science professor. This “in-migration” turned the state’s traditionally GOP majority into a “super majority” that has lasted for 20 years.

In 1996, we moved to Sandpoint, embracing the “Long Bridge experience” and encountered our 1st District  congresswoman Helen Chenoweth at a local diner. In full campaign mode, Helen—nicknamed by some as “our lady of perpetual embarrassment”—asked me where I had moved from. When I told her “California,” her eyes lit up and she smiled, saying, “we like you Californians.” I wanted to tell her that I was not the kind of Californian she liked. I was a Democrat.

Even then a Democrat—Sandpoint’s Jim Stoicheff—represented Bonner County’s district in the state legislature, as did Tim Tucker of Porthill. Stoicheff was so popular in Bonner and Boundary counties that “no one opposed him for re-election in the 1990s when District 1 shifted from heavily Democratic to a tossup district,” according to the Spokesman- Review.

Larry LaRocco, a Democrat, had served two terms as 1st District Congressman until the 1994 election. There seemed to be hope for Democrats when Walt Minnick was elected to the seat in 2008 although as a “Blue Dog” he was the only Democrat in the country voting against the 2009 federal stimulus bill.

There was also hope locally in 2006 when Democrat Steve Elgar captured Bonner County’s vote for a District 1 legislature position, only to be defeated as a result of losing Boundary County. But the Tea Party group had taken over the state Republican Party and current 1st District Congressman Raul Labrador was swept into office. He played a key role in the near-shut down of the government and the ouster of the Speaker of the House.

New on the scene is the “Redoubt” movement—a group of survivalists concerned about coming disaster, war or societal breakdown, who have targeted Idaho as a “safe place where like-minded, well-armed conservatives can migrate,” according to Betsy Russell of the Spokesman-Review.

In the most recent election, ultra-conservative Republicans Heather Scott and Sage Dixon have taken over the 1st  district state legislative seats from George Eskridge (the last veteran to serve in the state legislature) and Eric Anderson  (retired). Republican Shawn Keough, the longest-tenured state senator, continues to receive broad-based support by garnering independent votes as well as Republican.

Democrats might have a chance to become more relative, Weatherby feels, if the GOP moves away from right- wing extremism and becomes  more  pragmatic—providing “opportunities for Democrats to enter into coalitions as they once did with a significant center in the GOP.”

Democrats feel they have a real chance locally this year with better-known candidates like Kate McAlister, head of the Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce, Ken Meyers, of Sagle, Jessica Chilcott of Sandpoint and Stephen Howlett, of Bonners Ferry, running for state legislative seats.

And the party feels that issues—such as prioritizing public education, preserving access to public lands, raising the minimum wage and providing better-paying jobs, and providing accessible and affordable health care—will resonate with  independent voters and help elect Democrats to office.

Jim Ramsey is a resident  of the Sandpoint area and  is a former newspaper reporter, U.S. Air Force pilot and was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2004.

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