Idaho's Giant Sucking Sound: November '08 

With the primaries a done deal, November's elections start to take shape

The DoubleTree Riverside was turned into a big television set on Tuesday, May 27, complete with Dee Sarton, hot spotlights, two wet bars and a giant sucking sound.

As Republicans arrived to watch primary election returns and declare victory, a hose truck from Roto-Rooter or some other plumbing outfit worked a huge puddle in front of the hotel entrance. The water splashed against the running boards on my VW Golf—clearly not the most sensible rig for the occasion.

The hotel lobby, adorned with Ron Paul signs and some other political signs left over from the 1980s, led around to the side ballroom entrance where candidates without primary opponents mingled, relaxed and gave their buddies odds.

Though not quite as relaxed, and distinctly without buddies, outgoing Idaho Sen. Larry Craig stood by the Channel 7 stage waiting for his live spot with Sarton so he could talk about his book project and how he's been wronged by the media and the blogosphere.

I didn't hear any reporters ask Craig about his men's room sex sting arrest or subsequent guilty plea. Maybe we are all just waiting to read his tell-all book, which hits shelves mid-2009.

Meanwhile, the legislator/lobbyist set hung by the bar, steering clear of the media table. A few Canyon County folks stood around in the center of the room. Some home-schooled girls with modest knit shawls frolicked about, completely unimpressed by the cameras and glaring lights.

With a large number of contested Republican primary races, there was palpable tension among the Ada County Republicans in the room, or between those in the ballroom and those hiding out in their candidate suites.

But at 10:15 p.m., as results were trickling across the screens, First District U.S. Senate candidate and sitting Lt. Gov. Jim Risch deflated much of the tension by declaring victory over seven other GOP contestants and giving a rousing speech about preserving the Bush tax cuts.

Downtown, in a parallel universe that I did not have a chance to visit, Ada County Democrats, who really had no primary contests to celebrate, gathered to eat chocolate fondue and remind each other that this was their year.

Risch's Democratic opponent, Larry LaRocco, told Boise State Radio that fewer people have been identifying themselves as Republicans since 2005.

Democrats who were mad about Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter's Supreme Court appointment and wanted to vote against him, or die-hard Obama/Clinton supporters or those sneaky Democrats who wanted to tilt the Republican ticket may have gone out to vote.

In the rest of Idaho, the primary was just another Tuesday. Only a quarter of registered voters made it to the polls, according to an early estimate by Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, one of the lowest primary turnouts since the 1980s.

By Wednesday morning, it was clear that socially conservative voters in Meridian and anti-tax, anti-urban voters in Eagle were paying attention, despite major growing pains in those Boise suburbs. Ada County Republicans smell an opportunity in southeast Boise's recently Democrat-electing District 18 and possibly in northwest Boise's District 16, where two Democratic incumbents jumped ship this year. The conservative coalition that has made up the Idaho Republican Party since at least the mid-1990s—Reagan Republicans in bed with Christian fundamentalists and sagebrush libertarians—is badly fractured.

Less clear is the effect that John McCain's poor Idaho reception—given 30,000 hard-core Ron Paul fans and Barack Obama's high-profile pre-caucus Idaho visit—will have come November.

Stumping with Bush and McCain

If you ask Jim Risch, the established Idaho GOP machine has nothing to worry about.

"The Republican candidate for president usually runs pretty good in Idaho unless you go back to Lyndon Johnson. And not a lot of people do go back to Lyndon Johnson," Risch said.

As Risch eagerly pointed out, I was not even a figment of my parents' imagination in '64, the last time a Democratic presidential candidate won Idaho (and barely, at that). Had I been around at the time, I sure as hell would not have been wearing a fat tie and handing out Barry Goldwater buttons with him at Moscow's "Harvard of the West."

I might have been wearing dog tags and beating up the student government geeks or maybe hanging out at some groovy hot spring scene somewhere around McCall.

But Risch is hanging his hat on four decades of election data giving Republicans a clear advantage.

The day after the primary, Risch flew to Utah to visit Mitt Romney's Deer Park home. President George W. Bush was there. McCain was not. Risch told me he went down for a chat with Romney and Bush, but there was also a $70,000 per couple fundraiser for McCain going on at the same time.

I could not get an answer from Risch as to the nature/cost of his visit.

Not that it matters much, after his strong primary performance the night prior.

Risch got 80,000 votes in the primary, a 65 percent showing against seven other anti-Risch or anti-Craig candidates.

It's not directly comparable, but only about 43,000 Democrats voted in the primary compared with some 125,000 Republicans based on the presidential tallies. Democrats may have had fewer reasons to vote, including the mock nature of the Democratic presidential ballot (they already picked Obama hands down back in February), but there is a significant participation gap there.

Most, if not all, of the Senate GOP also-rans immediately backed Risch. Neal Thompson, an electrical contractor from McCall, said Risch gave him some avuncular advice to run for the Legislature. Scott Syme, a veteran who made the biggest dent into Risch's decisive victory with 13 percent, would not quite utter the word "Risch," but told me first that he supports the Republican Party and later that he supports the "nominee."

The GOP unity rally on the steps of the Capitol Annex on the morning after the election was a schizophrenic event. It had the same feel as countless Idaho GOP events that I've attended. In 2002, I rode the GOP victory bus through Canyon and Gem counties. It was an old-fashioned whistle-stop tour in which the phalanx of Republican elected officials drove around the state eating at loyal restaurants, holding quick rallies and shaking hands with voters.

Combined with disciplined county party operations and utilitarian fliers prior to Election Day, the Idaho GOP has gotten the vote out year after year.

The morning-after rally had the same kind of feel: Here we are, vote for us.

Yet, there was also a slight depressive pall over the affair. State Republican Chairman Kirk Sullivan, who is facing wads of criticism from the party's more zealous, religious elements, acknowledged the momentum of Idaho Democrats and the Democrat resurgence nationwide and settled for an American Government 101 message instead: The Senate is where Idaho votes on a level playing field with the rest of the nation ... that's why everyone should vote Republican, he explained.

About the same time as the unity rally, Boise theocrat Bryan Fischer withdrew his support for Sullivan as head of party, citing Sullivan's opposition to closed primaries and some type of GOP mischief in the District 21 Legislative primary.

A few days later, over coffee in Hyde Park, Larry LaRocco said the "vote for me, I'm a Republican" tactic may not cut it this time.

"I don't think people are in that kind of mood right now," LaRocco said. "They're in a plate-throwing mood."

LaRocco, who, like Risch, needs a good hat to stand out in this race of short candidates, recalled his successful 1990 campaign for U.S. House against former state legislator (now uber-lobbyist) Skip Smyser. LaRocco says Smyser was measuring drapes and carpets instead of campaigning.

Smyser, who was at the DoubleTree on election night, started making sniveling noises against LaRocco the moment Risch took the podium.

National media look at Bush's 2004 fortunes in Idaho—he took 68 percent to Kerry's 30 percent—as proof that Idaho is safe for Republicans. Risch drops Bush's name, but LaRocco says Bush is in the tank, even in this red state.

"Does anybody want to run with Bush?" he asks.

McCain, who voted against the Bush tax cuts but now says he supports them, is trying to find the right amount of distance to run from Bush.

McCain does not even have an Idaho campaign chairperson yet, though Roy Eiguren, another uber-lobbyist who is a pledged McCain delegate, says there will be a McCain presence here within 30 days.

So where do 400,000 one-time Bush supporters turn in the fall? Many will support McCain. Some turned to Ron Paul, and may move on to Bob Barr, the Libertarian Party presidential pick. Some will go back into the woods and wait patiently for redemption, or 2012, whichever comes first.

But LaRocco says that as a congressman he voted against NAFTA, against the first war in Iraq and for gun rights, and that he may peel off some of Idaho's fringe Republicans.

Risch is not concerned about the third-party factor.

He says Libertarians in Idaho get 3 percent, independent candidates maybe 2.5 percent and multiple third-party candidates could net 5 percent of the statewide vote.

"Most people that go in there are choosing someone to actually govern America," Risch said, adding that third-party voters do not fully understand how politics works.

"You go to vote for a third-party candidate, you're not participating," Risch said.

But don't forget there are two independents and a Libertarian in the Senate race, making it a five-way ballot in November. Each of those candidates—the lanky farmer who changed his name to Pro-Life, large-animal veterinarian/former elk farmer Rex Rammell and Libertarian Kent Marmon—takes away votes from Risch, says College of Idaho political economy professor Jasper LiCalzi.

"Even Pro-Life, he'll rip Risch for not being pro-life enough." LiCalzi said. "Rammell will rip him."

The 30,000 Ron Paul people who voted in the primary are a major unknown. They are attempting to get inside the Idaho Republican Party, but they are unlikely to support John McCain in November.

"McCain is unelectable," says Alanna Grimm, a Hayden homemaker who is state coordinator for the Paul campaign. "If he wins the nomination, he will not win the general. He cannot get the conservative vote, period."

Grimm is not about to vote for Obama either: "If McCain wins the nomination, we've got a Democrat in office."

So who benefits down ticket from the Paul "revolutionaries?" No one knows because they all still think their man is going to make it until November, and they won't talk about any other possibility. But the Paul crowd is not the only wild card in Idaho.

"We're all a bunch of independent cusses," says former Speaker of the House Bruce Newcomb, an Idaho politician who started out in the Democrat camp and rose to prominence as a Republican before taking a safe university job last year.

Idaho's independents lean libertarian, Newcomb says. They believe in less government intrusion and individual freedom, not exactly John McCain conservatives.

"They vote for the person, not the party," he said.

More schizophrenia came out of Idaho's punditocracy, which quickly scolded Rep. Bill Sali for only getting 60 percent in the primary against Matt Salisbury, a political neophyte who barely raised any money.

But Sali thinks his 60 percent was legit, and he expects much of Salisbury's 40 percent to come his way. Sali campaign spokesman Wayne Hoffman said Salisbury supporters, particularly in Canyon County, have already called to voice support for the nominee.

"By anyone's measure, 60 percent is a good solid victory," Hoffman says. "And it's reflective of the support that's been growing for him over the last two years."

At Least One Pundit Agrees.

"I think it shows Sali's not as despised as people think," LiCalzi says, pointing out that Sali was on the fringe two years ago, but has worked hard to gain the acceptance of the party elite.

Sali stood prominently on the stairs at the GOP unity rally, Salisbury by his side, eager to help the nominee plant yard signs.

Still Salisbury and Sali ran neck-and-neck in Canyon County, where most of Salisbury's friends live. Salisbury actually beat Sali in Valley County, but Sali pulled away in Kootenai County.

Sali opponent Walt Minnick, the Democratic businessman who started out working in the Nixon administration, says Sali's poor performance against Salisbury in Canyon County is telling; the Republican primary voters that know him best voted against him in droves.

Minnick is eager to get his chops on Sali and invited the incumbent to a series of town hall meetings across the district, which runs right up the western side of the state.

"We've never approached this campaign thinking it was going to be about Republicans and Democrats," said Minnick spokesman John Foster. "It's no secret that we need people across party lines to vote for Walt Minnick—everyone knows it."

Foster said the Ron Paul factor has more to do with dissatisfaction with Washington than anything else, and that should translate to dissatisfaction with Sali.

God and Country Voter Discipline

The conventional wisdom—that conservatives ruled the day in GOP primaries—belies the actual shifting demographics of western Ada County.

"The demographics of my area have changed a lot, and I think that I really fit the current demographics of Meridian," said soon-to-be former Rep. Mark Snodgrass, a moderate Republican who lost a ballsy bid to become Meridian's state senator.

Snodgrass had the backing of real estate interests and teachers, and thought he had the support of his neighbors. But Sen. Shirley McKague, a longtime Meridian tax-hawk and one-time John Bircher, who Gov. Otter pulled up to the senate last year, drew out the conservative vote.

Some inflammatory independent expenditures by a group calling itself the Free Enterprise PAC didn't hurt. The PAC, run by Larry Knapp, owner of the 3 K ranch in Star, spent some $11,000 against Snodgrass claiming that he raised taxes on Idahoans by the billions. Knapp is currently out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

E-mails circulated accusing Snodgrass of once getting his dog an abortion.

Lobbyist Eiguren, who stood to gain ground in Western Ada on some of the more urban-minded projects he represents, was not surprised at the results.

"I don't see anything in the political dynamic in this state that's going to change the conservative makeup of the Idaho Legislature," Eiguren said.

Roads and transit, local taxing authority and development issues will face the same conservative-minded dynamic in upcoming legislatures, Eiguren said.

"I think it will continue to be a very conservative approach to that," he said.

But that does not mean there is no ideological shift in Meridian and Eagle. It could just mean that the new, moderating suburban voter has not had a candidate to back.

"I kind of liken it to a father who is really, really good in his business ... while at home his family is saying we need some time and we need some help here," said Nancy Merrill, another moderate Republican who lost a not-as-ballsy write-in run at House Majority Leader Mike Moyle.

To understand the appeal of a country boy Moyle or church lady McKague in Idaho's urban/suburban frontier, it is helpful to drive west, then north and circle back down on the Boise valley.

The weekend before the election, I took my older daughter out to Fruitland to buy some trees. As we sped through Canyon County, I pointed out the landmarks: the Idaho Center, the giant digital Jesus reader board at the edge of Nampa, the sugar factory, the indoor tennis court church in Caldwell.

And then we were in Legislative District 9, Lawerence Denney country. At one time, Larry Craig country. So close to Oregon, yet so far away.

The highways were lined with signs for Judy Boyle, a longtime ranching apologist who advised the late Helen Chenoweth on natural resource issues. Boyle would beat Otter-appointee Diana Thomas in a few days (no love lost there; in her fervor to ingratiate herself with House leadership, Thomas kicked me out of a Republican fundraiser at the end of this year's legislative session).

Anyway, we got pretty hungry after loading the Golf up with fruit trees, so we headed up to Payette for a grilled cheese. We found the restaurant with the most cars parked outside, walked in and nearly every table was full, which would normally be a good sign.

Except in this case, people were smoking at every table, in apparent violation of Idaho's 2004 smoking ban.

We ate quickly and took the scenic route back, through Pro-Life country. As in, the man named Pro-Life, not the position. Pro-Life, aka Marvin Richardson, is an organic strawberry farmer in the little village of Letha, along State Highway 52, on the southern banks of the Payette River. I should have stopped to say hi, but my fruit trees were starting to wilt.

The route winds through Emmett, which has two reasonable representatives in Sen. Brad Little and Rep. Carlos Bilbao, who brags of xeriscaping his lawn and at least wrestles with issues before making up his mind.

But it's also the district that re-elected Steven Thayn, one of the Legislature's sharpest one-track minds. Thayn has a family-values approach to nearly every single issue (nursing shortage, wolves, etc ...) Thayn was almost knocked off by Canyon County Commissioner Matt Beebe, a red-faced GOP stalwart who made some racist comments to the Idaho Press-Tribune editorial board, but nonetheless has a firm grasp on transportation and maybe growth issues facing Canyon County.

Then you climb Freezeout Hill and descend back into Ada County from the countryside.

This is five-term Rep. Mike Moyle's view of the Treasure Valley, though that view is quickly changing. A decade ago, Moyle posed with a tractor on his campaign brochures, and while his campaign motif is still Western-themed, he now looks out on a sea of subdivisions across the road from his house.

"There's a transition going on out here," Moyle acknowledges. But he says all the new people like the old ways, a trend that's reflected in his current campaign materials.

"[On] some of my stuff you'll see wheat fields, ranchettes and the capitol," Moyle shouted into his cell phone as he drove a tractor across a cornfield.

But it's not all country fun. Moyle heads into downtown Eagle twice a week for coffee at Rembrandt's, the cavernous, looks-like-Flying-M-but-feels-like-Starbucks cafe or to meet with business owners and his citified friends.

Moyle beat back a last-ditch write-in campaign by former Eagle Mayor Merrill. But Merrill got some 1,850 people to actually write her name down on the ballot.

"I hope that Mike is reaching out to those that supported me, to those that have said we need his ear and we need his help," she said.

While the Republican primary is a test of who cares more about dog fetuses and low, low taxes, the real test in Meridian and Eagle will be in November. It does not really matter if Democrats Ryndy Williams in Meridian and Michelle Waddell in Eagle actually beat McKague and Moyle—chances are they won't come close this time around. But if folks out there are really more concerned about Snodgrass' dog than traffic, then November will give us some measure of the real West Ada demographic shift.

Watch How It Went in Boise

The shifting sands of Meridian and Eagle have played out on Boise's outskirts in recent years, as Democrats have long solidified District 19, the North End, taken 16, then 17, and most recently 18.

But Republicans are not conceding districts 16 and 18 yet.

Two years ago, Rep. Phyllis King, a Democrat, beat former Rep. Julie Ellsworth by nearly 700 votes in District 18, spanning southeast Boise. Both Sali and Risch represented this district as recently as 2002.

"It's always a challenge to keep the state blended rather than balkanized," said Idaho GOP executive director Sid Smith.

Smith acknowledged that Boise districts 16 and 18 are key down-ticket races for Idaho Republicans this year and said they would not want to see Ada County become like King County, the Democratic stronghold around Seattle that controls Washington State politics. Or Portland.

In that vein, Ellsworth is back, after a brief, controversial foray into lobbying, and thinks that District 18 Rep. Branden Durst is vulnerable. She fought off a primary challenge from Gail Hartnett, a more moderate Republican voice who had the backing of the deep-pocketed realtors' association.

But Ellsworth had name recognition—she repped the district for a decade before losing in '06—and Knapp's Free Enterprise PAC helped her out as well.

Ellsworth says she represents the conservative values of her district and has the votes to win in November.

"I think they're very concerned about the economy, they're concerned about how taxes impact themselves and businesses ... they're concerned about education, always have been ... and they're very concerned about safety in the communities," Ellsworth said on election night.

Durst, who has cultivated his own unique politics for southeast Boise—pro-life Dem, milk fan, day-care standards, local option taxes—likes the challenge.

"The Republican establishment goes after you when you do something right," Durst said.

Durst was not sure which opponent he would have preferred to face in November, but Ellsworth may give him a better opportunity to keep his seat.

"I'm happy to grant the right to Julie where she's conceded the middle," Durst said.

Two-term Sen. Kate Kelly, also from 18, faces a similarly conservative and potentially well-funded opponent in Dean Sorensen, whose wife Sheila Sorensen held the seat for one term after Risch vacated the state Senate in 2002 to run for lieutenant governor.

District 18 Rep. King will face Becky Young in November, but King has put in a lot of time over the course of a six years getting to know her constituents. It took her three tries to build enough of a base to unseat Ellsworth.

District 16, where Sen. David Langhorst is leaving the Legislature to run for Ada County commissioner and Rep. Margaret Henbest is taking a political sabbatical after six terms, is considered safer for Democrats, but virgin Democratic candidates in both of those races are giving Republican challengers a shot in the arm.

"Anytime you have an open seat"—except maybe District 19—"in any district, there's going to be a risk that you have a turnover," Henbest told me.

District 16 is full of independent, pick-the-person-not-the-party voters but has trended Democrat in recent years.

One House race in 16 pits Garden City city councilor Elfreda Higgins against Elizabeth Allan Hodge, a Ron Paul Republican who may appeal to some of the district's indy streak. The other race pits Democratic Party insider Grant Burgoyne against Joan Cloonan, a Department of Environmental Quality board member who will surely get the support of Idaho's captains of industry.

Ironically, some of the disarray among state Republicans could play out in the District 16 Senate race where Democratic Rep. Les Bock will face Christ Troupis, the Boise attorney who is leading the legal fight against the Idaho GOP to close primaries.

Whether or not the flood in the parking lot at the GOP victory party on Idaho primary night was coincidence, Idaho politics—what longtime analyst Randy Stapilus once called "paradox politic"—are in flux again.

Is there a giant sucking sound coming from the Idaho GOP machine or are Idaho Democrats just chasing the tail of 600 Idaho potato-scrap and horse-meat fed greased hogs?

We won't know the answer to that until well after November. When we get our hands on Larry Craig's book.

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