Idaho voters will find something new today if they make the effort to get to their neighborhood polling place and it’s going to be very interesting to see whether they like declaring their party affiliation in order to vote. Here’s betting a number of us will feel just a little less comfortable in the privacy of the polling booth today than we did the last time we did our civic duty.
The most conservative elements in the Idaho Republican Party have been hankering for this change for a long time. The party may come to beware of what it wished for. Idaho’s impeccably fair Secretary of State, Ben Ysursa, is predicting a 23% voter turnout today; a dismal number if true that could permit a tiny sliver of the population to define the Idaho GOP for years to come. As has been the case for most of the last 20 years, Idaho Democrats are largely an afterthought. They feature a handful of contested elections for the state legislature, but most of the action will be on the GOP side of the ballot.
“This is the meanest dang campaign I ever saw,” Sen. Denton Darrington, a southern Idaho Republican told the Associated Press. Darrington is retiring after 30 years in the Senate rather than face a fellow Republican in a primary caused by a re-worked legislative district. “It’s the strangest, weirdest political season I’ve ever seen, and that’s a lot of years.”
I’ll be watching for trends in the Republican primaries in far northern Idaho, Canyon County and the Magic Valley where generally more middle-of-the-road incumbents are being challenged from the right. Several of these races have featured what feels like genuinely unprecedented levels of third-party, independent expenditures, a trend across the country that has finally come to Idaho in a big way. There have also been a number of last minute reports of confusing, or perhaps deceptive, mailings, endorsements, etc.
This has been a primary largely devoid of issues with most of the back-and-forth centering on who is the more reliable Republican conservative. Strangely missing – and this is true for Democrats as well as Republicans – has been much if any talk about the broad future direction of the state, job growth, expansion of the economy or education. This election has been fought, I suspect quite unsatisfactorily for all but the most partisan Idahoans, in the deep trenches of ideology.
One great irony of this new, closed primary environment is that the desire to limit participation in the GOP primary to the hardcore Republicans flies in the face of the historic success the party has long enjoyed. Generally speaking if you look closely at the election results in major races over the last 30 years, you’ll find that the larger the turnout the better Republicans do. One dirty little secret of the success Democrats enjoyed in controlling the Idaho governor’s office from 1970 to 1995 was that none of those winning elections for Democrats occurred in a presidential election year when turnout tends to be the highest. The only times Democrats have been successful on a statewide of congressional district basis over three decades or more is when they have faced damaged Republican incumbents, been successful in identifying and appealing to disaffected GOP voters and then hoping a lot of folks stay home on election day. A low turnout favors a Democrat in Idaho. Republicans, by closing their primary, have potentially begun to squander the broad numbers advantage they have enjoyed for years.
Dominate political organizations don’t always handle success very well for the long term. They overreach tending eventually to focus on the comfort of ideology rather than the hard work of ideas that relate to how the broad electorate lives and works. Democrats, of course, or even a third-way movement that the state may be more and more ready to embrace, has to show some gumption if a reasonably alternative is to be offered. But this much is true: the ruling GOP club is going to be smaller tomorrow than it is today. We’ll see if that is good for the GOP brand in Idaho for the next generation or whether today’s election marks a point where the long arc of partisan politics finally starts to bend in a new direction.