Egan, Idaho Politics

A New Game

voteParty Registration Comes to Idaho

Idaho’s most conservative Republicans got what they long wanted yesterday with the decision by U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill throwing out the state’s open primary law. We’ll see if this important decision becomes the political equivalent of the dog catching the car.

It would seem that the immediate impact, as some Republicans exalted over “Democrats no longer picking our candidates,” would be to shift the already very conservative Idaho GOP even further to the right. The after thought Idaho Democrats are left to lament shutting people out of the system. Maybe.

But, if Democrats were to pick themselves up off the canvas and seize Winmill’s ruling as the opportunity it could prove to be, it just might turn out to be the spark that lets the long-suffering party get back in the game.

In politics you can often define opportunity as the moment circumstances collide with timing. The circumstances are the issues mix in Idaho right now – faltering funding for education and a still limping economy – the timing is reflected by the stark reality that Idaho Democrats need a new organizing principle and new blood; energy and ideas to jump start a political recovery. Scrambling the primary process, requiring party registration could be a very big deal.

The current Idaho legislature will end sometime this spring likely having left many, if not most, Idahoans wondering just what happened to education. Expect more Statehouse demonstrations and perhaps even a teacher walkout in coming days focused on defining the education issue to the detriment of the majority party. If Democrats were smart they’d be in the streets collecting names and e-mail addresses of these motivated, mostly younger Idahoans.

(One wag noted the irony in proposing that Idaho students become more comfortable with on-line course offerings, while the kids are organizing on Facebook.)

The recent Boise State University poll says 37 percent of Idahoans now identify themselves as “independents,” only 21 admit to being Democrats, while 33 say they align with the GOP. In the BSU surveys, the numbers of self-described Republicans has been in steady decline. By the same token, in a new closed primary those “independents” are, at least theoretically, up for grabs and for the first time in 2012 primary voters will have to be identified by a party label.

The Republicans in Idaho have long had the money, organization and hearts and minds of, at least, a plurality of Idaho voters. But this is also true: the most faithful adherents in each party are the “true believers” of the increasingly farther right and left. These folks volunteer at the precinct level, they attend the party conventions, they vote in primaries and, at least in the GOP, some of them pushed for a closed primary. The true believers also tend to push the parties to the extremes, which is why you see GOP proposals to nullify health care legislation and repeal the 17th amendment to the Constitution.

Most Idaho Republican officeholders no longer fear a challenge from a Democrat. They only worry about an assault from the right. This unrelenting ever more conservative push tends to diminish the already shrinking center were more Idahoans, if you believe the BSU poll, say they are more at home.

Democrats should look deeply into the impact of Judge Winmill’s decision. It just might contain the fragile threads of a return to viability. Viability will, however, require a new strategy, true centrist policies, messages and candidates and a very big dose of luck. Democrats, of course, need to supply most of that. Ironically, a federal judge may have given the Idaho GOP the thing it says it wants, but also the lucky break Idaho Democrats need.