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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Political Lessons


The lasting image – unfortunately – from the recent Idaho primary election will be the two guys, the biker and the curmudgeon,  who hijacked the one and only debate among the Republican candidates for governor.

As my friend Marty Peterson has pointed out fringe candidates Harley Brown and Walt Bayes secured their 15 minutes of fame during the bizarre debate, including cameos on The Today Show and Colbert, and the world had a good laugh at Idaho’s expense. The real lesson from the silly spectacle should be, as Marty sensibly suggests, a better procedure to qualify candidates for the Idaho ballot. We’ll see if a future legislature can get itself to sensible on that issue, but in the meantime there are, I think, three other big lessons from the recent election marked by a paltry turnout of less than 25 percent.

The Most Conservative Candidate Wins…

Lesson one, and this has often historically been the case in Idaho, in a multi-candidate GOP primary the most conservative candidate has a very great chance to prevail. One-on-one Congressman Mike Simpson wiped out his more right wing challenger and Gov. Butch Otter much more narrowly prevailed over his one legitimate, and more conservative, opponent. The same dynamic prevailed in two person races for lieutenant governor and attorney general, but in the Secretary of State primary the candidate positioned to the far right in a four-person race, former House Speaker Lawrence Denney, won with less than 40 percent of the primary vote.

The GOP race for State Superintendent of Public Instruction is an outlier with a self-professed “non-political” candidate apparently winning mostly because she hardly campaigned and has a sort of Basque sounding last name.

The further lesson here is for Idaho Republicans and their continuing stranglehold on the state’s politics. As a new generation of politically ambitious Republicans jockey for position you might expect even more of these multi-candidate GOP primaries with the smart money placed on the candidate who can position the farthest to the right. At the same time, just ask Gov. Otter, there is a danger over the long run in the party producing general election candidates who give a centrist Democrat a shot at victory.

Butch Otter well remembers his first run for governor in 1978 when he competed in a six candidate field that produced a GOP nominee, then-House Speaker Allan Larsen of Blackfoot, who simply could not win statewide against Democratic Gov. John Evans. Larsen won that long-ago primary with only 28.7 percent of the vote. Otter finished third with 26 percent. Don’t believe the old saw that primaries make for stronger candidates. The lesson in Idaho has more often been that such contests tend to produce weak Republican general election candidates.

Otter must be thanking his lucky stars that he didn’t have another “respectable” opponent in the recent primary. Imagine the outcome if a Twin Falls or Idaho Falls Republican, perhaps an incumbent legislator, had run for governor and eaten into Otter’s barely 51 percent majority?

Democrats Get A Chance When the GOP Misfires…

Lesson two follows from lesson one. The near total history of Democratic success in Idaho, dating back to at least Frank Church’s first election in 1956, has its foundation in Republican mistakes. Church got his chance when Republican Sen. Herman Welker proved to be an embarrassment by virtue of some of his antics and his close relationship with the controversial senator from Wisconsin Joe McCarthy. Church presented a fresh, young face, took the fight to the incumbent and won. He stayed in the U.S. Senate for 24 years.

Cecil Andrus, my old boss, got his chance in 1970 when Republican Gov. Don Samuelson proved he wasn’t up to the job after a lackluster term. Andrus parlayed that chance into four terms spread over three decades. As noted John Evans won two terms by first defeating a weak Republican candidate in 1978. Richard Stallings won a Congressional seat in 1984 by defeating, oh so narrowly, a Republican, George Hansen, who was a convicted felon and had been censured by Congress. More recently Walt Minnick grabbed his one term in the House against an inept and embarrassing Republican Bill Sali how proved he wasn’t up to the job.

To me the lesson is clear: Democrats in Idaho often only get a chance to shine because the state’s Republicans put forward a weak, flawed or otherwise damaged candidate. The Idaho GOP would appear to have at least three less-than-secure candidates in November – a third term seeking governor badly in need of uniting his splintered party, a secretary of state candidate who couldn’t hold his own leadership position in the state legislature and has been dogged by other controversy, and a candidate for school superintendent who no one seems to know. No predictions, but rather the observation that historically Idaho Democrats need Republicans to misfire if they are to have a chance to win an election. We’ll see if any of the current Democrats are positioned to take advantage of that history lesson.

Democrats Need a New Strategy…

Twenty or more years ago an Idaho Democrat had no chance to win statewide without a very strong showing – or better yet an outright win – in northern Idaho’s Kootenai County. The Coeur d’Alene area routinely sent conservation and education minded Democrats like Art Manley and Mary Lou Reed to the state legislature. No more. Kootenai County is now a hard right enclave where it seems impossible that a Democrat could make a credible effort. Cece Andrus won Kootenai County in every one of his elections from 1970 to 1990 and could count on Coeur d’Alene as part of a solid Democratic base. No more. The same can be said for Sandpoint and even the old Democratic stronghold of Shoshone County.

The old mantra that a Democrat could win just 14 of the state’s 44 counties and still be elected statewide just isn’t true any longer. Threading the political needle for a Democrat is, if not impossible, now a hugely demanding strategic challenge. The question for Idaho Democrats remains how, even as history suggests they might have a few rare opportunities this year, they maximize the votes of women, young people and Hispanics. At the same time they need a smart strategy to attract the increasingly smaller share of the conservative electorate – so called “moderate Republicans” – who may be thinking that the state has gone too far in whacking education spending and lacks a long-term economic development strategy?

If a Democrat wins a statewide race in Idaho anytime soon it will be because they have taken advantage of Republican misfires that produce vulnerable general election candidates and also found a new, 21st Century way to woo new voters who might listen to a fresh message aimed at the center of a right-of-center state. It won’t be easy, but in some respects the GOP has set the table thanks to some of the choices made in the recent primary.

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