Tuesday’s elections revealed two political parties headed in different directions in Idaho.
For the GOP, the sweep of statewide races was a step in healing wounds opened during a contentious summer. But Democrats’ optimism gave way to the stark reality that they continue to struggle for competitiveness in one of the reddest states in the country.
Republican Sherri Ybarra holds a 5,700 vote lead over Democrat Jana Jones in their race for Superintendent of Public Instruction. It turned out to be the only competitive statewide race.
Democrats had been optimistic that self-funded gubernatorial candidate A.J. Balukoff would unseat Republican C.L. “Butch” Otter. The latest unofficial count from the secretary of state’s office shows the incumbent won by 15 points.
The results run counter to recent polls that showed Democrats faring well in several races.
“It sure did seem like in the late parts of the election cycle that the Republican Party did come together and a lot of votes came home,” GOP Chairman Steve Yates says. “What seemed to be pretty tight races became more of a 10-plus percent breakaway in some places. Through the election, I was concerned about the closeness of races.”
Yates was picked in August to help bridge the gap between moderate and conservative Republicans who spent the previous two months bickering.
So does the resounding win mean Idaho’s GOP is fixed? Yates says not necessarily.
“When you’re dealing with party work – and especially a big, super-majority party – you’re always going to have constant gardening,” Yates says. “I think that’s just a fact of life. But I think that the results, hopefully, will serve as somewhat of a salve in that it was a big night to be a Republican.”
For Democrats, the results lead to another election cycle of wound-licking and self-examination. Boise State University political scientist Dr. David Adler says the losses sting more than usual, given the party’s optimism over candidates like Balukoff and secretary of state contender Holli Woodings.
“It’s clear this is a political culture that is going to be very difficult for Democrats to dent without making some wholesale changes,” Adler says. “The reality is it's going to be left to party leaders to redevelop and reformat the position of the Democratic Party on some of these key issues.”
Adler says the election is not a total loss for Democrats. He thinks the party’s push on education issues will result in policy changes in the Republican-led Legislature.
“It’s not a hallow victory,” he says. “If you can shape policy when you’re in the minority party, that’s very significant.”
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