How Idaho Became A One Party State

May 13, 2014

Credit Emilie Ritter Saunders / Boise State Public Radio

Whenever people talk about Idaho politics, chances are someone will say something like “Idaho is one of the reddest, if not the reddest state in the country.” Republicans have been the majority party for most of the state’s history, but until relatively recently, Democrats were also very competitive.

To find out how Idaho became a one party state, take this stroll down the historic road to red.

Idaho’s First 100 Years of Party Politics

Idaho’s first decade of statehood resembled a wild-west, multi-party shootout where no one had a clear majority. In the early 20th century the pattern that would become the norm was established; Republicans on top and Democrats giving them a run for their money.

Democrats gained the upper hand occasionally. They dominated during the Depression. In 1959-60 Democrats controlled the state House and Senate. They haven’t controlled either since, but they remained competitive.

In fact Idahoans earned a reputation for splitting tickets, voting for Republicans and Democrats on the same ballot. In the 70s things got tougher for Idaho Democrats. They lost one of their key allies. Members of the Mormon church left in droves after the national party embraced a host of liberal social issues like feminism and abortion rights.

Unions were also essential for Idaho Democrats to win. For much of the state’s history they were powerful thanks to the mining and timber industries. By the 80s those industries were on the decline and so was union influence.

Idahoans continued to split tickets and Democrats hung onto the governor’s office and other important elected positions, but for most of the decade of big hair, the momentum was Republican.

The Democratic Surge

Idaho's 1991-1992 Senate had 21 Republicans and 21 Democrats. Republican Lt. Governor/Senate President C.L. "Butch" Otter was the tie breaking vote.
Idaho's 1991-1992 Senate had 21 Republicans and 21 Democrats. Republican Lt. Governor/Senate President C.L. "Butch" Otter was the tie breaking vote.
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

In 1988, Democrats suddenly gained ground at the polls. They did even better in 1990 winning half the seats in the state Senate, both seats in Congress and three of seven statewide offices.

Political scientist Jim Weatherby says that Democratic success came as Republicans were divided. Some in the GOP were trying to push a hard-line social conservatism that was not playing well with voters. And Democrats also had a powerful weapon.

“You have to mix with those election results the personal popularity of Cecil Andrus and the coat-tail effect of his landslide,” Weatherby says.

In 1990 Andrus was elected to his fourth term as governor, a remarkable feat not even a Republican has been able to accomplish.  

The Republican Rebound

Idaho Republicans knew they had to get their house in order. The person they chose to do that was former Lieutenant Governor Phil Batt. Batt became party chair in 1992 and is widely credited with uniting members behind a back-to-basics message and making the party more organized. Jeff Malmen was his executive director. 

“The process kind of relied on his credibility,” Malmen says. “Without him it would have been a hard if not impossible task to pull off.”

Marty Peterson was a longtime Democratic operative and worked in Cecil Andrus’s administration in the late 80s. He says the party strategy focused on Andrus’s popularity and that hurt overall organization.  

“There really wasn’t that effort to keep the party bolstered. As a result, I think things started slipping,” Peterson says.

Andrus choose to retire instead of running for a fifth term. Batt surprised many when he won the 1994 governor’s race. Republicans also won back both seats in the U.S. Congress. By 1996, democrats made up about 20 percent of both houses of the Legislature. From their high water mark just six years earlier, Idaho Democrats had fallen to an historic low. They haven’t recovered. 

The Big Picture

The Republican rebound wasn’t just about party organization or who was running. External factors were a big part of it. For example, nationally, Democrats had embraced the environmental movement. Marty Peterson says that alienated a lot of Idaho’s remaining lunch-bucket Democrats.

“People working in the mill in Lewiston that had traditionally been Democrats felt their jobs were being threatened with reduced timber cuts,” Peterson says. “People in the Clearwater Valley did not like the fact that there were folks in southern Idaho calling for the breaching of the dams on the lower Snake.”

You can still buy this bumper sticker at zazzle.com
You can still buy this bumper sticker at zazzle.com
Credit zazzle.com

The Californication of Idaho

Perhaps the most important factor in the Republicanization of Idaho took a lot of people by surprise. In the early 90s people started to move to Idaho from places like Washington, Oregon and especially California. Idaho grew by an unprecedented 28.5 percent between 1990 and 2000. Many conservatives were worried this influx was bringing west coast liberalism to Idaho. Bumper stickers with slogans like “Welcome to Idaho, now go home” and “Don’t Californicate Idaho” started popping up next to Idaho’s new centennial license plates. Jeff Malmen says Republicans had good reason for concern.

“The speculation amongst the columnists and political reporters and everybody else was that this will be a big change that will help Democrats.”

Jim Weatherby says the in-migration ended up having the opposite effect.   

“People were moving into Idaho more for cultural reasons than for economic reasons,” Weatherby says. “And they were seeking their own kind. They were conservatives moving to Idaho where they’d feel more comfortable.”

Weatherby says many of them were more conservative than old-guard Idaho Republicans. This in-migration turned the state’s traditional Republican majority into a super majority that so far has lasted for 20 years.

The Future

Jim Weatherby doesn’t foresee a big Democratic surge in the near future. But, he says they might have a chance to become more relevant.  He says maybe the Republican pendulum is beginning to swing back toward the middle.

“I could see the Republican Party moving away from the right-wing extreme and becoming a bit more pragmatic,” Weatherby says. “And in that case I see opportunities for the Democrats to enter into coalitions, as they once did, with a significant center in the Republican Party.”

Copyright 2014 Boise State Public Radio