Southern Idaho politics reflect common-sense conservatism

Stephen Hartgen 01Recent articles on Idaho politics have reported on the apparent alignment of several elected officials with fringe and right-wing splinter groups in Idaho’s political spectrum. But mostly, the politicians involved aren’t from the Southern Idaho region.

Why is that? What is there about the politics of the Magic Valley which rejects the extremism found in the politics of some other corners of the state? Why don’t the UN-bashing, pension-dismantling, schools-cutting, marijuana-promoting, gold-speculating, debt-collector/pocket lining protection folks get better traction in the Magic Valley?

It’s widely known that Idaho is a diverse state politically, that some parts of Idaho are, well, different when it comes to political extremism on the right. Those are widely pinpointed in the press as somehow symbolic of the state as a whole, thus giving us a poor national reputation as an outpost for tin hats. Negative images are hard to shake, as every sly media promoter of them knows.    

So, what’s different in Southern Idaho that such tangent opinions and “in the weeds” thinking don’t have wider resonance here? Here’s several factors which may underpin Southern Idaho’s conservative pragmatism:

One, Southern Idaho’s agricultural roots and economy; farmers don’t generally go for ideological extremes. They’re too busy all year round to spend much time in ideological disputations. “Government tyranny? Yea, well, you guys keep yackin.’ I’ve got water to set, cows to milk.” 

Two, Southern Idaho shows broad private ownership of smaller land parcels rather than huge federal tracts of land. Parcels of 160-acres, 320-acres are common in a farming region characterized by an egalitarian social and ownership profile. No big timber companies or big national forests. No really big landowners to rail against.  

Three, the region has a large and widely-dispersed population who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and, with that, a tradition of cooperation and mutual help; LDS wards are established by geographic location, so Mormons and non-Mormons alike live near each other, thus creating broad mutual community tolerance. It’s hard to fight the neighbor you know. Here, people are generally pretty civil to each other.

We once had a North Idaho journalist say that his part of Idaho was a “state of mind” but that Southern Idaho was a “mindless state,” referring to religious faiths here. He didn’t mean it as a compliment.

Four, a milder climate in Southern Idaho makes for easier travel throughout the year, resulting in less isolation and less leave-me-alone solitude. Don’t have to spend the winter holed up in a freezin’ cabin, plowin’ snow, haulin’ wood and snarlin’ about the evil feds and public lands.  

Five, perhaps there’s just more of an inclination among people here to work together for common social endeavors, including schools, transportation and municipal services, rather than engage in ongoing suspicion. We look generally for local solutions to real-world issues.

Six, maybe it’s as simple as the weather. Southern Idaho has sunny, clear days more than 320 days a year; nothing beats a day beginning with brilliant sunshine to lift one’s spirits. There’s little of the ongoing darkness, fog, drizzle, freezing rain and snow with which others contend. Many a Southern Idaho student attending college “up North” has remarked on how night sets in, day after day, by late afternoon. Pretty depressing.

Other regions may be where people ponder, fumigate and dispute many things governmental. In doing so, there’s lots of faults to be found, always are. Some of these shortcomings are real, but some are imaginary, just figments of the idle mind, filled with demons. 

But for Southern Idahoans, Idaho is a rich, bountiful land with a representative government second to none, in a nation of free men and women. Nullification and generalized fed-bashing have little traction here. 

“What’s different here?,” I asked recently-retired Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, who served three decades in the Idaho House representing rural Magic Valley communities as part of a new book on Southern Idaho’s growth I’m completing for Ridenbaugh Press (Tradition & Progress: Southern Idaho’s Growth Since 1990).

She thinks it’s because Southern Idaho elected officials all maintain strong connections to their local communities. The areas they represent are more compact, accessible and the individuals have often served in other wide community roles. That gives them good “antennae” as to their constituents’ common-sense concerns and practical solutions to governance issues.

In short, there’s too much work to be done here, whether it’s in farming or community building, for ideological tangents to gain much traction. No time to rail about the far-away “federales,” or the perceived heavy-handedness of Boise. Here, we love our state, country, nation, republic as well as our local communities.

Sure, there are complaints, but overall, people seem generally satisfied with their Magic Valley lives. The area resonates with economic activity and progress. Folks are too busy “makin hay” to worry about the occasional anti-government raindrops. 

Thus, when Southern Idaho voters go to the polls, they usually don’t pick vocal, angry, rhetoric-driven candidates. We can see the picks-and-choices in the election returns for the 2018 Republican primary. In the governor’s primary race, Republican voters in all eight Magic Valley counties went decisively for common-sense conservative Lt. Gov. Brad Little or, in one county, narrowly for Mormon businessman Tommy Ahlquist. Candidate Raul Labrador, running on a fiery, anti-government, “drain-the-swamp-in-Boise” campaign, trailed in every Magic Valley county, often a distant third. His de facto running mate, Janice McGeachin, didn’t carry a single Magic Valley county either in the primary.

What’s to drain, people here asked? What’s upside down? Things seem pretty good to us. No time, as the old song goes, to feel sorry for ourselves, eat some worms and die. 

The Southern Idaho region has a long history of common-sense, practical and optimistic conservatism from which it rarely tracks very far. Doom-and-gloom, alt-right candidates here are just sound and fury. How, people ask intuitively, is this fiery rhetoric going to improve Idaho? Can’t answer that.  

The winning messages in the Southern Valley GOP ranks aren’t the burn-government-down cries of ideological extremist blogs, but rather, what can we do to make life better, our schools more successful, our highways improved for commerce, our economies humming, our faiths strong, our social networks strengthened.

The successful message for Magic Valley Republicans is of improving the representative republic we have and share. Build-up. Don’t tear down. Sew, don’t rend. Use common sense. Don’t be swayed by tangents. Elected officials here get returned here term after term because they’re positive, leaders to whom the glass is half-full, not half-empty. And proudly so. Now that’s common-sense conservatism.


Stephen Hartgen is a retired five-term Republican legislator in the Idaho House of Representatives from Twin Falls. He is the former editor/publisher of The Time-News (1982-2005) and a member of the Idaho Capitol Commission, which restored Idaho’s premier public building. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..