Stephen Hartgen 01

Overlooked mostly by the coronavirus pandemic and legislators wrapping up the 2020 session, candidate filings for state legislative offices show a sharp drop in the Democratic Party competition statewide and an upswing in contested races in the May primary election for Republicans.

Across the state, Dems failed to even find candidates for many seats in the House and Senate. Except for current pockets of Democratic voters (Boise North End, Blaine County), Dems couldn’t muster even sacrificial lambs for the mostly GOP feast.

It’s a far cry from the glory days of the 1990s, when Dems held half the Idaho Senate, were more or less competitive in the House and held both the governor’s office in Cecil Andrus and the attorney general, Larry Echo Hawk.

But with Andrus’ retirement and Echo Hawk’s defeat in 1994 to Republican Phil Batt, Democratic strength quickly ebbed. The candidate filings for 2020, more than a quarter-century later, reflect the wipeout that’s occurred in a political generation.

Across the state this spring, Republicans have fielded candidates for 34 of 35 Senate seats and for 67 of the 70 House seats. Democrats filed for only 16 of the 35 Senate seats and only 40 of the 70 House seats, some 20 percent fewer than in 2018.

In Southern Idaho, for example, only two Democrats filed in District 23, and none did in districts 24, 25 or 27, thus leaving a wide swatch of Southern Idaho counties in solid Republican hands. (GOP compilations, 3/16; Sec. of State, candidate filings.)

The same pattern can be seen up North and in Eastern Idaho. Outside of Democratic pockets in Moscow and Pocatello, GOP filing dominance continued everywhere beyond Boise city and Blaine County. In an unstated quid-pro-quo, Dems in Idaho going forward won’t have enough seats to affect policy issues, except to help block arch-right proposals, as they did often this winter.

That may be a useful turn of the times. Governance in Idaho once relied on common ground; the stridency of either the left or the rightists was not traditionally strong. Sure, there were the outliers like Rep. Phil Hart, who mumbled on about North Idaho secession, the evils of the IRS, whatever. 

Although Hart remains an example of extremism, coalition-building has also long been a feature of Idaho politics; now, common-sense may make even more of a comeback. 

If Dems are fading, politics finds a way to fill a competing vacuum. So we see some ultra-right candidates emerge. The good news is that centrist, common-sense Republicans have also lined up to run against arch-right, ideological ones. It’s an opportunity for voters to reject the strident, “monkey wrench gang” of malcontents.

As a “common sense” conservative in my five terms in the House (2008-2018), I frequently witnessed many instances in which the good of the state was argued against by arch-rights advocating bills so draconian they would have seemed to fit well in the Iranian Parliament, and doing so under the guise of personal liberty.

With the primary season coming up, party ayatollahs are once again demanding ideological litmus tests for ideological purity, demanding that candidates identify which planks of the party platform they may disagree with. These results will surely be blasted out on social media (“So and so doesn’t support this or that”) against those who “fail to comply, Comrade” with this latest “diktat.” 

The party platform, by the way, isn’t Holy Writ. It’s now been reduced to a frequently-changed sheaf of polemics, hardly on the level of our state and federal constitutions. Yet, some now want all candidates to adhere to its rightist, shifting wording. It’s changed regularly by rightists who pack the state GOP convention and then select the most extreme ideologues as “leaders.”

These “alts” and their oligarch allies in the so-called Idaho Freedom Foundation, have done the state enormous harm, both internally and in Idaho’s reputation beyond our borders. As different as they are, INL, Clif Bar, Chobani, Micron and HP all have warned about the effects of strident extremism on Idaho’s reputation and longterm economic prospects. (Idaho Press, 3/19.)

If they pay attention, voters in various districts won’t have any difficulty identifying who the candidates are and where they line up. This “shadow government” in Idaho has helped no one except those who prey on the rest.

Getting legislation done is mostly the art of finding common ground, in language and concepts. Extremism on either the right or left usually isn’t very productive for the good of the state, or the nation. That’s why lefty Dems are now an endangered species in Idaho politics; right-wing extremists should be the next rejected, warring tribe.

 

Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee.  Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He is the author of the new book “Tradition & Progress: Southern Idaho’s Growth Since 1990.”  He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.