Robert Saldin is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He teaches political science at the University of Montana and lives in Missoula, Montana, and McCall, Idaho.
By Robert Saldin
When Idaho Republicans are in trouble, you know it could be really bad for the GOP everywhere else. Yet Idaho, the most reliably Republican state in the country, is showing signs of party disarray. This development suggests new opportunities for Democrats throughout the traditionally Republican Mountain West region.
Republicans have long dominated Idaho, which hasn't given its electoral votes to a Democrat running for president since Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide. In 1994, the Democratic Party's lone member of Congress was defeated, its popular four-term governor, Cecil Andrus, retired, and the ensuing 14 years have seen uninterrupted Republican control. That domination includes Idaho's congressional delegation and its statehouse, where GOP governors have presided over massive majorities.
A bitter factional split between moderates and emboldened conservatives within the state's Republican party could help Democrats break the GOP's stranglehold on Idaho's congressional delegation.
Kirk Sullivan, the moderate, two-term Idaho Republican chair, has presided over much of his party's recent golden era. But last month Sullivan's bid for a third term fell short at the state Republican convention. Norm Semanko, a leader of the party's conservative branch, will take over.
The intra-party dispute ostensibly centered on a proposal to limit participation in the GOP primary to registered party members. In reality, this debate was the party's latest episode in an ongoing ideological battle. Sullivan's "big tent" mentality and insistence on maintaining an open primary—thus allowing Democrats and independents the option of helping to choose the party's nominees—was seen as ideological heresy by conservatives.
Sullivan's ouster comes two years after another major victory for the Idaho GOP's conservative bloc: the nomination and election of Semanko ally Bill Sali in Idaho's 1st Congressional District. The conservative wing's darling, Sali defeated several mainstream candidates who split the moderate vote in the Republican primary before winning a relatively narrow—by Idaho standards—5 point victory over Democrat Larry Grant in the general election. Sali is most known for his social conservatism in a state that is traditionally more libertarian than moralistic. Sali made strident speeches as a state legislator—he routinely alleged a link between abortion and breast cancer on the House floor—and he was seen as divisive; House Speaker and fellow Republican Bruce Newcomb publicly remarked that Sali "is just an absolute idiot."
An increasingly right-wing GOP in the Semanko-Sali mold offers Idaho Democrats their best chance to make inroads in nearly 15 years. Compounding Republicans' troubles, the Democratic National Committee, in accordance with chair Howard Dean's "50-state strategy," is pouring money into Idaho. Barack Obama has already struck a chord in the state. He drew a raucous, 13,000-plus early morning crowd in Boise a few days before winning Idaho's nominating contest by a wider margin than in any other state.
The Democrats' best chance for a big win in November is against Sali in the 1st District. While Sali's divisiveness is a major liability, Idaho Democrats boosted their chances further by taking the unusual step of nominating a candidate capable of generating broad appeal. He is Walt Minnick, a businessman and hunter, who has toured the state calling himself a "conservative Democrat" in the Andrus tradition.
In choosing Minnick, Idaho Democrats shrewdly followed the Democratic National Committee's successful 2006 formula for selecting candidates in conservative districts. While he may feel out of place among party activists or ideologues in Aspen or the Berkeley Hills, Minnick is a good ideological fit for the 1st District.
Democrats' brightened prospects in Idaho mirror a regional trend in the once staunchly Republican Mountain West. Recent years have seen Democrats succeed Republican governors in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming. In 2004 and 2006, Democrats also picked up Republican-held Senate seats in Colorado and Montana and are favored to flip two more this November in Colorado and New Mexico. At the presidential level, Obama is competitive in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and possibly Montana—all of which went for Bush in 2004.
In a hostile political environment, the national Republican party has turned towards the center by nominating John McCain. But in Idaho, the state GOP is moving in the other direction. This shift to the right enhances Democratic prospects for winning an Idaho congressional seat for the first time in over a decade, and it's the strongest indication yet of the Mountain West's emerging shade of purple.