Analysis: Breaking down another red election night in Idaho

It wasn’t a red wave election in Idaho. It was a routine, red election in Idaho.

Despite public infighting that played out up and down the ticket, Idaho Republicans did what Idaho Republicans usually do on early November Tuesday in even-numbered years. They won, with little suspense.

But that doesn’t mean it was a dull election. Let’s break things down.

Governor. A clear victory but a messy verdict.

Incumbent Brad Little sat at 60.5% Wednesday — a little better than his 59.8% showing four years ago.

But the two races couldn’t be more different. In 2018, Little coasted past Democrat Paulette Jordan, even as her candidacy brought in some big donations and generated some national media buzz. This time around, unlikely Democratic nominee Stephen Heidt scarcely campaigned, while Little’s most visible adversary came from the right.

A protester by trade, independent candidate Ammon Bundy ran a protest campaign, and Bundy’s 17.1% support clearly shows Little has some trouble on the right. But at the same time, nearly 80% of voters said yes to a nonbinding (but glowingly worded) advisory question supporting the tax cuts and education spending Little pushed through the Legislature in September.

All in all, a muddled mandate for Little.

Attorney general, and lieutenant governor. Despite all the big-name Republican endorsements that went to Democrat Tom Arkoosh, GOP nominee Raúl Labrador won easily. The most conservative Republican on the statewide ticket takes over the state’s law firm with 62.6% voter support. And on Election Night, Labrador was quick to castigate the old guard Republicans who backed Arkoosh, and the reporters who gave them coverage.

But if Labrador’s win constitutes a resounding win for the GOP’s conservative wing, consider this. House Speaker Scott Bedke ran up a 64.3% landslide in his win in a three-person lieutenant governor’s race, suggesting that the GOP’s business-friendly mainstream is still very much alive and well. (File those data points away for 2026 — just in case Little steps aside after two terms, and Labrador and Bedke just happen to wind up in a primary race for governor. Not predicting, just saying.)

State superintendent. There was no bigger winner Tuesday than Debbie Critchfield. On a statewide general election ballot for the first time, Critchfield piled up a huge 69.7% supermajority. By comparison, Republican Sherri Ybarra won the 2014 and 2018 general elections with 50.6% and 51.5% majorities, respectively.

If Critchfield lost any support from the right, due to her lukewarm comments on school choice, that wasn’t evident in the numbers.

It’s fair to say Democrat Terry Gilbert didn’t run as strong a campaign as his 2014 and 2018 predecessors, even after the former Idaho Education Association president secured the union’s endorsement. But it’s also fair to say that Critchfield ran a much more concerted and much better funded campaign than Ybarra ever managed to muster. Critchfield’s blowout win was no accident, and for one night, it shattered the notion that this is one winnable statewide race for the Democrats.

The Democrats’ night. For a while, it looked like Democrats could take some small comfort from treading water downticket, keeping their seven seats in a 35-seat Senate, and 12 seats in a 70-member House. But a vote-reporting error, announced Thursday, swung the outcome of one House race from Democrat to Republican.

After sinking considerable campaign cash into swing legislative districts, the Democrats ended up losing one seat in a mixed-bag election.

The Democrats won two seats in District 26, which stretches from the Magic Valley into blue Blaine County. They held serve, narrowly, in a Pocatello-area swing district. They also broke through in the Senate race in West Boise’s District 15 — although Democrat Rick Just snuck in at 49.8% support, aided by a Constitution Party candidate who probably bled support away from Republican Rep. Codi Galloway.

But aside from those wins, it was another bad night for Democrats. Hardline former legislator Dan Foreman was re-elected to the Senate — ousting Sen. David Nelson, D-Moscow, and prevailing in precisely the kind of college-town district that should be friendly to Democrats. And while Democrats added to their base in Boise-area legislative districts, Republicans swept all countywide races in Ada County, from commissioner to coroner.

More and more, less and less of Idaho is favorable to Democrats — in local or statewide races.

SJR 102. It was close, but voters said they trust lawmakers enough to allow them to come and go as they please. With 52% support, voters passed a constitutional amendment allowing legislators to call themselves back into session.

In this intraparty squabble, score this one as a win for the Republican lawmakers who voted for this in 2021 — especially the hardliners who were frustrated with Little’s 2020 pandemic policies. And score this one as a loss for some of the establishment forces that fought SJR 102, such as former Gov. Butch Otter and the Idaho Association for Commerce and Industry.

The unanswered question: How much will this change the way the Legislature operates? We might get some answers as soon as 2023.

Community college politics. In Ada and Canyon counties, voters gave the College of Western Idaho a resounding vote of confidence. Incumbents Molly Lenty, Jim Reames and Annie Pelletier Hightower and newcomer Nicole Bradshaw easily defeated a slate of four conservatives presenting themselves as a Republican ticket. And the four winning candidates carried both counties.

For the time being, at least until the next CWI trustee races in 2024, that adds up to no drama on the governing board of the state’s largest community college. And a board of trustees that is eager to work with President Gordon Jones, hired less than a year ago.

In North Idaho College, the drama could be starting all over again. Mike Waggoner, one of three Kootenai County Republican Central Committee-endorsed trustees, secured a seat on the board — joining GOP-backed holdover trustees Todd Banducci and Greg McKenzie. This again gives the central committee a majority on the embattled five-member board.

For NIC President Nick Swayne — hired by three State Board of Education-appointed trustees in June, over the objections of Banducci and McKenzie — trustee meetings are apt to get very interesting, and very soon.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. His pieces normally run on Thursdays. Due to the timeliness of this week’s piece, it was published on Wednesday, Nov. 9.


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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