Idaho’s real legislative election is in May: the Republican Party primary.
That’s the conventional wisdom. Like most bits of conventional wisdom, this has more than a grain of truth to it. The GOP primary often dictates the makeup — and the ideological tone — of Idaho’s Legislature.
Certainly, this May’s primary overturned the Legislature. Twenty Republican incumbents lost — including a co-chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, and two moderates who sat on JFAC and Senate Education. The primary certainly shifted the Senate to the right, but at the same time, several House hardliners also lost.
Another legislative election is less than two months away. The Nov. 8 general election probably won’t be as turbulent as the May GOP primary. But it will also contour the 2023 Legislature. It will help shape party leadership. And that, in turn, will help to shape the committees that write budgets and craft education policy.
First, let’s keep things in perspective. Fifty-eight Republican candidates are unopposed in November, or they face only independent, third-party or write-in opponents. Those 58 races account for a majority of the 105 seats in the Legislature. This long list includes some Statehouse veterans — the four members of Senate GOP leadership, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, House Education Committee Chairman Lance Clow, and Rep. Wendy Horman, a JFAC member who plays a key role in education budgets.
So we already know a lot about the makeup of the 2023 Legislature.
We’ll learn more from the outcomes in four pockets of the state:
District 6. Moscow Democrat David Nelson, a Senate Education member, is seeking a third term, opposed by Viola Republican Dan Foreman, a hardline conservative who served in the Senate in 2017 and 2018. Also on the ballot are two Republican incumbents: Rep. Lori McCann of Lewiston, a House Education member, and Rep. Brandon Mitchell, R-Moscow.
District 15. West Boise is the Treasure Valley’s purple battleground, ensconced between reliably Democratic Boise and solidly Republican Meridian and Eagle. This is always a district to watch, and 2022 will be no exception. GOP Rep. Codi Galloway is seeking to move to the Senate — and in a plot twist, reported Wednesday by Betsy Russell of the Idaho Press, Democratic candidate Rick Just has received an endorsement from Republican Fred Martin, the five-term senator Galloway ousted in the May primary. Also on the ballot in District 15: Rep. Steve Berch, a two-term Democrat who sits on House Education.
District 26. Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett of Ketchum was one of a host of veteran lawmakers who decided not to seek re-election — and her move creates an interesting open seat. Rep. Laurie Lickley, R-Jerome, is hoping to move to the Senate; she faces Hailey Democrat Ronald Taylor, running as Stennett’s heir apparent (she is Taylor’s campaign treasurer.) A House incumbent also is on the ballot: Rep. Ned Burns, D-Bellevue.
District 29. Rep. James Ruchti hopes to succeed fellow attorney and Pocatello Democrat Mark Nye in the Senate; Nye did not seek re-election, and passed away in July. But this open Senate race is a sharp clash of ideologies, as Pocatello Republican David Worley is courting support from hardline conservatives. Meanwhile, Rep. Dustin Manwaring, R-Pocatello, is seeking a third House term.
These four districts carry outsized influence, because they are Idaho outliers: They are actual swing districts.
According to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project — an effort to track and score redistricting efforts across the nation — these are Idaho’s four “competitive” legislative districts, where the prevailing party holds no more than a 55% majority. Idaho’s other legislative districts — the 27 districts that run Republican, and the four Boise districts where Democrats hold sway — are deemed non-competitive.
The Princeton project is a model, a forecast of how Idaho’s new legislative districts might behave. But these projections seem in line with the recent history in Idaho’s purple pockets.
In swing districts, money matters all the more — and Republicans and Democrats know it.
Democrats hold big fundraising edges in several competitive races. In District 6, Nelson has more than $60,000 cash in hand, while Foreman has barely $1,000. (Foreman raised only $300 in August, all from Rep. Mike Kingsley, R-Lewiston.) In District 15, Berch has more than $101,000 in hand, while Republican opponent Steve Keyser has less than $10,000.
Legislative leaders are ponying up. Assistant minority leader and state Democratic Party chairwoman Lauren Necochea of Boise has supported candidates in Districts 6 and 15. Moyle, of Star, and Assistant Majority Leader Jason Monks of Meridian have put money into several swing district races. Legislative leaders routinely kick money into other Statehouse campaigns; for lawmakers who want to line up support for future in-house leadership elections, it’s a cost of doing business.
Politicos have their stake in these elections. Here’s your stake.
These races will affect the balance of power in the Statehouse — particularly in the Senate. Hardliners picked up several Senate seats in May, and hope to push GOP leadership to the right. Now, every swing race matters. Lickley, if elected, would probably be a vote for moderate leadership. Foreman, Galloway and Worley are more likely to align with conservatives.
Caucus leadership elections matter, because legislative leaders have the power to fill out committees. Like JFAC, which will determine how to spend the $410 million in new education dollars earmarked in this month’s one-day lame-duck legislative session. Or Senate Education and House Education, which will be at the forefront in next year’s debates over school choice.
Elections always hold surprises. No one could have predicted 20 incumbent lawmakers losing in one primary. The May elections — and the volatile November 2021 school board elections — suggest a growing anti-incumbency sentiment heading into this November. There’s no way to tell who will show up to vote in less than eight weeks — when anger over inflation and abortion could drive turnout.
These variables could shape Idaho’s other legislative election.
Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday.
Disclosure: The Idaho Land Fund has donated to Rep. Codi Galloway’s campaign. J.B. Scott — the founding chairman of the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, which funds Idaho Education News — is affiliated with the Idaho Land Fund.