Analysis: Scratching under the surface of a stay-the-course Idaho election

Idaho voted Tuesday as Idaho reliably votes in presidential elections.

Heavy, albeit more heavily than normal. And, as usual, heavily red.

The outcome: a stay-the-course election that was short on suspense, but not completely devoid of surprises.

Let’s lay the groundwork by looking at Idaho’s presidential numbers.

President Trump outperformed, compared to 2016, picking up a 63.9 percent majority Tuesday. By contrast, Trump won in 2016 with 59.2 percent of the vote — the first Republican nominee in two decades to fall short of the 60 percent threshold.

And in this year’s historic, high turnout election, Trump also picked up in terms of raw vote count: an increase of close to 145,000 votes.

In short, Idaho’s presidential results were thoroughly on brand. For the fifth time in the past six elections, a Republican secured Idaho’s four electoral votes by winning by more than 30 percentage points. While presidential political dynamics are changing elsewhere in the Intermountain West — thrusting Arizona and Nevada into the day-after-Election-Day national spotlight — Idaho remains a red constant.

A big presidential margin creates coattails, not that Sen. Jim Risch and Reps. Mike Simpson and Russ Fulcher necessarily needed them Tuesday. But considering that the Idaho congressional delegation has neatly aligned behind Trump — on coronavirus response, impeachment, foreign policy and Supreme Court nominations — Idaho’s lopsided federal races had to represent some measure of vindication. This might apply especially to Simpson, who perceptively pivoted toward Trump over the past four years.

The interesting numbers, and the stray election surprises, lurk beneath the Idaho landslide.

On Tuesday, Ada County continued its shift from red to purple. While Trump carried Idaho by 30.8 percentage points, he won Ada County by only 3.9 percentage points. What’s more, Ada County’s presidential numbers have narrowed considerably; only 20 years ago, George W. Bush captured the county by 27.9 percentage points.

This doesn’t make Ada County into a Maricopa County, Ariz., or a Clark County, Nev. — diverse and vote-heavy urban centers that have transformed their respective states into presidential battlegrounds. But these numbers explain why many rural Idaho Republicans view Ada County’s politics with a mixture of concern and disdain.

Considering the presidential results, Ada County Republicans had a particularly impressive Election Night.

They recaptured a majority on the Ada County commission with a pair of victories. And one commission race had an unusual education nexus: Republican Ryan Davidson ousted Democrat Diana Lachiondo, who has played a prominent role in school reopening issues as a member of Central District Health’s governing board. As the pandemic and the school reopening process continues in 2021, the CDH board will almost certainly shift to the right.

Ada County Republicans reclaimed a House seat in West Boise’s battleground legislative District 15, as Codi Galloway unseated freshman Rep. Jake Ellis, D-Boise. The GOP also held onto District 15’s Senate seat, as incumbent Fred Martin won by more than 1,300 votes — a rout, relative to his six-vote win from 2018.

But these legislative races were outliers. As ho-hum as Idaho’s congressional races were, the races for the Statehouse might have been even more lackluster.

Yes, all 105 legislative seats were up for grabs Tuesday. But 44 candidates won unopposed races. Another 51 candidates won easily, capturing at least 60 percent of the vote.

That leaves just 10 legislative races that can be defined, generously, as competitive. And those competitive races are consolidated in pockets of Idaho: three in the Moscow area’s District 5; three in District 15; one in District 16, which takes in Northwest Boise and Garden City; two in District 26, which includes Blaine, Lincoln, Camas and Gooding counties; and one in Bannock County’s District 29. The District 29 race yielded the night’s only other Statehouse flip, as Pocatello Republican Dustin Manwaring avenged a 2018 loss to Democrat Chris Abernathy, a low-profile member of the House Education Committee.

A switch of two House seats won’t really change the dynamics of the 2021 session. The heavy hitters on the education and budget committees ran unopposed or coasted past token competition. And as long as legislative races look a lot like glorified HOA elections — with lawmakers representing safely GOP districts or the occasional Democrat stronghold — don’t expect incumbents to change the way they govern. There’s no pressure or incentive.

In a session that will be defined by pandemic response and a mushrooming budget surplus, expect the debates over tax cuts and teacher pay raises and higher education to sound like what we’ve heard in previous years.

A more-of-the-same discussion.

A fitting result from what was, from top to bottom, a more-of-the-same election.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday. Due to the timeliness of the subject matter, this week’s analysis was published on Wednesday, Nov. 4.

Kevin Richert

About 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 KIVI 6 On Your Side; "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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