Election 2018: What happened, and what it means for 2019 and beyond

Election Night told us a lot about Idaho politics, circa 2018.

And it raised several important questions for 2019 and beyond.

Let’s dive into the takeaways.

Serious question: When will Democrats win a statewide race?

It’s not that Cindy Wilson ran a perfect race for state superintendent. But she ran a more than capable race.

She was a passionate candidate and a solid debater. She outraised an incumbent. She benefited from not one but two TV ad blitzes. She played up her experience as a two-time Butch Otter appointee — to his K-12 task force and to the state Board of Correction. She picked up some endorsements that crossed ideological lines, from former Supreme Court justice Jim Jones and Melaleuca CEO Frank VanderSloot.

Yet Sherri Ybarra won their race by nearly 17,000 votes, tripling her margin of victory from 2014.

At some point, this has to begin to speak to Ybarra’s brand. She’s an unorthodox candidate, but she is now four-for-four in GOP primaries and general elections. But it also speaks to the power of the Republican brand, and the weakness of the Democratic brand. If the Democrats failed to win a statewide race they could win — and maybe even one they should win — when will they break through?

Sizzle vs. stability, Part One. Paulette Jordan had full-blown rock star appeal at Democratic headquarters Tuesday night. As she went from TV interview to TV interview, supporters followed and snapped photos on their phones. Jordan received by far the loudest cheers of the night. (A distant second came when CNN projected that Democrats had regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives.)

Yet Jordan’s numbers fizzled. She came in at 38.2 percent. For all the buzz about Jordan as the face of the future of the Idaho Democratic Party, she actually came up short of the Democrats’ candidate of the past. In 2014, A J Balukoff took home 38.6 percent of the vote.

Jordan’s lackluster showing certainly did Wilson no favors Tuesday. And it raises serious questions about where the Democrats turn to find their next gubernatorial candidate.

Sizzle vs. stability, Part Two. Brad Little’s campaign wasn’t flashy, but his results were impressive. Little easily outperformed Otter’s numbers from 2006, his first gubernatorial win, and Little pretty much picked up where his predecessor left off last election cycle.

Voters clearly favored Little’s experience and stay-the-course approach. Now, Idaho’s next governor will be expected to honor his pledge to implement Medicaid expansion, which passed easily Tuesday. He’ll have to chart a course for K-12 and higher education that picks up where Otter’s task forces left off. And he’ll have to wrestle competing pressures, such as eliminating the grocery tax and putting money into highways and prisons.

His stable hand will be tested early.

Ada County: solidly blue? Turnout was huge in Idaho’s largest county: a whopping 78 percent, up from 63 percent four years ago.

And Democrats reaped the benefits. They flipped two legislative seats — and could get a third, depending on results of a recount. They flipped the balance of power on the Ada County Commission, defeating two name Republicans in the process. They held onto a heated race for coroner.

Ada County is no King County, Wash. — an urban center with so many votes that it sways statewide politics. But 2018 could be the year Ada County turned decisively Democratic.

Kootenai County: solidly red. Meet Idaho’s anti-Ada.

Turnout was robust in Kootenai County, at 73 percent. And the results were a Republican landslide. Ybarra came in at 66 percent, beating her strong showing from four years ago. Little came in at 67 percent, over a Democrat who ran on her North Idaho ties.

Kootenai County doesn’t have the sheer numbers of Ada County, but it’s unquestionably Republican. And as Tuesday night bled into Wednesday morning, the numbers from Kootenai County turned a nailbiter of a state superintendent’s race into an Ybarra win.

Until Democrats can figure out a way to compete in this fast-growing area, they will continue to struggle in statewide races.

Democratic legislative pickups. All was not lost for Idaho Democrats.

They picked up two seats in District 15, a West Boise legislative district they have targeted for several election cycles. The third seat remains up for grabs. Incumbent GOP Sen. Fred Martin won Tuesday by a scant six votes, which will trigger an automatic recount.

Democrats picked up a House seat in District 26, a swing district that takes in reliably blue Blaine County. And they flipped a House seat in Bannock County’s District 29. (In District 5, made up predominately of Latah County, Democrats ousted polarizing Republican Sen. Dan Foreman, but lost the House seat Jordan held until early 2018.)

The bottom line: Democrats are now up four legislative seats — gaining ground, not coincidentally, in areas where Wilson ran well.

That’s something for Democrats to build on. But where do they go from here? Looking at the map, there aren’t obvious legislative districts that are likely to flip. But then ago, West Boise seemed out of Democrats’ reach a decade or so ago.

A big loss for the Idaho Freedom Foundation. The Medicaid expansion initiative won easily, at nearly 61 percent. And by extension, voters repudiated the Freedom Foundation, the conservative group that went all in on the Medicaid battle.

On Wednesday, the group showed no signs of backing off, promising a lawsuit.

To be sure, the Freedom Foundation still has cachet with a cadre of like-minded lawmakers. But the Medicaid vote can’t help but damage the group’s overall clout.

A strange night for the Idaho Education Association. Yes, the teachers’ union was on the winning side in the governor’s race — endorsing Little, who has promised to continue the push for higher teacher pay.

And yes, the IEA endorsed U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, citing his influence on the House Education Committee. Simpson won, but he’ll have less clout as a Republican in a Democratic House.

But let’s not forget the IEA’s big play, which was Freedom Foundation-esque in magnitude. The IEA made a concerted push to unseat Ybarra. The IEA endorsed Wilson and put $50,000 into pro-Wilson ads. The IEA’s parent organization, the National Education Association, sunk $249,000 into anti-Ybarra ads.

In a statement Wednesday, IEA President Kari Overall took a decidedly different tone than the one Idahoans heard in the NEA-funded ad (still posted, as of Wednesday morning, on IEA’s web site). “We know (Ybarra) cares about students throughout the state and are confident she will continue to prioritize the needs of those students, along with our great professional educators, as she sets a course toward making Idaho’s public education system one we can all be proud of.”

OK. But the IEA bet big. If you’re going to make a bold wager, you’d better win.

The first post-election meeting between Ybarra and IEA leadership could be, ahem, strained.

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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