(UPDATED, 7:02 p.m., with updated timetables from the secretary of state’s office.)
Since Idaho’s primary election is a go, let’s take a break from talking coronavirus to talk politics.
Voters will sort out 45 contested legislative primaries across the state, as well as a few contested U.S. Senate and congressional primaries. But even under normal circumstances, the May primary election tends to fly under the radar for many voters. And this year’s circumstances are anything but normal.
So this year, it’s impossible to talk politics without talking coronavirus.
Here’s what you need to know about the primaries — and what to watch for:
First, the ground rules. Gov. Brad Little decided against delaying the primary to June, Secretary of State Lawerence Denney’s first preference. But state leaders agreed on a vote-by-mail primary election.
You can go to the Idaho Votes website to request an absentee ballot, or request a ballot from your county clerk. Allow 10 to 14 days for your ballot to show up in the mail. Once you fill out the ballot, you need to mail it into your county clerk.
You must request your ballot by 8 p.m. on May 19, Denney said Wednesday. You must get your ballot in by 8 p.m. on June 2 in order for it to be counted.
What’s not on the ballot? Republicans and Democrats held their presidential primaries in March, so that’s a done deal. The statewide offices — such as governor and superintendent of public instruction — aren’t on the ballot again until 2022.
What is on the ballot? All 105 legislative seats. U.S. Sen. Jim Risch is seeking re-election, although he is unopposed in the GOP primary. (Paulette Jordan of Plummer and Jim Vandermaas of Eagle are seeking the Democratic Senate nomination.) Both congressional seats are on the ballot. In the 2nd Congressional District, Rep. Mike Simpson faces a GOP primary challenge from Kevin Rhoades of Boise. In the 1st District, Rep. Russ Fulcher faces Boise Republican Nicholas Jones, while Staniela Nikolova of Moscow and Rudy Soto of Nampa meet in the Democratic primary.
What are some of the key legislative primaries? All told, there will be contested Republican primaries for 42 of the state’s 105 legislative seats. Democrats will hold only three contested primaries.
Looking past those raw numbers, several GOP primaries could shape the House and Senate education committees — and affect the ideological mix in a divided House Republican caucus.
- With Senate Education Committee Chairman Dean Mortimer’s pending retirement, Vice Chair Steven Thayn of Emmett could be in line for the chairman’s spot. But first, Thayn will face Marla Lawson of Lowman in the GOP primary. Thayn defeated Lawson in 2018, with 56 percent of the vote.
- House Education Committee Vice Chairman Ryan Kerby has a GOP primary opponent, Jim Smith of Fruitland.
- Two former House members are running again in Eastern Idaho — and if they win, they would shift the House GOP caucus balance of power to the right. Former Rep. Ron Nate of Rexburg is challenging first-term Rep. Britt Raybould of Rexburg, a member of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Former Rep. Karey Hanks of St. Anthony is taking on Rep. Jerald Raymond of Menan, a House Education member. No Democrats are running for either of these seats.
- A few of the House’s most outspoken conservatives have GOP primary opponents. Bonneville County Commissioner Dave Radford will take on Rep. Chad Christensen, R-Ammon. Middleton school trustee Kirk Adams is challenging Rep. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton; Adams finished fourth in a five-way primary in 2018.
But much of the Legislature will stay the same. For a fourth of the Legislature — 12 senators and 15 House members — the election is over. They face no opponents in the May primary or the November general election.
Not surprisingly, this list includes some powerful players in the Statehouse: House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley; Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise; JFAC co-chair Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot; and JFAC vice chair Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls. Also unopposed: Senate Education members Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, and Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, and House Education members Gary Marshall, R-Idaho Falls, and John McCrostie, D-Garden City.
And in 20 Senate seats and 30 House seats, the Republican nominee will not face Democratic opposition in November. (Only one Democratic senator and three House Democrats face no GOP opposition in the fall.) In other words, don’t expect the Statehouse balance of power to change much in 2021.
So if you have an election without polling places, who shows up? We’ll see. Not unlike the state’s K-12 and higher education systems — now pivoting to an online learning model — the coronavirus is forcing a rapid transition to vote by mail.
Primary turnout is historically light. In 2018, only 33 percent of registered voters took part in the primary — even though Republicans and Democrats had open and costly primary races for governor. In 2016, the turnout was only 23 percent.