Idaho Republicans are gearing up for a party, while Democrats are focusing on rebuilding.
As both parties kick off their state conventions today, it’s clear which one is in power. The Republicans have a slew of big names on their agenda, from new U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to Gov. Phil Batt and the entire congressional delegation.
Democrats will feature their candidates, and party Chairman Bill Mauk will give the keynote speech on the state of the party. The Democrats’ Saturday night banquet will commemorate the 20-year anniversary of the late Sen. Frank Church’s run for the presidency.
“Obviously the Democrats have been down in the last two elections, especially in the last one,” said Gary Moncrief, a political science professor at Boise State University.
Idaho has the most Republican legislature in the country, and has been ranked as one of the most conservative states. Still, Moncrief said he wouldn’t write off the Democratic Party here.
“I think these things, even in Idaho, are somewhat cyclical,” he said. “After the election a couple of years ago, people were talking about the decline and death of the Republican Party, and then a presidential election later they’re talking about the decline and death of the Democratic Party. The parties are remarkably resilient in that way.”
Around 400 to 500 Democrats are gathering in Boise, and 500 to 600 Republicans are converging on nearby Nampa. About two-thirds of them are delegates.
During the conventions, which run through the weekend, both groups will hash out state party platforms, elect executive committees and choose delegates to attend national party conventions. They’ll also run candidates through training sessions on how to campaign, and will welcome their party’s top candidates and office-holders with partisan fervor.
Republicans will take a ride in plush coaches on the “Victory Train” to a “Round-up Barbecue” and auction at former Sen. Steve Symms’ Ste. Chapelle winery. Those who pay $100 a head or $150 a couple for a reception will get to meet and have their pictures taken with the “Singing Senators,” who include Lott and Idaho Sen. Larry Craig.
The Republicans will hear speech after speech from their many top elected officials, and even take some time for workshops on such topics as juvenile crime and the school-to-work program.
Democrats plan a potato lunch with Senate candidate Walt Minnick, a “faux salmon” lunch echoing the anti-Rep. Helen Chenoweth campaign slogan of “Can Helen, Not Salmon,” and a picnic in the park.
“We don’t have any illusions that the Democrats are going to become the majority party in November, but I think we’re going to make inroads on the majority party,” said Bill Mauk, Democratic state chairman. “The more Democrats that are elected to public office, the better public debate that will take place in the years to come and the more balanced public policies that will result.”
Moncrief said the Democrats are on the right track. “Coaches always tell teams in sports that you can’t get all the points back at once,” he said. “You just have to work at it a little at a time. I think that’s pretty much the strategy they’ve taken. They have a lot more candidates running this time than they did last time.”
Democrats made strong gains in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when they were actively recruiting candidates, Moncrief said. “I think they’re working hard at that.”
The Democrats’ candidate training will be intensive and will focus on legislative candidates, Mauk said. About 40 are attending.
For the Republicans, candidate school drew as many as 60 candidates. State chairman Ron McMurray said his party doesn’t accept the idea that it can’t be any more dominant in Idaho than it already is. “We’re looking to gain a lot in various county positions,” he said.
“We keep saying from the courthouse to the White House. We think there’s great gains to be made in some of the courthouses and sheriff’s departments.”
McMurray said his party also hopes to keep moving into traditionally Democratic areas like North Idaho. “We’re just trying to keep this momentum up.”
Though the national Republican Party has seen sharp splits over abortion, McMurray said the state party is on track to adopt a platform similar to its last one that avoids specific stands. It generally promotes lower taxes, a balanced budget, local control and personal responsibility.
Democrats could see debate on platform planks on public lands, nuclear waste, health care and Medicare and how to balance the budget. “But I don’t expect that we will have any knock-down, drag-out battles over platform issues,” Mauk said.
The Democratic platform generally focuses on education, the economy and the environment.