Nation/World

Democrats Lose Hold On North Idaho Analysis

This week’s election results leave no doubt: Idaho’s Democratic stronghold is turning Republican.

North Idaho, led by fast-growing Kootenai County, is undergoing a dramatic political change. On Tuesday, the Panhandle voted to send 10 Republicans and just two Democrats to the state Legislature. Just four years ago, it sent 11 Democrats and one Republican.

“Our whole makeup is changing from what it was,” said Rep. Hilde Kellogg, R-Post Falls, who was the lone Republican in 1992. This year, she ran unopposed.

Kellogg remembers when she moved to North Idaho from Nebraska in about 1950, a lifelong Republican from a conservative state.

“I would look at the ballot in county races, and there weren’t any Republicans. There would just be Democrats running against each other.”

“I was kind of distressed about it,” she said.

Democrats dominated until 1994’s statewide Republican sweep, when the Panhandle legislative delegation was split with five Democrats and seven Republicans.

This week, Republicans all but swept the Panhandle.

Longtime senators Mary Lou Reed, D-Coeur d’Alene, and Tim Tucker, D-Porthill, lost to political newcomers, as did seven-year incumbent Rep. Marv Vandenberg, D-Coeur d’Alene.

The only Democrats left representing the five northern counties are Rep. Jim Stoicheff, D-Sandpoint (who ran unopposed), and newly elected representative Larry Watson, D-Wallace.

“Our message of the importance of dissent and checks and balances doesn’t seem to catch fire with the electorate,” Reed said Wednesday. “It doesn’t seem to mean anything to them.”

Of the five counties in the Panhandle, only Shoshone County retains its traditional nearly exclusive Democrat dominance. But the last redistricting diluted Shoshone County’s votes for the Legislature by combining it with a large chunk of Kootenai County.

That’s why Shoshone County went for Reed, but she lost the election to Republican challenger Jack Riggs. Shoshone voters also favored Democratic challenger Don Heikkila, who lost to Rep. Don Pischner, R-Coeur d’Alene.

“It’s consistent with our history,” said former state Sen. Marti Calabretta, D-Osburn. “We’ve always had a big turnout and voted Democratic. There are just fewer of us than there were 10, 20 years ago.”

She noted that Shoshone voters pushed Democrat Watson over the top by giving him more than 73 percent of their votes. Watson got only 42 percent in Kootenai County, but won the election, defeating Rep. Tom Dorr, R-Post Falls.

“If there’s something to be pleased in from Shoshone County’s point of view, we have a representative again who is from Shoshone County, who lives here,” Calabretta said.

In the Panhandle as a whole, many residents haven’t lived here all that long. Kootenai County’s population grew by more than 31 percent from 1990 to 1995, according to the Idaho Department of Commerce. Bonner’s jumped 24.3 percent, and Boundary’s 14.6 percent. Benewah County saw a 10.6 percent increase, while Shoshone County’s population grew by less than 1 percent.

“We thought population growth would moderate our politics, but I think it’s made it every bit more conservative,” said Jim Weatherby, a political scientist at Boise State University.

Most of the newcomers are from either Washington or California, according to statistics compiled by the Idaho Transportation Department on out-of-staters who get Idaho driver’s licenses.

Democrats blamed Reed’s loss on that shift in population, and to negative campaigning.

“Clearly the voters of the state are becoming more enamored with the Republican Party,” Reed said.

Kootenai County Democratic Party chairwoman Linda Payne was less diplomatic when analyzing the results Wednesday.

“It means that the voters are easily swayed by negativism and emotion,” she seethed. “It means that candidates can lie about other human beings and get away with it.”

Payne was particularly upset with literature from Riggs that suggested Reed was to blame for the loss of jobs in the Silver Valley.

But Riggs said the majority of voters were looking for a moderate voice in the Legislature.

“I’ve been saying I’m pretty middle of the road on a lot of issues, therefore I don’t think people will dislike what I do,” he said.

The shift to the GOP in the north could help North Idaho’s clout in the Legislature, some believe. That’s because the Legislature has gone to 85 percent Republican, up from 80 percent two years ago.

Republican representatives from the north at least will have seats in the Republican caucus, where much of the Legislature’s direction will be determined.

The trade-off is that North Idaho is trading longtime Democratic representatives for GOP newcomers who lack experience and seniority.

Tim Tucker held important education and local government taxation committee seats, while Mary Lou Reed served as the assistant minority leader and sat on three Senate committees.

But Weatherby said North Idaho probably wins in the trade-off. Term limits soon will limit the value of seniority anyway.

Democrats fear that the next Legislative session will lack meaningful debate on the issues. “It will be very efficient,” Reed predicted.

But Riggs said he will not adopt a partisan line.

Yet North Idaho College political science instructor Tony Stewart said the threat of poor government remains now that Idaho clearly is a one-party state.

“It means a very long road for the Democratic Party to get back to the point of it being a competitive two-party system,” Stewart said Wednesday. “The best thing that can happen - in any state - is two very live and competitive parties.”

Kellogg said she doesn’t expect this year’s Legislature to be much different, despite the overwhelming dominance of Republicans.

“I’ve always had good support from both sides of the aisle, depending on what the issue was,” she said. “We’re all pretty much like that.”

But, she added, “It feels good to win.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CHANGING POLITICS North Idaho’s legislative delegation has changed from overwhelmingly Democratic to overwhelmingly Republican. It now matches the Legislature as a whole, which this year will be 85 percent GOP. Here’s the breakdown on North Idaho’s delegation in the past decade: 1986: 11 Democrats, four Republicans 1988: 11 Democrats, four Republicans 1990: 14 Democrats, one Republican 1992: 11 Democrats, one Republican 1994: Five Democrats, seven Republicans 1996: Two Democrats, 10 Republicans

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer Staff writers Susan Drumheller and Kevin Keating contributed to this report.

This sidebar appeared with the story: CHANGING POLITICS North Idaho’s legislative delegation has changed from overwhelmingly Democratic to overwhelmingly Republican. It now matches the Legislature as a whole, which this year will be 85 percent GOP. Here’s the breakdown on North Idaho’s delegation in the past decade: 1986: 11 Democrats, four Republicans 1988: 11 Democrats, four Republicans 1990: 14 Democrats, one Republican 1992: 11 Democrats, one Republican 1994: Five Democrats, seven Republicans 1996: Two Democrats, 10 Republicans

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer Staff writers Susan Drumheller and Kevin Keating contributed to this report.



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