BOISE – Idaho politics turned a corner Tuesday.
After a decade of Republican dominance so strong that two years ago a U.S. Senate seat went uncontested, GOP candidates in the state’s top races – for governor and an open seat in Congress – found themselves fighting for every vote.
“A lot of people in the beginning just thought that there was no race here,” said Republican candidate for governor Butch Otter. “Those huge leads have a tendency to disappear.”
Otter found himself instead locked in a tight race for governor with Democrat Jerry Brady, with polls showing a dead heat the week before the election. Otter took the lead, though, as results flowed in on election night, and he was buoyant as he and his wife, Lori, greeted supporters at a GOP celebration.
Idaho’s 1st District congressional race turned around years of easy Republican walks to victory, emerging as a hard-fought match between conservative Republican state Rep. Bill Sali and former Micron Technology executive Larry Grant, a moderate Democrat. At press time, the race was too close to call.
Idaho Democratic Party spokesman Chuck Oxley said, “In a sense, Democrats have already won, because Republicans have never had to work so hard for an election in recent memory.”
He added, “I don’t think anybody could say that Democrats are irrelevant in Idaho anymore.”
In recent years, Republicans have controlled more than 80 percent of the seats in the state Legislature, every seat in the congressional delegation, and all but one of the statewide elected offices.
Yet, polls have repeatedly shown that no political party – not even the Republicans – has a majority among the electorate in Idaho.
In keeping with its tradition of independence, Idaho has no party registration.
Boise State University political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby said for years the BSU public policy surveys he oversaw showed that between 42 percent and 48 percent of Idahoans self-identified as Republicans, while around 20 percent said they were Democrats. The rest – a third or more – called themselves independent.
“It gets back to what Phil Batt talked about when he was governor, and that was that he warned Republicans not to assume that the voters are necessarily wedded to the Republican Party,” Weatherby said.
Factors such as uncertainty about the war in Iraq and concern over growth and quality of life issues helped bring more attention to often-dismissed Democrats in Idaho this year.
And with new funding from national Democratic Chairman Howard Dean’s “50-state strategy” – including funding for Oxley’s position – the state party was energized and ready to promote its candidates.
But national Republican and conservative groups poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Idaho to attack the newly competitive Democratic candidates, and national Democrats did not ante up to respond in kind.
Otter, a three-term congressman and Idaho’s longest-serving lieutenant governor, had an instant lead when he started his run two years early, which brought campaign funds rolling in. Even though Otter raised and spent as much as $2 million, he ran a lackluster campaign that saw him mostly unavailable to the press, absent from the state and back in Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, Brady, the former publisher of the Post Register newspaper in Idaho Falls, was actively campaigning. Brady ran against then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne in 2002 and held the incumbent governor to a 56 percent majority.
Brady’s campaign took off in December when he discovered that Otter had co-sponsored a previously obscure bill in Congress to sell off public lands to raise money to pay for damages from Hurricane Katrina – including 5 million acres in Idaho.
Otter defended the bill for three weeks, calling it “a responsible option to consider.” But Brady’s sharp criticism, and that of sportsmen’s groups and others around the state who rallied to support public lands, helped persuade Otter to drop his sponsorship of the bill, apologize and say he’d made a mistake.
Sali, a strident anti-abortion advocate who angered many of his fellow Republicans in his 16 years in the Legislature with his combative tactics, won a six-way GOP primary for Congress with just 25.8 percent of the vote. He was helped by a pricey independent attack ad campaign run by the Washington, D.C.-based Club for Growth against his two closest GOP primary rivals, Robert Vasquez and Sheila Sorensen.
In the general election, the Club for Growth was joined by the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Right to Life PAC in spending an unprecedented $1 million-plus in the final month before the election either to support Sali or to bash Grant.
Sali said Tuesday night he was confident of a win, because “we have a district that likes Republicans and I stand for Republican ideals.”