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News >  Idaho

Both sides mystified by upsets

By Erica Curless and James Hagengruber The Spokesman-Review

Neither the winners nor the losers could offer any sweeping explanation for the series of upsets in Tuesday’s primary election.

Each race was unique, the candidates said. But there was a common question: Where were the Democrats?

“We didn’t have much to offer,” answered Ron Johnson, president of the Kootenai County Democrats Club. “Everybody’s so gun-shy. We just didn’t have anybody willing to fall on their sword again.”

Kootenai County had only one Democratic primary and that’s one of the five races where the incumbent was kicked out of office.

Rep. Bonnie Douglas, D-Coeur d’Alene, was pummeled by Coeur d’Alene City Attorney and political newcomer Mike Gridley, who captured 56 percent of the vote.

Douglas said she’s not sure why so many incumbents lost, especially since most of them weren’t seasoned politicians.

One of the biggest upsets was the defeat of Rep. Wayne Meyer, a moderate Republican from Rathdrum who has served in the Idaho House for 10 years and held leadership positions. The other defeated officeholders are Republicans Sen. Kent Bailey of Hayden, Rep. Charles Eberle of Post Falls and Kootenai County Commission Chairman Dick Panabaker.

Johnson said he was saddened to see the defeat of Meyer to Republican challenger Phil Hart of Athol. It has Johnson believing Kootenai County is taking a turn toward more conservative politics. Hart previously ran as a member of the Constitutional Party, which wants to see less government and more of a biblical basis for what remains.

“Never did I think (Meyer) would lose to somebody like that,” Johnson said. “When they start electing constitutionalists in this area, watch out public schools. I thought Idaho had learned its lesson, but we still send Neanderthals to the Legislature.”

Meyer, a longtime farmer, had kinder words for his opponent. He drove to Hart’s home Wednesday morning to offer congratulations.

“He’s a hard worker. He had a lot of good help. He spent a lot of time going door-to-door,” Meyer said, speaking from his farm Wednesday. “Because of what I do for a living, I don’t have that luxury, especially in the spring of the year.”

Hart agreed. Although his campaign appeared to have a slow start, Hart said early weeks were spent building powerful, quiet grassroots support among pro-life voters and supporters of home schools and private schools. The campaign was designed to be underestimated, Hart said. “The hard work wouldn’t be obvious until right at the end. … (Meyer) didn’t feel like he had to work that hard. Within the last week or so he became very aware that we were working very hard. If the election was in two weeks, it’d be a very difference race.”

Hart also credits his stance against field burning. Opponents of the practice are more passionate than supporters, he said.

Both politicians say Hayden played a pivotal role. Although Meyer is a veteran campaigner, Hayden only recently became part of his legislative district after new boundaries were drawn.

The outcome of the race also makes Meyer worry that the Republican Party is swinging farther to the right and risks alienating mainstream voters; “Now the conservative Republicans are taking it away from the moderate Republicans. It’s just kind of a big swing. Eventually, the Democrats will probably take it back from the conservatives.”

Other than this race, there’s no evident reason why Kootenai County voters were seeking change.

Nobody can blame it on Democrats crossing over and voting Republican, because about the same number of Democrats – 18 percent – who always vote in primaries cast ballots Tuesday. No single issue dominated, as in 2002, when term limits was considered the root of the upsets in that election year.

Kootenai County Clerk Dan English sees the low 24 percent voter turnout as a potential factor in the turnover.

“The people left voting are the really motivated,” English said. “And they sometimes are the people out their gunning for a change. But it’s just real hard to say.”

He’s unsure why voter turnout was so low, especially since there were 2,252 absentee voters, which was about 16 percent of all the votes cast. Because of the large number of absentees, English predicted voter turnout to surpass 40 percent.

Primary elections notoriously have low voter turnout but English had hoped that the assortment of heated contested races would draw people to the polls.

Many people still remained unaware there was an election.

“I just drove by and hit the brakes,” said Jason Herr who turned into the Post Falls Senior Center after seeing the “Vote Here” signs.

Like several other voters interviewed Tuesday, Herr said the only race he was interested in was the presidency.

“The only other name I seemed to recognize was Rocky Watson,” he said.

Watson, the Kootenai County sheriff, ran unopposed in the Republican primary.

Eberle, who lost by 99 votes to Republican challenger Frank Henderson, a former Kootenai County commissioner and Post Falls mayor, said people can’t lump together the five races where incumbents lost.

“Every race is an individual,” he said. “It had nothing to do with (trying to oust) incumbents.”

He said his race was unique because he was facing a well-known Post Falls politician while Meyer’s loss to Hart had more to do with Meyer’s support of grass burning. And neither of those races had any connection to Sen. Bailey coming in third behind former Sen. Clyde Boatright and winner Mike Jorgenson, a Hayden Lake city councilman.

It surprised many people that Bailey did so poorly. Bailey didn’t return phone calls.

During an interview Wednesday morning, Jorgenson wasn’t ready to offer a deep analysis into why his campaign was successful.

“I’m numb,” he said.

Kootenai County Republican Central Committee president Bob Nonini, who also won his primary for a District 5 House seat, said the only obvious conclusion is voters wanted change. Yet he is having difficulty corralling why.

“I didn’t hear any specific issues people are unhappy about,” Nonini said.

Henderson, who booted Eberle, knocked on 1,800 doors in the Post Falls area while campaigning. Voters’ top concerns were property taxes, the cost of prescription drugs and water quality relating to the Coeur d’Alene River basin and the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie aquifer, he said.

In another big upset Republican Katie Brodie sent Panabaker, who has served on the county commission for 10 years, to an early retirement in the four-way race. Brodie got 35 percent of the vote, which was 441 more votes than Panabaker, who received 31 percent. Challenger Rich Piazza received 25 percent of the vote, while Mike Piper picked up 8 percent.

Nonini, along with other political quarterbacks, said four-way races are always difficult to predict because the votes are so split.

Brodie said she won because people liked her fresh optimism on how she will face the county’s problems.

“I think voters are really concerned about growth and about our tax dollars and about where our county had headed,” Brodie said.

She added that the commission needs to do a better job of involving residents and letting them know how county money is being spent.

Yet, she said Panabaker didn’t do anything specific to turn voters away.

“I’m absolutely green and fresh and optimistic,” Brodie said. “Ten years ago he probably came in feeling the same way. In 10 years you lose some of that optimism. It’s worn on him.”

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