Republican Idaho is Not that Conservative
A winning statewide coalition for true conservatives is elusive.
Conservatives won one out of the five big Idaho statewide races in this week’s primary. Only Raul Labrador, candidate for Attorney General, defeated the establishment incumbent Lawrence Wasden, 52% to 38%. In other races, Gov. Brad Little defeated Janice McGeachin 53%-32%; Scott Bedke defeated Priscilla Giddings 52%-43%; Phil McGrane squeaked out a 43%-41% victory over Dorothy Moon; and the establishment superintendent candidate beat the insurgent, 40%-34%.
Can conservatives put together a statewide coalition to win executive office?
Election losers always play the guessing game about tactics. If a candidate had done this or if that candidate had been nominated instead of the other, victory was possible. If Janice faced Little one-on-one. . .; If Janice were a stronger candidate. . . ; If Priscilla had handled a situation differently. . . ; If Mary Souza had not taken votes away from Dorothy Moon. . . ; IF, IF, IF. Tactics appear all important.
Surely tactics matter, but the field of play matters more. A candidate in a strong position can say, as the legendary Edwin Edwards of Louisiana once did, "The only way I can lose this election is if I'm caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy." Republicans could nominate a cross between Jesus and George Washington and still lose in California because California's field of play is so hostile. And FDR would not carry today's Idaho. Tactics matter more when the field of play tilts against the candidate.
Recent experience with the governor’s office suggests that Idaho conservatives must strain to put together a winning coalition statewide. Butch Otter fended off a conservative challenger from the right (Russ Fulcher) in 2014 (51%-44%). Brad Little has won two Republican primaries, once in 2018 after getting 37% of the vote in a three-way contest between a conservative (Raul Labrador, 33%) and a candidate even more liberal than Little (Tommy Ahlquist, 26%) and once this week mostly straight up against a conservative.
On the other hand, Labrador just won the Attorney General’s primary, hotly contested, even though a spoiler candidate on the right drained away 10% of the vote. Labrador shows that there may be a conservative path to 60% statewide in Idaho.
But the conservative path to victory statewide in Idaho is narrow. Several factors cut against conservative candidates statewide.
Hot button issues. None of the establishment obviously dares contradict the hot-button conservative position on abortion and guns. And if they do, they lose. Just ask Lawrence Wasden. This is what journalists mean that elections in Idaho are between the right and the far-right. Smoking out non-conservatives is a task only a skilled politician with great messaging can accomplish. No candidate in this cycle managed to do it, with the exception of the failed Secretary of State candidates, whose criticisms of the Zuckerbucks controversy with McGrane kept his total well below other establishment candidates.
Cross-overs. For years, many Democrats have registered as Republicans so that they can vote in the Republican primary. At least 10,000 apparently did so ahead of this year's Republican primary. They have done this in previous elections too, so the cumulative effect of Democrat cross-overs in the past four elections probably exceeds 25,000 votes statewide. Only about 30,000 Democrats voted statewide in the Democratic Primary on Tuesday. 64,000 had voted in the Democratic Primary in 2018. And there are a lot more people. Democrats either stayed home or registered as Republicans. We also have many antidotes, as you can see in the gallery. Cross-over voting matters in close races—and McGrane probably owes his margin to Democrat voters.
The interest group environment. Big monied interest groups like the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry and the Idaho Cattle Association, embracing cronyism, are increasingly hostile to real conservatives. Further, conservative-aligned groups like the Fraternal Order of Police and Idaho Chooses Life often back establishment candidates (especially in this last election). These groups are important signals to voters—and it takes lots of voter education and great messaging to overcome their intervention on behalf of establishment candidates. If cops and businessmen and cattle ranchers say that the “far-right” is “extremist” then insurgent candidates must be extremists. And voters go along with the narrative.
The Mormon Belt. The increasingly non-conservative direction of Mormonism is felt in legislative districts and state-wide races. Mormons are about a quarter of Idaho's population. Why did Little win while Giddings lost? Why did Labrador win? Giddings ran well behind Little and a bit behind Labrador in east Idaho’s Mormon belt. In Bingham County, for instance, Little ran 5% ahead of his statewide total, Giddings ran 4% behind her statewide total, and Labrador ran 2% ahead of his statewide total. The same numbers emerge from Bonneville County, except Giddings did a little worse and Labrador ran even with his statewide numbers. Other counties in the Mormon belt like Caribou and Madison, saw Little outperform his statewide numbers by more and Giddings and Labrador underperform their statewide numbers.
The State of Ada. Ada County counts for between a quarter and a third of all Republican votes, and Ada is increasingly moderate to liberal. Very few of conservative legislative candidates that conservative groups vetted, endorsed, and funded won in Ada County, home Boise and Meridian. Brad Little got 59% in Ada County, 6% higher than his statewide total. Scott Bedke outpolled Little in Ada, winning 60% to Giddings's 26%. Phil McGrane, who won statewide by 5,000 votes won by 18,000 in Ada. Labrador is the only conservative candidate from Ada County and he won 44% of the vote there (but still lost to his opponent in Ada). Twenty years ago Ada voted 60% Republican in most statewide and national elections; now it is a 50-50% split, at best, for Republicans, in such elections. With good tactics candidates can be competitive, but the field of play tilts away from conservatives in Ada.
These factors, among others, suggest that Idaho is a more moderate state politically than conservatives would like to think. The field of play in Idaho is perhaps increasingly hostile for conservative candidates statewide. Conservatives have to run up the totals in northern and western Idaho to win (which Labrador did). This new reality must be grasped and internalized--and tactics must change accordingly.