Unlike many places in the State of Idaho, Republicans and Democrats both stand a chance in Legislative District 18. Each of the candidates running for seats in the South Boise voting bloc said their race for "their side of town" should be a nail-biter.
“The stakes are pretty high in our race,” said former District 18 Democratic Rep. Branden Durst, and for him, they are especially high.
Durst is running for the same Idaho Senate seat he lost in 2010 in a district that, since redistricting, now extends from Harris Ranch, meets Warm Springs Avenue and includes subdivisions with Micron employees and families, as well as neighborhoods west of the airport.
“You recognize that in the State of Idaho, especially from a Democratic perspective, you don’t get a lot of chances to win. This is one of the few places where you definitely can,” said Durst.
A win was just out of reach for Durst back in 2010 after Democrat Sen. Kate Kelly left the Legislature, with Durst vying for her empty seat. Republican challenger Sen. Mitch Toryanski upset the district’s longtime Democratic backing by beating Durst with just over 100 votes. Toryanski said the district is varied.
“When people say, ‘Well what does your district think about this?’ or ‘How do they feel about that?’ nobody can say that monolithically the district feels a certain way,” said Toryanski. “There are so many philosophies and different opinions and often very strong opinions.”
The pendulum between competing interests makes the place competitive. Even closer was the House race between Democrat Janie Ward-Engelking and Republican Rep. Julie Ellsworth that year, with Ellsworth taking the seat by fewer than 10 votes. Now Ward-Engelking thinks she can win this district. Ellsworth could not be reached for comment.
“We think we picked up about 200 votes now,” said Ward-Engelking. “But it depends on people showing up. We’re in better shape than we were if everybody goes to polls and does their job.”
The Democratic challengers all said the 2010 redistricting plan changed the game for District 18, but they couldn’t agree on if that meant more Democrats or more Republicans.
“We got two precincts from District 19, and two precincts from District 21, and those precincts canceled each other out,” Durst cautioned.
But Ward-Engelking guessed that instead the district has gone more Democrat, touting the additions of two blue strongholds from portions of District 19. Sen. Toryanski thinks otherwise.
“I disagree with that. I’ve taken a close look at it, and I think the precincts that have been added add a little bit more conservatism to the district. There was one small precinct that leaned left that was actually removed, and so with the one removal and then the additions, I think it favors the Republicans throughout,” he said.
Durst is facing competition from his own party in Tuesday's primary race. Democratic challenger Matthew Duncan, a relative unknown, said that he has hit 3,000 doors ahead of the primary race. Duncan is banking on picking up votes because of Durst’s voting record on emergency contraception.
“I think he’s going to have a hard time attacking Toryanski on the ultrasound issue when it comes down to his record on choice,” said Duncan. “I’ve talk to Planned Parenthood Northwest and they said they can’t spend any money in this district if Branden wins; that there’s no difference between Mitch Toryanski and Branden in this race.”
All three Democratic hopefuls in the race for these two hard-won seats pointed to controversial topics of the last Legislative session: the Students Come First education reform laws, often called “Luna laws” after State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, and the ultrasound bill brought by Boise Republican Sen.. Chuck Winder.
“I feel like [Ellsworth’s] failure to support education on a state level forced districts to run levies,” said Ward-Engelking. “When that happened, it provides a very unequal education for the people of Idaho.”
Ward-Engelking said she supported the Boise School District’s supplemental levy because they were left with “no other choice” to fund education. Education makes up a big part of any voting district, and District 18 includes more than a dozen high-profile public schools.
“If I had won that race, it’s very likely that we wouldn’t have passed that,” said Durst, who served on the committee that narrowly passed an early iteration of the bills.
Both Republican incumbents faced doomed recall efforts after the education reforms passed, suggesting that the close race in District 18 will stay close. Both Ellsworth and Toryanski kept their seats. But Democrats suggest that this election—and a recall vote initiative for the “Luna Laws” could prove a referendum on Republican policies.
“I guess we’ll find out in November. Some people are very pro reform, and some people are very against. I expect that there will be a lot of information put out on all sides concerning education reforms,” said Toryanski.
It’s possible that the heat of the national elections could influence local politics, suggested Durst.
“I feel like this campaign, it’s a different race than it was two years ago,” he said. “The mood of the country is different, so the mood of the county is going to be different.”