From left to right: Betty Richardson, Jim Weatherby and Ben Ysursa
Idaho's Congressional delegation, governorship and state legislature run so red they're scarlet. That hasn't always been the case. In the 1970s, Gov. Cecil Andrus became one of the state's most popular governors, and Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick served from 2008-12 until being unseated by Rep. Raul Labrador.
At a panel titled The Road to Red and hosted by Boise State Public Radio, the evening of May 12, outgoing Republican Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, Democratic strategist Betty Richardson and retired Boise State University Professor Jim Weatherby assembled to unpack why Idaho runs so crimson.
While the panelists discussed the conceptual reasons for why Idaho's elected leaders are predominantly Republicans, they also characterized the ascendance of Idaho's Republican majority as a function of the state's economic, demographic and electoral histories.
"The power of the Democrat Party was certainly diminished greatly by the mining, the timber, the unions. I don't think it's any surprise that the Republicans have risen," said Ysursa.
In the 1980s, Idaho had a popular Democratic governor, Cecil Andrus, but economic decline following the collapse of many of the state's natural resource industries weakened unions that traditionally supported Democrats. Meanwhile, a wave of immigration from California to the Idaho Panhandle turned a blue stronghold into a red one for generations.
"These people weren't coming in from the Bay Area, they were coming in from Orange County. The people were moving to Idaho for cultural reasons rather than economic reasons. They were re-enforcing the conservatism that was already there," said Weatherby.
By 1994, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Larry Echo Hawk lost to former Lt. Gov. Phil Batt, whom Ysursa characterized as an inclusive Republican who built a statewide election apparatus.
"This sounds like heresy now, but he was saying, 'We need to be the party of the big tent,'" he told the crowd.
Contemporary pressures are currently shaping the political landscape as voters prepare to hit the polls May 20, and the panelists wrapped up the symposium with their projections for this upcoming election.
"I think the current Republican Party platform is extreme. You see similarities to 1988. I think we're seeing generational shifts and geographic shifts. It's hard to say where we'll move in 2014, but I hope it's not glacial but I suspect it won't be," said Richardson.
"We still need to be the party of the big tent," said Ysursa. "But that might be utopian."