While the spoils of an election go to the winner, the political capital acquired from a successful campaign gets banked by the architect of the victory. When the dust settles on the Nov. 4 general election, the record will show Boise-based Conservation Voters for Idaho added an impressive chapter to its coveted playbook.
"Political capital? I've been on the job for four months," said Courtney Washburn, who served for nearly a decade as community conservation director for the Idaho Conservation League before taking the reins at CVI from outgoing executive director John Reuter this past summer.
The nonprofit's laser-like political agenda for 2015 included campaigns to support incumbent Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and his Clean Water and Open Space levy; incumbent Boise City Council members Elaine Clegg, Scot Ludwig and Lauren McLean; and, in the north Idaho resort town of Sandpoint, successful mayoral candidate Shelby Rognstad.
While each of CVI's candidates were successful and the Boise levy passed in a landslide, the real jaw-dropper was the percentage of eligible voters who voted in an off-year election.
"I must tell you, I still can't totally wrap my head around it," said Ada County Chief Deputy Clerk Phil McGrane. "The turnout in Ada County was remarkable. I can't think of anything quite like this for a city election and I've been here since 2005."
In Boise, some key districts reported turnouts of more than 40 percent of registered voters. In the city of Sandpoint, poll watchers reported 48 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
"I get a lot of questions about new technology and how it influences an election," said Washburn, "but we decided to go old-school. What worked this year was talking to people on doorsteps. People increasingly aren't answering their phones. And just because somebody 'friends' your campaign on Facebook doesn't mean that they're inclined to go to the polls."
In particular, Washburn said CVI zeroed in on early voters.
"We really focused on people who might cast their ballots before Election Day... that and early voters," she said.
Ada County election officials said 4,698 voters cast their ballots at early polling stations: election headquarters on Benjamin Lane, Ada County Indigent Services in downtown Boise and Meridian City Hall. Add those ballots to 1,943 mail-in ballots and the sum represents nearly 20 percent of all Ada County votes and nearly a third of votes cast in Boise.
"We knew that the North End of Boise would be quite high; they usually have an above-average participation," said McGrane. "There was a very concerted campaign to target those people to vote for the foothills levy."
North Enders weren't the only Boiseans throwing their support behind the levy. Only four precincts across the city—with very few votes cast in each—leaned against the levy, which calls for $10 million over two years to help preserve habitats, clean water and open spaces around the Boise Foothills and Boise River.
"Turnout in municipal elections in Idaho has been trending lower and lower. So it was important to start our campaign early," said Washburn. "In addition to the levy, all of our endorsed candidates in Sandpoint and Boise emerged victorious."
At the top of the heap was Bieter, who won a record-tying fourth term in office. Citywide, Bieter garnered an impressive 69 percent of the vote; in northeast Boise's sprawling precinct No. 1910, he secured 85 percent.
Bieter's chief opponent, Judy Peavey-Derr, hinged her campaign on courting voters in south and western Boise. While she edged past the incumbent in a handful of precincts, her margins were slim. In many of Boise's farthest-west precincts—bordering Meridian—Bieter was the victor.
Ultimately, Bieter received 22,722 votes, compared to Peavey-Derr's 8,716 and 1,489 votes for Seth Holden, who managed a minimal campaign. There were 90 other names cast on write-in ballots.
Meanwhile in northern Idaho, the Sandpoint Reader reported its city's 48 percent voter turnout was a huge bump from the 2013 local elections, which garnered 30 percent. Sandpoint City Council President Shelby Rognstad will be sliding over to the mayor's office in January and his opponent, Mose Dunkel, has already told the Reader he would be interested in being appointed to fill Rognstad's council seat.
Meanwhile, Washburn said her organization has already turned its sights toward the Idaho Statehouse, saying 2016 will be an interesting year.
We'll be lobbying quite a bit during the upcoming legislative session," she said. "And given the results of those lobbying efforts, we'll then decide what to do about next year's election."