If anyone in Kootenai County could have predicted the Democrats' downfall, it was Dan English. He had spent most of his life in the Idaho Panhandle and monitored more than 100 local elections in his 15 years as county clerk.
The first ballots he counted, in 1996, revealed tight contests between Republicans and Democrats, but in the years that followed, the margins only widened. By 2002, the Democratic presence had been so whittled down that only one Democrat--English himself--still held an elected county office.
For his re-election campaign that year, he distributed wooden nickels labeled, "Save the Last One," reminding voters of a bygone time when his party dominated the county. That caught the attention of USA Today, which observed that English was a rare political survivor in what had become "the most Republican county in the most Republican state in the nation."
Once again, English was spared.
But by Nov. 2, 2010, when he faced another election, Kootenai County had swung even further to the right. President Barack Obama was especially unpopular with Idaho Republicans, and any association with his party and policies had become a political liability.
English is a gentle, affable man with bipartisan appeal: His children served on active duty in Iraq; he founded the nonprofit North Idaho Youth for Christ; and he was civically engaged well before he became clerk, serving on the school board and city council.
English knew, however, that his record no longer mattered as much as the letter "D" beside his name. "You don't have anything to worry about. People like you," his friends assured him, but English had doubts. That November evening, he noticed the election supervisor studying the absentee ballots--often a preview of the final totals--with particular intensity.
"I have to run this again. Something's not right," she told him. When she left the room, English pulled the results from the trash. "Sure enough, there I was, losing." He called his wife and said, "I think this may be the end of the run."
In the end, not a single Democrat was elected to a partisan office in Kootenai County. All three county commissioners, as well as the clerk, the assessor, the sheriff, the treasurer, the county attorney and the coroner were Republican; so were the nine state legislators representing the area. Voters even backed a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, Raul Labrador, by a 10 percent margin over Democratic incumbent Walt Minnick. (Labrador is now one of Congress' most conservative members.)
To outside observers, it may have appeared that the county swung along with the nation's political pendulum. American voters leaned right in 2010, awarding Republicans a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. But in Kootenai County, something far more enduring than partisan realignment had tipped the scales. As English put it, the 2010 election marked "the end of an era"--not only politically, but demographically. Conservative newcomers, primarily from Southern California, had helped quadruple the county population since 1970. Allied with conservative North Idahoans, they systematically transformed the local politics.
It was part of a much larger pattern: Increasingly mobile Americans were deliberately seeking out communities that reinforced their own social and political values. Elsewhere, conservative emigrants helped push certain suburbs of Boise; Denver; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Salt Lake City; and Phoenix further to the right, while liberals relocated to urban centers and college towns. The shift had a polarizing effect: In 1976, less than one-quarter of Americans lived in counties that voted overwhelmingly--by more than a 20 percent margin--for either presidential candidate. By 2004, nearly half of Americans did.
The consequences have only begun to emerge. Journalist Bill Bishop and sociologist Robert G. Cushing, in their widely praised 2008 book, The Big Sort, suggest that the United States has become a patchwork of ideologically distinct communities that elect representatives who are frequently unwilling to compromise. No wonder, they write, that Congress is gridlocked, and issues such as health care, which once crossed party lines, are now definitively partisan.
"What happened," writes Bishop, "wasn't a simple increase in political partisanship, but a more fundamental kind of self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing social division."
Americans had created communities that functioned as "social-resonators," in which they could hear the "amplified sound of their own voices and beliefs."
Indeed, Kootenai County's transformation suggests that the most indelible impacts may be felt in the echo chambers themselves--in the counties, red and blue, where the majorities' values are reinforced in every facet of local government, and where it's easy to forget the way the other half thinks.
"It's taking us a step back," one self-described conservative told me, "because by making our own private Idaho, we're insulating ourselves from the world."
Kootenai County spans 1,316 square miles, from its flat prairie border with Washington across the north shore of Lake Coeur d'Alene to the dense pine forests on Fourth of July Pass. In the late 1800s, prospectors discovered gold, silver, lead and zinc in the mountains just east of the pass, and for much of the next century, mining undergirded the regional economy.
In the 1970s, the Silver Valley, on a fork of the Coeur d'Alene River, produced half the nation's silver and ranked among the 10 most productive mining districts in the world. The mines, and the unions that arose with them, made the region faithfully Democratic. Republicans rarely won local partisan elections, and unionized workers backed Idaho Sen. Frank Church, who sponsored the 1964 Wilderness Act and opposed the Vietnam War.
But North Idaho also contained deep conservative pockets. In 1964, the presidential election revealed strong support for Republican Barry Goldwater, and the area caught the attention of Ronald Rankin, a leader of Southern California's burgeoning conservative movement. In 1965, Rankin moved to Coeur d'Alene, the largest town in Kootenai County, from Orange County, south of Los Angeles, where he'd directed the California Republican Assembly and rallied Goldwater supporters. (At one event, Rankin reportedly told a young Ronald Reagan--then making his first run for California governor--that he was "too liberal.")
According to the region's leading newspaper, the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., Rankin and his family moved to Idaho "looking for a quieter life." The following year, however, he revealed another reason in the Lewiston Morning Tribune, saying that "several very wealthy Southern Californians" had planted eight field organizers, including Rankin, across the West to "reshape the Republican Party from the bottom up along arch-conservative lines."
Kootenai County was a strategic target. Rankin told the Tribune he liked the "community atmosphere"; the small electorate was easier to influence, and almost entirely white. (The Aryan Nations, a white supremacist group, had its headquarters in the county until 2001.) It was a place, Rankin believed, where one person could make a difference--where, by reorienting the local politics, he could help change the nation.
"If we can carry the bottom of the ticket," he said, "then we have a chance of carrying the top."
Rankin's failures and successes read like a litmus test for the county's political transformation. His first move--an attempt to recall Church--was seen as radical, even among Republicans, and over the years, as the Spokesman-Review noted, he ran "for every public office from governor to a seat on a local highway district ... most always unsuccessfully." Eventually, though, Rankin's popularity grew. He hosted a radio talk show and had some success spreading his anti-tax philosophy. In 1996, he finally won a seat on the Kootenai County Commission and persuaded fellow commissioners to make English the county's official language. By the time Rankin died in 2004, local politics had shifted so drastically to the right that some conservatives considered him too liberal. (Rankin reportedly dubbed them "the far-righteous.")
The economy had slid out from underneath Democrats. The price of silver dropped precipitously in 1980, the metals market slumped, mines closed and Idaho passed right-to-work legislation that effectively disabled the unions. Kootenai County's new economy was based on tourism, medical care and the high-tech industry.
At the front of this transition was Coeur d'Alene native Duane Hagadone, an ambitious conservative who owned the Coeur d'Alene Press and other Northwestern newspapers. Hagadone believed that the region's economic future depended on its natural beauty, epitomized in the 25-mile-long Lake Coeur d'Alene. He was already on his way to becoming one of Idaho's wealthiest men when he built an 18-story hotel and resort on the lakeshore, featuring a golf course with a floating green and a new marina that offered cable television and room service to visiting yachtsmen. At a Chamber of Commerce meeting in 1985, after county commissioners approved the project, Hagadone gushed, "The potential of what we have in this great community in this great area is almost scary."
Meanwhile, Southern California was struck by a series of disasters in the early 1990s--a recession, an earthquake, race riots--that together marked the beginning of an exodus. Between 1992 and 2000, excluding birth and death rates, California lost 1.8 million more people than it gained; collectively, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona gained 1.4 million more than they lost. More than half of the immigrants to Idaho in that period came from California. Of the top four counties that lost emigrants to Kootenai, three were in California--San Diego, Los Angeles and Orange.
Like many other mass movements, this one spread by word of mouth. In 1990, the Coeur d'Alene Press reported that one Orange County family had convinced "half its neighborhood" to relocate to Coeur d'Alene. A pastor told me that "whole [evangelical] ministries" came north together. By the end of the 1990s, more than 500 California police officers had retired to North Idaho, among them Mark Fuhrman, who committed perjury in the prosecution of O.J. Simpson. One officer told the Los Angeles Times that he left Anaheim because "the narrow roads got wider, orange groves became tract homes and street gangs became too numerous to count." He went looking for "another Shangri-La," and found it in Kootenai County.
Indeed, as the county's population soared to more than 100,000, it began to look less like Idaho and more like suburban California. The prairie was paved with curling cul-de-sacs and gridded with Starbucks, Del Tacos and Holiday Inns. The old Potlatch Mill on Lake Coeur d'Alene became a golf course, and another mill site, just past the outflow into the Spokane River, became an office complex and parking lot.
Once, when county commissioners voted to approve a subdivision, a local politician opined, "They are trying to turn Idaho into Orange County." Another resident wrote to the Spokesman-Review, "When I moved there in 1976, Coeur d'Alene was a nice, sleepy town, just getting ready to construct its first McDonald's. Today, thanks to the horde of Californians who settled there, the place has espresso bars and strip malls and ferns and houses with diagonal wood."
Pundits predicted that Californians' migration to places like Kootenai County would have a moderating effect on the politics of the Intermountain West. The newcomers "are finding work in jobs unrelated to the traditional timber, mining and agricultural fields," observed Timothy Egan, a Western correspondent for The New York Times, in 1993.
Egan suggested that these "lifestyle refugees" would cause an "environmentalist tilt in the [Western] electorate." But he overlooked a key detail: The counties from which these refugees came were the most conservative in California. They were, in fact, the birthplace of modern American conservatism--home to the John Birch Society, early evangelicalism, the 1978 tax revolt that led to property-tax limits in Proposition 13, and two years later, Reagan's election to the presidency.
When California's conservative bulwarks faltered in the 1990s under the weight of rising taxes, stricter regulations, Mexican immigration and the state's steady liberalization, conservatives went looking for what they believed they had lost. Many told me that Kootenai County became their idea of "God's Country"--an American utopia, a refuge from "a world turned upside down."
As one transplant told Egan, "There's this desire to return to a simpler, nostalgic life, even though we don't really have any idea what that is."