Paths to victory: What it will take for Idaho Democrats to win

Analysis by Devon Downey, Idaho Reports


Idaho Democrats are hoping that the “blue wave” will make its way here and carry candidates across the state to surprise victories.

Statewide, Democrats have their best chances in two races: Lt. Governor and Superintendent of Public Instruction. Both of these races are low profile, at least compared to the other races, and either are open or facing an unpopular incumbent.

The Lieutenant Governor race is interesting because of who the candidates are. Democratic nominee Kristin Collum is an Army veteran and former Micron and HP employee. Republican nominee Janice McGeachin was a state legislator for 10 years, before deciding that she would not seek a sixth term. McGeachin is also a small business owner and operates automotive businesses.

Collum originally started her campaign running alongside Jordan, claiming that they were running as a “joint ticket”, but has more recently distanced herself from Jordan and has been campaigning as the moderate choice that eschews ideologues from both the left and the right.

McGeachin has from the beginning of her campaign run as a staunch conservative, emphasizing her pro-life agenda and fighting against Proposition 2.

A race between a self-described moderate and a conservative can have some unexpected results. McGeachin won her five-way primary with just under 30% of the vote; far from the consensus choice among Republican voters. Her push for a resolution in the 2018 Idaho GOP convention stating the parties opposition to Prop 2 also may be unpalatable for Republicans like Reps. Fred Wood and Christy Perry, who have both been campaigning for Medicaid expansion.

As Idaho Reports producer Seth Ogilvie reported, McGeachin’s relationship with fringe right-wing groups has been controversial. This has led to social media attacks and claims by McGeachin’s campaign and the Idaho Republican Party that these have gone so far as to be threatening.

McGeachin is still a slight favorite, but Republicans and Independents who are uncomfortable with her views and relationships/sympathies with fringe groups may vote for the more moderate Collum. This was part of the logic behind the endorsements of four major Idaho newspapers who endorsed Collum:

The race for Superintendent of Public Instruction is different because incumbent Sherri Ybarra is running for her second term. Ybarra’s tenure has been heavily criticized from both Republicans and Democrats. She has been criticized for her absence in the legislature, her cold relationships with lawmakers, and for crafting plans without input from all stakeholders.

Wilder school superintendent Jeff Dillon challenged Ybarra in the Republican primary, and received 41% of the vote by criticizing her lack of leadership.

Similarly, lawmakers have criticized Ybarra for not showing up to the legislature. Clark Corbin has a list of concerns that lawmakers have had with Ybarra.

Ybarra also has a history of working alongside accused sexual harassers. Earlier this month she held a fundraiser at a bar hosted by former Mountain Home principal William McCarrel Jr., who was indefinitely suspended from teaching after multiple accusations of sexual harassment.

Ybarra’s defense was “We’re not around kids right now, we’re at a fundraiser”, not acknowledging the fact that McCarrel’s accusations were not from kids.

Her former spokesman, Dan Goicoechea, resigned after less than a month because of harassment complaints ranging from racial to sexual harassment in his previous post.

Democratic nominee Cindy Wilson has far outraised Ybarra, and earned endorsements from former Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice and Republican Attorney General Jim Jones as well as Frank VanderSloot, a billionaire who typically bankrolls Republican candidates. Examples like when Republican Mitt Romney ran for president and VanderSloot fundraised and bundled over $60 million dollars for him from the 2008 and 2012 elections.

It is hard to beat an incumbent, but because of the baggage and mixed results Idaho’s education system has seen under Ybarra, this may be Democrats best hope of winning a statewide seat.

Other races in Idaho could also turn towards Democrats, although they are much less likely. While certainly underdogs, Paulette Jordan, Cristina McNeil, and Aaron Swisher have a chance to win seats held by Republicans for years. All three of these races are uphill battles, and the Republicans are heavily favored in each of them, but if everything goes right for the Democrats, we could see some surprising results.

Jordan has excited Democrats across Idaho who see her campaign as a legitimate chance for control of Idaho’s highest office. The Idaho GOP seems to think that she is a threat as well, constantly attacking Jordan on social media, particularly Twitter where they have mentioned her almost obsessively.

Jordan’s path is narrow, but possible. A Jordan win will need high Democratic turnout, low Republican turnout, and a strong win among independents. Idaho Republicans make up a majority of registered voters, but there are some caveats.

The biggest among them is the closed primaries that the Idaho Republican Party uses. The only way for voters to vote in the Republican primary is to register as a Republican. In a state that, in recent decades, is typically very Republican, this may be the only way for voters to have a voice on who gets elected. In fact, multiple statewide and legislative offices have no Democratic nominees, and Democrats don’t even have enough candidates to win either chamber of the legislature if every Democrat won.

Because of this, Idaho may have more crossover voters than would typically be expected. The second largest group in Idaho is unaffiliated voters. Just because voters are unaffiliated doesn’t mean they are swing voters. However, for a Democrat to win statewide, they will have to do well among unaffiliated voters and get some registered Republicans to vote for them.

Polling in Idaho has been sparse, and campaigns that rely heavily on young and non-white voters can be hard to poll because these groups don’t vote consistently. Without polling though, we don’t have a baseline to go off of.

The last time there was an open race for Idaho Governor was in 2006, another good year for Democrats nationwide. Governor Butch Otter defeated Democratic nominee Jerry Brady by just over 38,000 votes, or 8%.  Idaho tends to have closer elections for open gubernatorial races, and Jordan is hoping this trend continues.

But Jordan is still the underdog. Jordan’s campaign has had multiple missteps ranging from campaign staff shake-ups to questionable campaign spending and relationships with PACs. These could turn away voters who are uncomfortable with the instability in her campaign.

FiveThirtyEight’s Governor forecast gives Jordan a 1 in 20 chance of winning in their classic model that accounts for polls, fundraising, previous voting, historical trends, and more ( Jordan can win, but it is unlikely.

Little’s path to victory is easier. Other than the fact that FiveThirtyEight gives him a 19 in 20 chance of winning, Little’s history in Idaho should help him. Little won a contested Republican primary against two candidates trying to run as outsiders, and the race was called earlier than many expected it to be.

Similar to Gov. Butch Otter, Little may have some critics who believe that he is not conservative enough. Certainly, his willingness to accept Medicaid expansion, even if he won’t clarify his personal belief on the issue, has drawn controversy. But these voters are unlikely to vote for Jordan, who is undoubtedly more liberal than Little.

The economic state of Idaho should help Little as well. A major factor in gubernatorial elections is the direction of the state’s economy. If the economy is going poorly, historically smaller parties can make unexpected gains, such as Democrats in Louisiana in 2015 and potentially Kansas in 2018. Idaho’s unemployment is at a historic low, and tax revenues continue to come in over state projections.

Little needs only to turn out the same electorate that Idaho has had for decades. If he can do this, Little should be able to overcome a surprisingly high-profile Democratic challenger.

McNeil and Swisher have two different paths. While both are running for Congress, only McNeil is running for an open seat. Open seats tend to have more upsets because the incumbency advantage disappears, and the polling has been sparse. The only poll in models like FiveThirtyEight’s congressional model is from Dan Jones and Associates, conducted back in late June and early July. While McNeil was within 8% of Republican candidate Russ Fulcher, historically the First District has been very conservative. Democrats across the state will point to  Congressman Walt Minnick’s victory in 2008 as proof that the district is competitive. That had more to do with a controversial incumbent than being a swing district. Minnick lost his re-election fight to Rep. Raul Labrador two years later by over 10%.

CNN’s Forecast projects Fulcher to win by a whopping 31%, with a 20% win as his worst outcome based on the margin of error. This seat is listed as more Republican than over 400 other House seats according to the Cook Partisan Voter Index. A Fulcher loss would be a major upset, and his path to victory merely rests on the R that will be next to his name.

However, Fulcher seems to have fallen prey to conspiracy theories, suggesting during his debate on Idaho Public Television that Democrats may have organized the group of migrants trying to reach the United States border for asylum.

We don’t know how much of an impact this will have, especially since the debate was just a week before election day. But using innuendos and conspiracy theories to score political points may push away some voters, even if others believe them to be true.

So can McNeil win an upset? Certainly, but it is less likely than Jordan’s win. In fact, if McNeil is to even have a chance at winning, Jordan probably needs to be elected governor and McNeil get some votes by riding on her coattails.

Swisher, on the other hand, is going against an entrenched incumbent who has represented the Second District for two decades, and has been involved in Idaho politics for another decade and a half.

For Swisher to beat Simpson, he has to hope that there is a strong anti-incumbent push by voters. Swisher also can play up the fact that even though Simpson states he is against Trump, he has voted with Trump’s position all but once according to FiveThirtyEight’s Trump score, meaning he has voted as the president prefers 98.9% of the time. His only vote against the president’s position was on a sanctions bill that all but 5 members of the U.S. House voted in favor of; not exactly a controversial piece of legislation.

Simpson made a big deal out of his not voting for Trump in 2016, and it is possible that the voters in the Second District are not satisfied that Simpson’s opposition has only been lip service.

All that said, this is probably the hardest race for Idaho Democrats to win. Simpson has a substantial incumbency advantage, not to mention that he can argue his importance on the appropriations committee which he is running to be the chair of. Simpson can make a compelling argument that his role in Congress can benefit Idaho, and Swisher will have a tough time negating that.

Overall, Democrats have some races they should be excited about. There are legislative seats that can be picked up by Democrats, and both the Lt. Governor and Superintendent of Public Instruction’s offices can be flipped. While it looks unlikely that Democrats will be able to win back the governor’s office or either congressional seat, the biggest Democratic issue of the previous decade can be implemented in Idaho.

Idaho Democrats will most likely see an Idaho version of the blue wave. How big it is remains to be seen, but Democrats are in a better position than they have been in a long time to finally make some cracks in Idaho’s red wall.


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