In his 1988 book “Paradox Politics,” historian Randy Stapilus described an Idaho with a wildly unpredictable electorate. Voters willing to elect Democrat Cecil Andrus governor four times kept Republicans in charge of the state legislature.
Congressional seats and statewide offices were winnable for candidates from either party — from the ultraconservative Helen Chenoweth to the liberal Larry LaRocco. The people called the shots and politicians were kept on edge. The balance of power was about right.
No longer. It’s been at least two decades since there was any paradox to Idaho’s politics. Elections became grimly predictable. The politicians were comfortable and the people left uneasy. The balance of power got grossly out of whack.
On Tuesday, however, we saw a small glimpse of the old Idaho.
Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter earned his party’s nomination for a third time. But he did so with little more than half the vote and while losing Idaho’s three most populous counties: Ada, Kootenai and Canyon.
Voters slapped down a slate of insurgent candidates for statewide office, but embraced the most polarizing of all, Secretary of State hopeful Lawerence “Boss” Denney.
Tea party leader Raul Labrador won big in the north.
Establishment stalwart Mike Simpson won big in the south.
Hard right incumbent legislators Monty Pearce (New Plymouth) and Lenore Hardy Barrett (Challis) lost to moderates.
Moderate incumbents John Goedde (Coeur d’ Alene), George Eskridge (Dover), Ed Morse (Hayden) and Doug Hancey (Rexburg) unexpectedly got taken out from the right. Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls, narrowly avoided that fate.
And somehow, Sherri Ybarra claimed the four-way GOP race for superintendent of public instruction despite spending just $2,800 and never stepping foot in some of the counties she won.
So, where does this leave us? With a Republican Party attempting to figure out what it is and who’s in charge. Is it Labrador, fresh off earning 78.6 percent of the vote, and his allies in the state party, including Chairman Barry Peterson? Or is the Simpson-Otter-Idaho Association of Commerce &Industry wing of the party running the show?
More importantly, where is the electorate? Are citizens who were wounded by the recession, shut out by the closed GOP primary and disgusted with politicians returning to the old “Paradox Politics” Stapilus wrote about more than a quarter century ago?
We’ll know more in November. The Idaho Stapilus depicted was willing to vote for Democrats when the Republican candidate proved to be either unpalatable or inexperienced. Denney is the embodiment of unpalatable. They don’t come any more inexperienced that Ybarra. Some of those tea party legislative candidates are more interested in throwing bombs that solving problems. The question is whether Idahoans will be content to remain in the middle of the Republican Civil War or willing to look outside for solutions to problems vexing the state.
Tuesday showed that the natives are restless and Idaho’s political landscape is shifting. In which direction, however, remains to be seen.