While the partisan composition of the Idaho Legislature likely won't look too different next year, there will still be new faces, with turnover due to the May primaries, retirements in some important positions and a handful of legislative seats that could be up for grabs in November.
A few incumbents won't return to the House as a result of the intra-Republican ideological battles that played out during the May primaries. High-profile retirements in the Senate will open up key leadership spots. And while there aren’t too many competitive legislative districts, both Democrats and Republicans said they plan to focus on the handful that have seen seats change hands over the past couple of elections.
“We are very much just focusing on protecting all of our seats that we picked up in 2018,” said Jesse Monaldado, first vice chairman and political director for the Idaho Democrats. “That’s our biggest focus. And we just want to continue making gains where we can, and where we have really strong candidates.”
Republicans hold 80% of the seats in both the Senate and House, a number that hasn't changed much for most of the 21st century. Twenty of the 35 Republicans running for the Senate are unopposed this year, meaning even if every single Democrat won the GOP would still control that chamber.
"I don't think that we've got a large number of legislative races that are likely to be competitive. ... We haven't seen a large proportion of competitive legislative districts in Idaho for a while," said Jaclyn Kettler, an assistant political science professor at Boise State University.
However, the Democrats did make gains in 2018, winning a few House seats in the Wood River Valley, Pocatello and the Boise area, and a Senate seat in northern Idaho. These are seats Democrats want to hold and Republicans want to win back.
“We are proud to stand by all of our candidates, up and down the ballot, and across the 35 legislative districts in Idaho,” the state Republican Party said in a statement. “We will continue collaborating with our county central committees to defend all legislative seats under GOP control. Further, we intend to work aggressively to regain seats in areas we lost in 2016 and 2018.”
District 15's Sen. Fred Martin is the last Republican left representing the city of Boise, and his district has been trending blue — both of his House seatmates are Democrats, and Martin won in 2018 by just six votes. He is facing Democrat Rick Just.
“Getting within six votes of any seat, it hurts, but it just gives you enough fire to go back and get it this time,” Maldonado said.
District 5's Sen. David Nelson, D-Moscow, the only Democratic lawmaker left north of the Time Zone Bridge, is in a somewhat analogous position, representing an area that has been trending away from his party. The district combines politically divided Latah County, home of the University of Idaho, with heavily Republican Benewah County, and both of its House members are Republicans.
Nelson is facing Republican Dan Foreman, who represented the district before Nelson beat him in 2018. Foreman was one of the most conservative senators during his single term, and his winning would mean another vote for the GOP's further-right faction in a chamber that has generally been more moderate than the House.
"David Nelson is a fantastic candidate and is going up against a candidate who has made national news for being quite rude to his constituents, and he's thinking that his constituents want him back, and I think we're going to prove that's not the case," Maldonado said.
Maldonado hopes a message of protecting access to health care, public lands and education funding will help Democrats statewide. Meanwhile, Republicans hope the presidential election will work in their favor in a state where President Donald Trump has some of his highest approval ratings.
“With President Trump on the ballot, we are seeing record enthusiasm from Republicans to help protect the values that make Idaho, and America, great,” the party said in a statement. “As the state GOP, we welcome new voters into our state and remind them why they moved here and how we can Keep Idaho Red.”
Primaries and retirements
Former Reps. Ron Nate of Rexburg and Karey Hanks of St. Anthony are returning to the statehouse, two conservatives who beat more moderate incumbent Reps. Britt Raybould and Jerald Raymond in May and are unopposed this November. In Canyon County's District 10, Julie Yamamoto unseated Rep. Jarom Wagoner, R-Caldwell. The more moderate faction did beat one further-right incumbent this year — Marco Erickson unseated Rep. Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls. Yamamoto and Erickson are facing Democrats Rebecca Yamamoto Hansen and David Roth, respectively.
Aside from the primary turnover, there have been notable retirements. Senate President Pro Tempore Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, isn't running for re-election after almost two decades in the Senate. Now-Rep. Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg, is unopposed in the general election for the district's Senate seat, but the real drama could be around who will get Hill's influential leadership post.
Sens. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, and Bert Brackett, R-Three Creek, who head the Senate's Education and Transportation committees, are also retiring. Kevin Cook is running unopposed for Mortimer's seat, while now-Rep. Christy Zito wants move up to Brackett's, which would have the effect of replacing a relatively moderate senator with one who is currently one of the most conservative members of the House. Zito is facing Democrat Laura Bellegante in November, but District 23, which covers Owyhee, Elmore and parts of rural western Twin Falls counties, is heavily Republican, going for the GOP candidate in the last two gubernatorial elections by an average of 42 points in the two-party vote.
Sens. Don Cheatham, R-Post Falls, and Maryanne Jordan and Cherie Buckner-Webb, both D-Boise, are also retiring. All three represent districts that are safe for their parties. One effect of these retirements is now-Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, will likely move up to Buckner-Webb's seat.