GovernorC.L. "Butch" Otter (R)
SenatorsMike Crapo (R)
James Risch (R)
RepresentativesRep. Walt Minnick (D)
Rep. Mike Simpson (R)
Districts1st District (Minnick)
2nd District (Simpson)
One of the American success stories of the last 20 years has been the state of Idaho. Tucked off near the northwest edge of the country, far from any major metro area, it was ignored by coastal elites except for those who jetted in to Sun Valley. From 1990 to 2007, the state’s population grew nearly 50%, from 1 million to 1.5 million, thanks to technological progress and economic creativity. From 2000 to 2007, Idaho had a higher rate of domestic in-migration than all but four other states—Nevada, Arizona, and at different times Florida and Utah. It has spawned some awesomely large businesses. Mining is less important here than potatoes, of which Idaho produces one-third of the nation’s total. And it processes them: Back in 1953, J. R. Simplot perfected the process of freezing French fries; his company got a contract with a relatively new enterprise called McDonald’s and grew to be one of the biggest potato processors in the world, selling 3 billion pounds a year. Idahoans complain about the Atkins diet, and they bellyached when then-Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne put the peregrine falcon and not the potato on the Idaho quarter; the potato business continues to thrive nonetheless. In the 1970s Simplot put up $1 million to finance Micron Technology, which became the state’s largest employer and spawned a booming high-tech sector including Hewlett-Packard’s laser-jet printers. Idaho produces more patents per worker than any other state and is far above average in per capita research and development and IPOs. In 2008, the state saw the opening of the Idaho Regional Optical Network, which is working to establish a high-performance computing network that can support large-scale research efforts.
Idaho is big: Montpelier, in the southeast, is closer to Farmington, N.M., than to Bonner Springs in the northern panhandle. And the wilderness is never far away. Towering over the state Capitol in Boise is the vast peak of Shafer Butte, and not far away are the impassable mountains of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, the largest U.S. wilderness area outside Alaska, and the Salmon River, at 425 miles the longest undammed river in the lower 48 states. Idaho was the last North American area that European fur traders set eyes on. In the 1840s, New England Yankees led by ministers made their way west on the Oregon Trail through southern Idaho. Idaho’s northern panhandle, an extension of Washington’s Columbia River Valley, was first settled by miners seeking gold and silver, then by loggers seeking timber. Mormons moved north from Utah and settled in eastern Idaho. Federal water-reclamation projects first authorized in 1894 attracted the most settlers; they transformed the barren Snake River Valley into some of the nation’s best volcanic, soil-enriched farmland, which along with warm days and cool nights, proved ideal for the Burbank russet potato and, more recently, for a fledgling wine industry. Still fresh in family lore are the people who pioneered this state, built the first towns and farms, established the first churches and schools and became its community leaders. Some major businesses got their start in Idaho—the Albertsons supermarket chain, the construction giant Morrison-Knudsen, and of course Simplot and Micron. The state is also a national leader in exports.
Idaho’s economic vitality has attracted many newcomers over the past 20 years. A few highly publicized liberal entertainment personalities and investment bankers have moved to Sun Valley or over the state line from Jackson Hole, Wyo., and some liberal professionals are appearing in Boise. But a much larger number of conservative engineers and entrepreneurs have come, from California and all over, for a fresh environment and a fresh start, clean air and sparse crowds, and few cumbersome or expensive regulations. As Republican Gov. James Risch said in 2006, “People are coming not because they want to change Idaho, but because they like what they see.” As a result, Idaho has been transformed from a state of farms and small towns, where Boise, the pleasant state capital, was just the largest of them. Today, nearly 60% of its people live in just five counties in and around Boise, Idaho Falls, Coeur d’Alene, and Pocatello, and all but the last are growing rapidly. About 40% of Idahoans live in Treasure Valley around Boise, which accounted for nearly 60% of the state’s population growth from 2000 to 2007. Large influxes of people have come from California, and from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. Idaho’s Hispanic population is now 9.5% of the total. The state gives driver’s license exams in English, Spanish, Serbo-Croatian, Russian, Arabic, and Vietnamese. Overall, the political trend has been toward the Republican Party. Most newcomers are from Orange County, not San Francisco, and they seek not cultural liberation, but an environment in which they can raise their children in traditional lifestyles.
Even in the prosperous years before the 2008 recession, small counties that depended on mining and grazing were hurting. But people there see themselves as pioneering entrepreneurs who, rather than seek federal help, want to get a bloated, bossy federal government off their backs. The U.S. government owns 62% of Idaho’s land, and most Idahoans strongly opposed the Clinton administration’s environmental policies, which blocked road-building on one-third of national forestland, limited grazing on public lands, reintroduced the grey wolf, and proposed to breach dams on the Snake River to protect salmon (in the process, depriving potato farmers of water). Such policies made a Republican state more Republican, and George W. Bush carried it by 67%-28% in 2000 and 68%-30% in 2004. John Kerry carried only one county, the richest by far in the state, where his wife owns a house near Sun Valley. In 2008, John McCain carried the state 62% to 36% for Barack Obama.
But as memories of the 1990s grow dim, Idaho may have inched a little toward the Democratic Party. Republican Kempthorne was re-elected governor by just 56%-42% in 2002. His successor as governor, Republican James Risch, won the nomination for U.S. senator in 2008 in the open seat that was, prudently, vacated by Larry Craig after the revelation of his arrest on suspicion of soliciting sex in a men’s room in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Risch beat former Democratic Rep. Larry LaRocco, 58%-34%. And controversial 1st District Republican Rep. Bill Sali, a narrow winner in 2006, and renominated by only 60%-40%, a sure sign of trouble for an incumbent, lost to Democrat Walt Minnick in 2008 by 51%-49%—the first time a Democrat won a congressional election in Idaho since 1992. But Republicans maintained overwhelming strength in the state Legislature. There were signs, meanwhile, that Idaho’s 20-year economic boom was slowing down. Unemployment ballooned from 2% in September 2007 to 5% in September 2008. Idaho did not experience the bubble of speculative housing that burst in Nevada and Arizona, but housing prices declined. Micron laid off workers and state officials reported a drop-off in firms looking to set up operations in the state.
2008 Presidential Vote
2008 Republican Presidential Primary
Idaho is one of the most Republican states in presidential politics. No Democratic nominee has come close to carrying it since 1964, and Bill Clinton came within 1% of finishing third behind third-party candidate Ross Perot and Republican George H.W. Bush in 1992. Despite his victories in both caucuses and primary here, Barack Obama was not in contention in Idaho and carried just three counties, two of them populated by wealthy expatriates from New York and California and one of them the home of the University of Idaho. John McCain carried the state 62%-36%.
Idaho has held its presidential primary in late May, long after the action in most recent presidential contests, and McCain’s victory over GOP Rep. Ron Paul here was little noticed. But Democrats decided to select their delegates in caucuses, with the first round held on Super Tuesday, February 5. Few of the presidential campaigns paid much heed, but Obama’s team did, setting up a state headquarters and organizing supporters around the state. Some 20,200 Idahoans participated, and Obama led Hillary Rodham Clinton 80% to 17%. This was a far bigger victory than the 56%-38% Obama win in the May 27 primary, in which 42,800 Idahoans voted. Obama’s success in this and other caucus states, particularly in the Midwest and West, provided his margin of victory over Clinton, who won more votes and more delegates than her rival in Democratic primaries.
Some Republicans have tried to limit voting in party primaries to registered Republicans. A bill to that effect passed the state House in early 2008, but the Senate took no action. A lawsuit was filed in April to require closed primaries.
|111th Congress: 1 D, 1 R|
Idaho has two congressional districts, which split Boise between them. After the 2000 census, a bipartisan commission drew new boundaries, moving the dividing line in Boise about a mile to the west, along Cole Road, a minor and uncontroversial change. If Idaho ever gets a third district, redistricting should be a cinch. Most of the Boise area would become one district, and eastern Idaho and northern Idaho would get one each. Absent that, chances are that the boundary will be shifted a few miles again after the 2010 census, unless a Republican Legislature decides to try to make bigger changes to disadvantage Democrat Walt Minnick, who won the 1st District seat in 2008.