Idaho, with just 1.3 million people, tucked off near the northwest edge of the country, has been an American success story of late. Since 1990 its population has grown by 38%, more than all but four other states, thanks to technological progress and economic creativity. Idaho's growth has tapered off a bit after 2000, but it still has a robust economy. Its biggest businesses are big: J.R. Simplot is one of the nation's largest potato processors; Micron Technology, the state's number one private employer, is a leader in semiconductors; Albertson's is the nation's second largest supermarket chain; Morrison-Knudsen, the huge contractor. And dozens of smaller high-tech and service businesses have sprung up. From California, a few highly publicized liberal entertainment personalities and a much larger number of conservative engineers and entrepreneurs have come to Idaho for a fresh environment and fresh start, clean air and few crowds, and no cumbersome or expensive regulations, where family lifestyles are still prevalent, traditional values respected and traditional rules enforced.
The wilderness is never far away in Idaho, nor is the experience of the first settlers. Towering over the state Capitol in Boise is the vast peak of Shafer Butte, and not far away are impassable mountains of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, the largest wilderness area outside Alaska and the Salmon River, at 425 miles the longest undammed river in the Lower 48. Idaho was the last North American area European pioneers--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 Valley, was first settled by miners seeking gold and silver, then by loggers seeking timber. Mormons moved north from Utah and settled eastern Idaho. But federal water reclamation projects first authorized in 1894 brought the most settlers, and they transformed the barren Snake River Valley into some of the nation's best volcanic soil-enriched farmland, which with its warm days and cool nights proved ideal for the Burbank russet potato. Idaho potatoes are ideal for baked potatoes and frozen french fries, developed and sold on a handshake to McDonald's by J. R. Simplot and the basis of his billion dollar fortune. 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. Yet Idaho is also cosmopolitan. It exports potatoes--mostly frozen french fries--across the Pacific Rim, and its high-tech companies have competitors all over the world. If Idaho politicians used to concentrate on water and maintaining irrigation, now they also work to curb Canadian potato imports and South Korean semiconductor subsidies.
Not so long ago Idaho was a state of farms and small towns; Boise, the pleasant state capital, was just the largest of the small towns. Today Idaho is increasingly urbanized. Most of its people live in just five counties, in and around Boise, Idaho Falls, Pocatello and Coeur d'Alene. One-third live in the Boise's Treasure Valley, which has been growing rapidly, with big increases in the towns west of Boise--Eagle, Meridian, Middleton, Nampa. There have been large influxes from California and from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. Idaho's Hispanic population grew by 92% in the 1990s and is now 8% of the total; driver's license exams are given in English, Spanish, Serbo-Croatian, Russian, Arabic and Vietnamese. Here the political trend has been very much toward the Republicans: The 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.
At the same time, small counties that have depended on mining and grazing have been hurting. But they think of themselves not as downtrodden employees of absentee corporations needing a protective federal government, but as pioneering entrepreneurs who need to get a bloated, bossy federal government off their backs. The federal government owns 62% of Idaho's land, and most Idahoans were furious at how President Bill Clinton's appointees managed it. The Clinton administration's proposal to stop roadbuilding in about one-third of national forest land was bitterly opposed. Federal limitations on grazing on public lands have squeezed cattle ranchers already hurt by declining beef consumption and lower prices. Similarly, potato farmers dependent on irrigated water were enraged when the Idaho Statesman and local environment restriction advocates called for breaching dams on the Snake River to protect salmon.
The political result of all these things was to make a heavily Republican state more Republican. George W. Bush--against breaching the Snake River dams, dubious about the reintroduction of grizzlies and the prohibition of roadbuilding in the national forests, eager to cut taxes on entrepreneurs--carried Idaho by a 67%-28% margin in 2000. Bush reversed some of the Clinton environmental programs, giving national forest regional managers more flexibility in approving commercial use and streamlining approval of forest thinning. But economic problems and state spending cuts produced new issues in 2002, when Republican Governor Dirk Kempthorne was reelected by only 56%-42% and Democrats gained seats in the legislature. In 2004 Bush carried Idaho by 68%-30%, with a slightly higher percentage and a slightly smaller percentage margin than in 2000. Each time he carried every county but Blaine County, with Sun Valley and its rich newcomers. Bush's percentage held steady in Boise's Ada County and fell in Blaine County (perhaps John Kerry's visit to his wife's home in Sun Valley to go skiing helped); he ran stronger in the Snake River Valley but his percentage fell in most rural northern counties, where the environmental policies of the Clinton administration were no longer an irritant.