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Redistricting process may put Southern Idaho Democrats — especially in Blaine County — at risk

Idaho State Capitol - 2021
Otto Kitsinger
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Idaho State Capitol building on May 5, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Mountain Sun)

Strategically thinking, Democrats may be better positioned long-term in the new Treasure Valley district than in isolated, outlying areas like Blaine County, writes guest columnist Stephen Hartgen.

The new census data for Idaho was released this month, and for Southern Idaho, there’s likely to be more pressure on the Democratic island of Blaine County and District 26 which could well tip to Republicans in coming elections.

The reason is in the numbers. The Wood River Valley, with its traditional Democratic representation in the Legislature, is surrounded by three other counties that are solidly Republican: Gooding, Camas and Lincoln. Those three in the past have not had enough population to outweigh Blaine County’s liberals, so the district has had mostly Democratic legislators for several terms.

But new census numbers show Blaine County does not have enough population on its own (24,272) to warrant its own seats. Looking in any direction, it’s a Republican landscape, county by county all through the central and Southern Idaho. There are no adjacent areas of Democratic strength from which to draw liberal voters.

The upshot is that the district will be much more competitive for Republicans in any new configuration and thus puts at risk the long-held Democratic seats.

The really good news, from a GOP perspective, is that the rest of the Magic Valley is solidly Republican and unlikely to change much with the new census. District 24, Twin Falls city, has almost precisely the population numbers to keep its legislative profile. The same is true for District 25, rural Twin Falls County and Jerome County, which are heavily agricultural and have been Republican for decades. Population growth in these two counties fits almost exactly with the new census “target” population of 52,556 per district.

District 23, which now includes several precincts in western Twin Falls County, could go undergo a reconfiguration if the Twin Falls precincts are returned to their home county. That would leave district 23 with just two counties, Owyhee and Elmore, which don’t have enough population and thus would need more numbers to get the magic figure of 52,556. So the two counties might be attached to a larger physical district that would likely be closer to Boise and include towns on the North side of the Snake River.

District 27, Cassia and Minidoka Counties, could expand east to pick up precincts and communities closer to the American Falls reservoir.

There are two basic reasons behind these changes. One is rapid growth or Idaho’s overall population, but the growth has not been even across the state. Larger communities have benefited more; smaller communities and less-populated counties were either flat or in some cases declined.

The other reason is Idaho’s odd shape. Redistricting plans going back several decades start at the top of the state and continue south and east, adding districts. Redistricting law also requires districts to have common interests and to follow existing county lines to the degree possible. Any wide variation from this one-man-one-vote standard is likely to draw a lawsuit.

Thus, the Treasure Valley will pick up one new district based on population growth, which squeezes current representation of more conservative parts of the state. Depending on how that new district is drawn, it will impact Democratic numbers and seats. It is thus likely to be sharply contested in the redistricting process and subsequent elections.

Indeed, strategically thinking, Democrats may be better positioned long-term in the new Treasure Valley district than in isolated, outlying areas like Blaine County.

For those isolated Democrat islands in a Republican sea, Democratic prospects are risky and dimmer. Except for resort and college towns, (Moscow and Teton County), Democrats are likely to remain the distant minority party overall outside of Boise and Ada County.

We saw this pattern in 2018 election, where Gov. Brad Little carried every precinct in the Magic Valley outside of Blaine County. An extreme liberal Democrat candidate like his opponent, Paulette Jordan, is unlikely to substantially change the big picture, and even less likely to win the state.

This Idaho pattern can be seen in other states where political polarization is occurring by region, urban versus rural, resort town versus rural countryside, natural resource economy versus tourism and recreation.

It’s a fact of American political life today that where you live and what you do shape your views of politics and your voting preferences. Add in other factors like family structure, faith patterns, and employment in various industries, and it’s easy to see how Southern Idaho is likely to retain its basic social profile for the foreseeable future, which means Republican. That’s good news if you’re in the GOP, less so if you’re a Democrat.

Contests will still be spirited. Traditional Republicans will continue to hold most of the region, but more ideological partisans on the right could emerge.

Redistricting thus has another level which is more reliant on local politics than ever. It’s been that way and American government for decades; the new census won’t change those Idaho patterns appreciably.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.