Election changes face of Idaho Legislature


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There’s going to be a lot of new faces in the Idaho Legislature next year.

Following Tuesday’s election results, newcomers will make up more than a quarter of the entire body next year. That includes 22 of 70 seats in the Idaho House — or 31 percent — and five of 35 seats in the Senate.

A sixth Senate seat also is in play in Boise’s 15th Legislative District, where three-term incumbent Sen. Fred Martin defeated his Democratic challenger, Jim Bratnober, by a mere six votes. A recount in that race is expected.

Even if Democrats don’t pick up Martin’s seat, they still had their best election showing in a dozen years. They added a net of three seats in the Idaho House and one in the Senate. That’s the biggest expansion for the caucus since 2006, when it added six members.

Democrats now have 14 members in the House and seven in the Senate, bringing them back to where they were prior to the 2016 election.

“We’re feeling pretty celebratory,” said House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise.

Erpelding wasn’t ready to call Tuesday’s results a “blue wave,” though. He said he was disappointed that Rep. Margie Gannon, D-St. Maries, lost her seat to Moscow Republican Bill Goesling (see related story, Page 3A). He also regretted that Orofino educator Cindy Wilson came up just short in her bid to unseat Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra.

Nevertheless, the growth in the Democratic caucus has implications for House committee assignments next session. For example, the party could pick up another seat on the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, which has jurisdiction over tax cuts and revenue bills. It could also add a seat on the Health and Welfare Committee, which with the passage of the Prop 2 Medicaid expansion initiative, may have some say over how the state proceeds on that matter.

Within the majority party, there will be plenty of jockeying over the next few weeks for committee chairmanships. Seven of the 14 House committee chairmen retired or lost re-election bids this year. When combined with the large number of freshmen legislators, that means any Republican incumbent who has served more than two terms could be in line for a committee.

Those assignments will be handed out in early December, when lawmakers gather in Boise to be sworn in and to hold leadership elections for the coming term.

Other highlights from Tuesday’s election results include:

Voter turnout

Preliminary figures suggest this was the highest turnout in a midterm election since 1986.

Final turnout numbers will be lower once Election Day registrations are added in, but based on pre-election registration numbers, statewide turnout Tuesday was about 71 percent. That was 15 percentage points higher than the 2014 midterm.

Counties in north central Idaho saw similar results. The unofficial turnout figures, and change from 2014, include:

Benewah County: 73 percent, up 17 points

Clearwater County: 71 percent, up 12 points

Idaho County: 71 percent, up 12 points

Latah County: 71 percent, up 17 points

Lewis County: 65 percent, up 4 points

Nez Perce County: 68 percent, up 12 points

A blue ripple

Although Democrats picked up a handful of seats in the Idaho Legislature and won some local county offices, they failed to move the needle in other races and didn’t take any statewide contests.

In fact, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Paulette Jordan actually received a smaller percentage of the vote than A.J. Balukoff did in 2014. She won four counties statewide — including Ada and Latah — but tallied just 38.2 percent of Tuesday’s vote, compared to 38.6 percent for Balukoff four years ago.

That was a sharp contrast to national results, where the party added at least 28 seats and took over the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. At the state level, Democrats picked up seven gubernatorial seats previously held by Republicans.

Even nationally, however, “the results weren’t as bad as Republicans expected,” said John Wilkerson, a political science professor at the University of Washington.

Speaking at a Foley Institute “Pizza and Politics” event at Washington State University on Wednesday, Wilkerson said President Donald Trump deserves credit for minimizing Republican losses.

Since the 1930s, there have only been two midterm elections where the president’s party didn’t lose seats in the House of Representatives, so Tuesday’s results weren’t unexpected, Wilkerson said. However, by campaigning hard and energizing his Republican base, Trump helped the party retain some seats it might otherwise have lost.

“When he defied conventional wisdom and became really controversial in his messaging, Trump really saved the Republican Party,” Wilkerson said.

He also credits the president — as well as what he described as Democratic mishandling of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearing — with helping the GOP add at least two seats in the Senate.

Washington Legislature

At least a dozen House races and three or four Senate races remain too close to call. However, it appears Democrats will add to their small majority in both chambers.

The party currently has a two-seat majority in the Washington House and just a one-seat majority in the Senate.

After Tuesday’s initial election night count, Democratic challengers were ahead in seven House and two Senate races for seats previously held by Republicans. GOP candidates also were fighting to retain their seats in another seven House and two Senate races; although they were leading, those contests were too close to call.

Spence may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.

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