Inside a modest Boise office, a few blocks from the Idaho Capitol, where Republicans have ruled for most of the state’s history, Democrats are planning a return to prominence.
Sitting in secondhand office chairs below a picture of Frank Church — Idaho’s former longtime Democratic senator — Idaho Democratic Party Executive Director Jared DeLoof and Chairwoman Lauren Necochea, a state representative from Boise, told the Idaho Statesman that Democrats are playing the long game. They plan to capitalize on infighting among Republicans in the coming years, starting in next month’s general election.
DeLoof, who’s been head of the state party since last year, said they’re focused on helping Democrats get elected next month. But the long-term goals are deepening the roster of Democratic candidates and continuing to publicize opposition to far-reaching GOP policies, such as Idaho’s near-total abortion ban.
“Republican voters are really looking at what’s happening in their party and saying, ‘You know, maybe this isn’t the place for me anymore,’ and are giving Democrats a second look
for the first time in a long time,” DeLoof said.
However, the minority party, which represents just 13% of registered Idaho voters, is unlikely to see significant gains this November.
Democrats have forfeited races for more than half the seats in the Republican-dominated Legislature. In statewide races, a few Democrats have run standout campaigns, raising more than $600,000 combined to challenge favored Republicans.
But some contestants for powerful constitutional offices have inactive campaigns or little financial support.
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stephen Heidt has raised just $24,000, a fraction of the funds raised by incumbent Republican Gov. Brad Little — nearly $2.6 million — and independent candidate Ammon Bundy, who’s raked in $600,000, a quarter of it his own money.
Heidt, a former teacher with the Idaho Department of Correction, secured the Democratic nomination in May after the former frontrunner, Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad, was disqualified from the Democratic primary because he wasn’t registered with the party.
Building back a ‘decimated’ bench In a debate this month, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate David Roth was asked why he jumped from an unsuccessful campaign for the state Legislature in 2020 to a federal race challenging longtime GOP Sen. Mike Crapo.
“In the Democratic Party in Idaho, we don’t have a particularly deep bench,” Roth responded. “So often we have to look out and see who has the best experience, who has the ability to launch the best campaign possible.”
Roth has long been an active party member, holding local leadership positions in eastern Idaho for more than a decade and currently serving as the Bonneville County Democrats’ chairman.
Nearly three in five registered voters in Idaho are Republican. A candidate like Roth, who’s willing to be an underdog, is difficult to find, DeLoof and Necochea said.
Big political donors, seeking to gain access to politicians, typically back the most likely winners, Necochea said. “Because of neglect and a challenging political environment in Idaho, we’ve allowed our bench to be decimated,” DeLoof said. “Part of the long-term strategy of this party has to be rebuilding that bench, and that’s not something that happens overnight.”
This year, all 105 state Senate and House seats are open, and 53 races don’t have a Democratic candidate. Democratic contestants for Idaho treasurer, secretary of state and controller don’t have websites and have raised little to no campaign donations.
Dianna David, who’s running for controller, told the Statesman that she’s a “placeholder candidate,” meant to retain a ballot spot for a Democrat while the party searched for someone else. That didn’t happen.
“Some of them are not running the most robust campaigns or raising a bunch of money and getting out there, but there is value in going into the ballot box and being able to cast a ballot for somebody who holds values similar to you, as a Democrat,” DeLoof said. “I don’t see it as anything besides giving Idaho voters a choice.”
Meanwhile, viable candidates in most statewide races are former conservatives. Rognstad, who tried to run for governor, said he was a registered Republican because the only way to “have a voice” in a red district is voting in the GOP primary.
Gubernatorial nominee Heidt, in the 1980s and 1990s, twice ran as a Republican candidate for Congress in Utah. Lieutenant governor candidate Terri Pickens Manweiler, a Boise attorney, told the Statesman she was a Republican until 2020, when she decided the GOP was growing too extreme. Tom Arkoosh, a Boise attorney running for attorney general, is a former independent who became a Democrat this year when he replaced Democratic primary winner Steve Scanlin.
DeLoof said it was “definitely not” a concerted effort to back conservative Democrats.
The party has found allies in many Republicans concerned with the direction of the GOP, whose new chairwoman, Rep. Dorothy Moon, of Stanley, is using her platform to criticize Republicans backing Democrats like Arkoosh and Rick Just, an Idaho Senate hopeful from Boise.
The crossover support from Republicans mirrors a broader trend, Necochea said. Many Republicans are split on election security, exceptions to abortion bans and party loyalty, and Democrats hope to pick up the pieces.
“We are rising to meet the moment,” Necochea said. “We are rising to beat back the extremism that threatens the future of our state.”
Working from the ground up This year, the Idaho Legislature would have failed to pass 20 state agency budgets — like the attorney general’s and Department of Health and Welfare’s, which includes funding for Medicaid — without Democratic votes in the House. “There are entire agencies that would disappear, if not for Democrats,” Necochea said. Democrats are unlikely to flip the supermajority in the Idaho Legislature anytime soon, but they can continue to play defense with a couple dozen representatives in the statehouse, where a few votes can stymie conservative attempts to block state spending.
Heading into the general election, Democrats have focused on retaining legislative seats from districts around Moscow, Pocatello and the Wood River Valley while looking for opportunities to flip seats in west Boise, Meridian and Caldwell, DeLoof said.
In Caldwell’s District 11 Senate race, Democratic candidate Toni Ferro, an engineer, has out-raised her Republican opponent Chris Trakel, a military veteran and local GOP precinct leader. Ferro has raised about $43,000 compared to Trakel’s roughly $28,000.
Some areas like Canyon County (Caldwell) and Bonneville County (Idaho Falls) are less solidly conservative than they seem, DeLoof said, but Democratic voters aren’t participating. To address that, the party has its sights on local representation, on county commissions and in rural party leadership.
When DeLoof was named director in May of last year, 10 of Idaho’s 44 counties had no Democratic representation on the state central committee. The number of “dark counties” was reduced to five this year, and DeLoof hopes to soon get to zero.
Statewide, the Idaho Democratic Party staff has grown from two to 26 during DeLoof’s tenure. That’s thanks, in part, to financial help from the national party. This year, the Democratic National Committee announced it was sending at least $100,000 to Idaho ahead of the 2022 general election as part of a strategy to bolster campaigns in states dominated by Republicans.
“It’s not a ton, but it is definitely the sort of thing that helps us make payroll for our core staff,” DeLoof said.
Meanwhile, Democratic voter outreach is targeting Latinos, led by a fulltime Hispanic outreach coordinator with access to a Spanish-speaking phone bank, a first for the party.
Democrats also are hopeful about young voters, spurred to politically engage by Idaho’s new far-reaching abortion restrictions. When the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to abandon federal abortion protections triggered a near-total abortion ban in Idaho, it was a “gamechanger,” DeLoof said.
“We know we have to build this thing from the ground up, and we’re not ignoring any part of it,” he said. “I think we have a bit of a sleeping giant situation here in Idaho with younger voters, working class people and the Hispanic population.”
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