• 100 Influential Idahoans 2015
You can find it all here in the Pacific Northwest - much of the nation's most beautiful places, some appallingly trashed-out areas; politics running from just about as far left to just about as far right as anywhere in the country; economies of all sorts from the highly prosperous to the dying. It's all here.
 

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Democrat Branden Durst represented the southeast Boise area in the Idaho House for two terms after his elections in 2006 and 2008, and then for about a year in the Idaho Senate after his election in 2012. In November 2013, having half-moved to Washington state, he resigned.

This year, situated full-time in southern Pierce County (county seat: Tacoma), he’s running again, now for a House seat in Washington’s 29th district.

In the early days of most of our western states there was nothing unusual about running for office, sequentially, in multiple states; many of Idaho’s early lawmakers did, spreading expertise gathered in sundry statehouses. In more recent decades, political people in most states have found more electoral strength in emphasizing local roots over job experience. Among recent Idaho legislators, only Senator Steve Vick, R-Hayden, comes to mind as having been elected to another state’s legislature (the Montana House). If anyone knows of another in recent years, let me know. Nationally, it’s not unknown, but rare.

The similarities and differences of running in different states surely offer some insights single-state candidates don’t see. I asked Durst last week about some of those.

He is running in District 29, a mostly suburban area reaching south of Tacoma, including such communities as Lakewood and Parkland. That area actually is a lot like Durst’s old southeast Boise district, including its at-present Democratic lean. Durst is challenging an incumbent Democratic representative, David Sawyer of Parkland. There’s also a Republican, Rick Thomas, in the race.

For all that Washington is classed as a Democratic “blue” state in the presidential election, its legislature is split closely between the two parties, with a Republican Senate and Democratic House.

A number of legislative issues track across state lines. Public school financing is a hot topic in Washington. There as in Idaho the state supreme court has said the legislature has not adequately addressed that funding, but in Washington, the court has gone further and held the legislature in contempt, and imposed fines. It’s a subject of widespread discussion.

One obvious campaign difference from Idaho is the “top two” element. Durst and both other candidates in the August primary election each are seeking to do better than come in third; whichever two do progress on to November, even if they’re of the same party. November becomes a runoff. Mostly around the state this still means a Democrat and a Republican running against each other in November, but not always.

Another difference, which pops up in the practicalities of running, is that outsiders have a harder time there gaining traction than they do in Idaho. In Idaho, candidates can (and often should) do a good deal of work before formally filing for office in March, but they don’t have to. In Washington, most of the campaign finance, organization and other work is long since done by the time a candidate formally files in May. Major endorsing organizations too have made their donation or other support decisions far in advance of May, Durst said, and “if you’re new to the political process you’d have almost no chance of being successful.”

They need more resources too than in Idaho. A legislative district in Washington has several times as many people as those in Idaho, and campaign budgets and organizations typically are several times as large. In 2014, Representative Sawyer and his main opponent each spent more than $90,000, but that’s on the low side; many competitive campaigns in Washington have quarter-million dollar budgets. That’s far more than the norm in Idaho.

“In Idaho, individual candidates have a little more control over their individual destiny,” Durst said.

And he said that in Washington, “there’s much more transparency in finance here,” with state agencies that require extensive filing of campaign and personal finances. The downside is that this can rapidly become complex and difficult: “people are expected to pay for a consultant, and consultants aren’t cheap … That would be unheard of in Idaho.”

Still, he said, the basics are the basics. Knocking on doors and shaking hands is not so different in any state.

“The fundamentals are the same, wherever you live.”

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As unexpectedly skillful as Bernie Sanders turned out to be as a presidential candidate, he may be positioned now to be even better in another capacity: Movement leader.

The Vermont senator has done a terrific job getting as far as he has in the presidential primary. Starting with almost nothing in the presidential run against presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, he battled very nearly to a draw. Up until the New York primary, he retained a plausible route to the nomination, scoring some overwhelming wins along the way.

New York turned a page. To win the nomination, he would have to take a majority of the pledged delegates nationally, and after yesterday that means he would need overwhelming wins almost everywhere still on the calendar. Wins he probably will get (Oregon, likely, for one), but not on that scale. That’s not going to happen.

The typical response to this kind of situation is to “suspend” the campaign – call a halt, keeping the organization technical alive for a while to allow for additional fundraising to pay off the bills.

Sanders’ response may be a little different, and in the interest of his cause probably should be.

He still has money and enthusiasm, and he can leverage them. He could stay active through the rest of the primary season, into June and California, winning as many delegates as he can. The object would not be to defeat Clinton, whose eventual nomination is close to a lock now. The point rather would be to form a large and powerful bloc at the convention, and beyond. It would not constitute a nominating majority, but it would be so large a portion of the overall delegation that it could not be safely ignored. It could make demands. And it could apply pressure, as it has for most of a year now, on Hillary Clinton.

When Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 he did it with a massive organization organized extremely well. Had he kept it operative as an active grass roots effort supporting his administration’s efforts, a great deal of the history since – notably the off-year elections of 2010 and 2014 – might have turned out quite a bit differently. At this point, even while falling short of the nomination, Sanders has an organization as large and enthusiastic, and capable of financing itself, as Obama had, and maybe more so. If Hillary Clinton is elected president, she might well run into the same kind of Republican brick wall – even if Democrats retake the Senate – that Obama has. A Sanders-led grass roots organization could both serve as a counterweight to that brick wall, and push Clinton into more ambitious efforts than she might attempt otherwise.

There’s an old story about Franklin Roosevelt that tells of one of his political allies urging the president to undertake some program. Roosevelt was not opposed, but he saw the political obstacles, and the possible overall political cost to his administration, if he tried launching it on his own. His response to the ally: “Make me do it.”

In other words, pressure me into doing it, in such a way that the political forces in favor of passage amount to not just me, but also much more.

You could consider it a sort of value-added shadow presidency, that Sanders could pursue if he keeps his organization intact and active beyond November. What could happen as a result might be no small thing.

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Water is critical everywhere, but Idaho notices more than most when the water levels are off.

And things go better when they’re not.

Idahoans see it in the stream levels, and in so much else of what they do. In the populous areas of southern Idaho, when water levels are low, people go for each other’s throats – not in a physically literal sense anymore (although there is some history of that), but in the courts, and in business. Low water levels determine whether a farm or an industrial business gets the water to survive, to stay in business. Courts, and the state government, determine who gets water and who goes parched.

The effects ripple. A good water year can mean overall prosperity and a sense of community. Poor water years can tear at the social fabric.

So if, in some ways, Idaho has a little more upbeat feel this year than last, you can find some of the reason as I do in reviewing the water levels.

I check them every week, starting with a web page updated daily by the National Resources Conservation Service, called “Snotel narrative.” (You can see it at their site.) The data are technical, and the lines I follow are described this way: “The Accumulated Precipitation Percent of Average represents the total precipitation (beginning October 1st) found at selected SNOTEL sites in or near the basin compared to the Average value for those sites on this day.”

It gives you a feel for how the snowpack, which as the year goes on will dictate much of the water flow, is developing compared to the historical norms, in all the basins in Idaho. A reading of 100 is normal; higher is more water, lower is less. Great variations can mean flood or drought.

Five years ago, for example, the Northern Panhandle area was at 106 – just a bit above normal. The Salmon basin was at 98, the Boise at 106, the Little Wood 103, the Henry’s Fork 96, the Bear River 78 – the lowest in the state. So in 2011, the state overall was running just about average.

Last year at this point, here were the figures for those same basins: the Northern Panhandle 97, the Salmon basin 87, the Boise at 89, the Little Wood 70, the Henry’s Fork 76, the Bear River 71. The lowest last year at this time was the Medicine Lodge and Camas Creek area (in eastern Idaho) at just 61 – a sign of a very tough water year to come. In fact, the whole state was running short of water, and the legal battles and economic tensions were running high.

This year, things have changed.

A week ago, here is what the comparable reading show: the Northern Panhandle 121, the Salmon basin 112, the Boise at 114, the Little Wood 105, the Henry’s Fork 97 (tied for lowest in the state, with the Snake River above the Palisades Dam), the Bear River 100.

Quite an improvement.

The U.S. Geological Survey last week released a series of drought area maps covering the period up through March. Idaho’s – which last year was piled in with eerie shares of yellow, orange and even dark red markers of strong drought warnings – this year is producing only a few widely-scattered dabs of lightest-level drought warnings.

Don’t be surprised if some of the tensions around the state don’t ease off just a little as the months ahead progress. Plentiful water makes for some happy civic medicine.

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I’m trying to play this out . . . this whole Republican contested convention thing. How does that work if, say, no one walks in the door without having in hand an adequate number of delegate votes for president.

Let’s game it out; or at least, weigh the probabilities. Call it a mental exercise to clean out a few cobwebs.

The best odds now favor businessman Donald Trump coming close to the major number of 1,237 votes, but falling short maybe 50 to 100. (He may still get there, but after Wisconsin the probabilities are running just slightly againn.) Texas Senator Ted Cruz is maybe 250 short of him; that gap could be closer or narrower, either one, by the time contests end in early June. Cruz is running much the better campaign, but Trump still has strong polling advantages in both of the magilla states of New York and California.

There will presumably be some attempt, after the statewide votes are done as of June 7, at a limited non-aggression pact between them. There will be attempts by other interests – maybe hoping for a third contender to ride in as a dark horse – to change the rules, to allow for additional possibilities for the nominee other than those two. Trump and Cruz have a joint interest in defeating that, so they may try and shut down rule changes. Both candidates would be interested in adjusting the rules in their own individual interests as well, so maybe any non-aggression pact would be reliant on allowing no rule changes at all. They could pull that off as long as, between them, they keep effective control of most of the delegates at the convention.

Okay: Suppose we then go to the first ballot with no significant rule changes. Both candidates will have been hustling hard to scrounge additional delegates in an effort to reach 1,237. (Those could come from undeclared officials who are automatic delegates, and maybe some from the few other candidates, like Marco Rubio or John Kasich, won.) It’s possible, probably not likely, Trump could be close enough in his pre-convention count to pull that off. Cruz’ campaign has been good at collecting stray delegates and probably could add significantly to his count, but enough to reach 1,237 before the first ballot? For now, that seems unlikely.

So we get to the first ballot and delegate votes are cast. The probability is that Trump comes in first, but still a little short of the magic 1,237, and Cruz comes in somewhere around 100 to 150 behind him, with a small scattering of other votes unwilling to line up behind either.

Then it gets interesting, because many – not all – of the delegates bound to Trump and Cruz on the first ballot are “released” on the second to do as they choose. (Most of the rest are similarly “released” after the second.) Presumably (and this may be a hotly-challenged point), the second round of balloting also will feature Trump and Cruz, and no one else. Will others be added? The existing rules don’t seem to allow it at this point, allowing (as Cruz has repeatedly pointed out) a threshold of support in at least eight states, but that could be a matter of interpretation. It could be that after the second ballot, a well-organized effort might be able to come up to that threshold.

On that second ballot, who picks up? Well, more likely, it’s: Who drops? Some of Trump’s delegates may be there only as party officials fulfilling a role and, once unbound, they may start pushing for someone else. Who?

That would seem to suggest a serious organizing effort well in advance of the convention for someone else lying in wait, to become the recipient of those stray Trump and Cruz votes once they’re available. But who will that be? House Speaker Paul Ryan seems likely to disown any efforts of that sort. But someone ought to be ready, otherwise chaos – in the form of dozens of possibly contenders, including local favorites from various states – will swiftly surface. If that happened, and it isn’t brought quickly under control, you could get into a series of sudden cascading conflicts that could lead to ballots 3, 4, 5, 6 and beyond. This could go on for days.

Part of this relates to how many votes would Trump and Cruz each lose once delegates become unbound, a question no one yet can answer. (Could they persuade a few crossovers?) By the time they walk into the convention, they probably will have maxed out – at least for the moment – on the number of delegates they can easily get. After the second ballot, their numbers may be smaller but their opponents may have multiplied, absent some kind of strong organizing effort up front.

If there is a major organizing effort up front, Trump and Cruz could use that as a lever to keep their troops in line, at least for a while. And they could re-up their non-aggression pact in opposition to some new third contender, because they surely would, between them, continue to command the loyalty of more than half of the total delegates.

And that’s about as far as I can take this exercise for the moment: A cycle of failed nomination votes with a built-in dynamic that keeps anyone from breaking free with more than half the total number of delegates.

Eventually, sheer exhaustion may take over, some key player or more than one will drop out, and someone will emerge. How long will it take for that to happen? The longest national party convention, the Democratic in 1924, took about two weeks and 103 ballots. That nomination, by the way, went to the lesser-known John W. Davis, after the two top contenders at the start of balloting pulled out. Davis went on to lose in a landslide to Republican Calvin Coolidge.

And that was with a mighty incentive the delegates of 2016 won’t have: They didn’t have air conditioning back then.

How long might the Republicans stay in Cleveland? A long time unless someone, somewhere, beats the odds.

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When the Idaho Legislature adjourned on the early side this year, the common comment was that they had to get home to deal with the primary elections coming up.

Well, some of them did. About a third of Idaho’s legislators do face primary contests, and since the bulk of the state is one-party territory, that’s where challenges will occur if they’re going to at all. Those elections will nonetheless be worth a close watch for indicators for how Idaho is changing. If it is.

Nearly all of the legislative primary contests are on the Republican side – I counted just three on the Democratic, and just one of those involves an incumbent (Representative John McCrostie of Garden City). Of the Republican contests, some seem likely to split into the “insurgent against establishment” mold, though not all do. Some may become quite personal.

A few challengers jump out because they’ve been visible before. Marvin “Chick” Heileson of Idaho Falls twice ran hard against U.S. Representative Mike Simpson but this year localizes his sights to the Idaho Legislature, and specifically to veteran Dell Raybould of Rexburg. Heileson was a hard-charging Tea Party candidate against Simpson, with support from Club for Growth and an issue base focused on national subjects. What his state-level campaign against Raybould will look like is unclear.

But we may have a better idea of the campaign to come over in Boise, where Rod Beck is running again. Beck, who served several terms in the state Senate and has run unsuccessfully for higher office and the legislature since, this year emerged as state chair for the Donald Trump presidential campaign. He is challenging a very different kind of person, second-term House member Patrick McDonald. McDonald, a former U.S. marshal for Idaho with a career in law enforcement, has been a generally uncontroversial and low-key representative. But Beck (whose projects have included closing the Republican primary to party members only) has a way of stirring things up; watch for some headlines over in District 15.

That however will be one of the few cases of primary contest excitement in the Boise area. Most of the primary contests are located in more rural reaches of the state.

The most significant could be in the far north, in District 1 – up by the Canadian border. There, the new (as of this session) co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, Shawn Keough, is being challenged again in the primary, this time by Glenn Rohrer. Keough has been challenged regularly from the activist right, four times before this year in the last decade. She won the first first three by lopsided margins, with two-thirds of the vote or better. In 2014, however, she was down to 53.8% of the vote, and Rohrer has started early and energetically this time.

That may be the contest which sets the political tone, more than any other, for this year’s Idaho primaries. Both U.S. House seats have primary challenges to the incumbents, but these were late-emerging and have the look of longshots. There is also, actually, a primary contest between two would-be standard bearers for the Constitution Party (one of those being the frequent contender Pro-Life from Letha), but that’s not likely to impact the state a great deal.

This is a season of intense national discussion and dissension over what the two national parties are all about. For a sense of where Idaho politics plays into that, and may be going, the legislative races may be as good a place to look as any.

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