BOISE, Idaho — How will Idaho's legislative politics look after redistricting concluded this week? A little less country, a little more suburban, as the state's power base continues its shift to more populous areas from its agrarian roots.
The sprawling metropolis along U.S. Interstate 84 from Caldwell to Boise picked up three new legislative districts, while those vast open spaces in Idaho's sparsely populated interior, its southern desert and remote southeast shed clout because they either shed population or grew at a snail's pace.
Sorry, liberal Boise, this transition won't mirror neighboring Washington and Oregon, whose densely populated coastal plains have resulted in Democratic-leaning legislatures. Idaho's new landscape clearly indicates the drama inside the Capitol will increasingly be directed by Republican lawmakers from places like Kuna and Eagle, Meridian and Nampa.
"Generally, we think of the suburbs as less conservative than the rural areas," said Gary Moncrief, a Boise State University political science professor. "But I don't think that equation holds in Idaho. It has a pretty solidified Republican dimension."
Population changes require new maps every decade, to preserve one-person, one-vote principles that reflect Idaho's latest U.S. Census tally.
The 2001 redistricting effort was delayed by lawsuits, while this latest edition required two redistricting commissions to complete the work; the first bogged down in a partisan stalemate after 92 days.
Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said Wednesday he's heard of no lawsuits brewing against the 2011 plans — so far. But he won't discount the possibility.
In all, 33 of 105 total state representatives and senators were "redistricted out" — either forced to face incumbents in 2012 or resign.
Seven Idaho House districts feature potential incumbent battles in 2012, with five in the Senate. Most victims are Republicans, simply because the Idaho Legislature is four-fifths GOP; even prominent lawmakers like House Speaker Lawerence Denney, Majority Leader Mike Moyle and Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts got lumped in.
On Thursday, four-term GOP Sen. Joyce Broadsword from Sagle announced she'll retire in 2012, rather than face Sandpoint Republican Sen. Shawn Keough.
No hard feelings, Broadsword said.
"I have huge respect for the redistricting committee," she said. "No matter who is working on it, it's a tough job."
Dolores Crow, a Republican, and Democrat Ron Beitelspacher, who led 2011's second three-Democrat, three-Republican redistricting panel, said both sides' commitment to ignore partisan politics and incumbency was key to the unanimous agreement after just three weeks.
"I don't have a clue where any of these legislators live," Beitelspacher said. "I have no clue what their addresses are."
Not everybody is buying that, however.
Lou Esposito, a Republican member of the first commission who was a fierce defender of GOP interests, contends the second panel's 6-0 vote shows Republican panelists should have held out for more.
"The Democrats were looking at where incumbents were, they got everything they wanted, and so they voted accordingly," said Esposito, a campaign consultant for U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho.
Other Republicans were more forgiving, including state GOP executive director Jonathan Parker.
Parker doesn't think Democrats deserve equal representation on the redistricting panel because of their meager Legislature numbers. That's why the party is considering whether to ask lawmakers to initiate reforms next year. Still, Parker is ready to accept what the 2011 panel's decision.
"The fact that they did get a 6-0 vote and reached an agreement, I think there was a lot of compromise on both sides," he said. "Idaho is a conservative state, the Republican Party is the party of conservative ideals and at the end of the day, we'll be successful. I'm not all that worried about it."
Minority Democrats, an endangered Idaho species at just 20 legislators, said they did as well as could be expected given the state's steady march right over the last decade as newcomers among the now-1.5 million residents embrace Idaho's conservative traditions.
They'll hold their own in urban Boise and Pocatello, though unsettled territory includes southeastern Idaho, where conservative Oneida County joined a Bannock County district. And eastern Boise's new District 18, which has swung back and forth between parties, includes an even broader swath of rural Ada County.
"With one or two minor tweaks, I'd say it's the best thing that can be expected under the circumstances," said George Moses, Esposito's chief Democratic antagonist on the first redistricting panel.
Democratic Party Chairman Larry Grant also said the congressional map, where the border between Idaho's 1st and 2nd congressional districts shifted to the west in Boise, carries challenges and opportunities. The loss of urban voters in the 1st Congressional District could mean Democrats will struggle to regain the U.S. House seat Labrador wrested from former Congressman Walt Minnick in 2010.
But Grant suggests more Boise residents in the 2nd Congressional District could help sway an election there, especially if U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, a moderate Republican, is beaten by a conservative rival in the newly closed GOP primary.
"The Republicans would help us out by nominating another nut case," Grant said. "A closed Republican primary is going to make a big difference to some of those folks."
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