When I first got elected to the Idaho State Senate way back 2010, I woke up on the morning after the election to a phone call from Mountain Time Zone. I just was having coffee when the Senate Pro Tem at the time, Senator Bob Geddes, called me on my land line to welcome me to the Idaho Senate. He was very gracious. I was aware, and so, I’m sure was he, that I had won a seat formerly held by a respected Idaho Republican for 14 years. And I was an Idaho Democrat. That Senator had been beaten in the primary by a Tea Party candidate. Then I had beaten the radical in the general election. So, Idaho Democrats gained a legislative Senate seat. I had been working so hard to knock doors in my district, I had little perspective on the statewide political landscape. But I appreciated his welcoming generosity.
The second call I got that November morning was from a guy I knew who had followed and supported my campaign. He was living out of state at the time to make big money, but his heart was in this wonderful state. I remember a question he asked me after the initial congratulatory exchange. “So, Dan, have you ever considered running as a Republican?”
I had stayed up late and wasn’t real sharp, even with that first cup of coffee. “No, I haven’t.” I answered. “The voters wouldn’t trust such a flip.” I threw out, not really being an expert on Idaho voters at that point in my political career.
But my caller knew Idaho very well. He was 25 years younger than me, and he knew the tides of this era while I harbored memories of the olden times, when Democrats could get elected to either the legislature or statewide in this leftover state. I was only thinking of my district, my election, and indeed, my service. Why should the party label matter?
But I soon learned that it did.
I was assigned to the Agriculture Committee in my first year in the Idaho Senate. An issue came before us that I needed to understand, so when I saw a senior senator not on the committee, but a rancher and I assumed more familiar with the subject I approached him. He stopped and heard my question, but then he started backing up as he answered. I followed, bending in to listen, but soon realized we were in an alcove, out of sight. He didn’t want to be seen talking to an Idaho Democrat in the halls. But his counsel was wise, and I appreciated his wisdom. I learned that good conversations must be combined with discretion. And that labels matter.
Many elected people have had to play this ugly partisan game here in Idaho. I’m not a good enough historian to make the list complete. But I think of John Peavey, former Idaho State Senator. He was first appointed to fill his mom’s seat when she got picked to run the US Mint by President Nixon. So, he served for a while as a Republican as she was, but then switched parties and got elected as a Democrat in his central Idaho district. He’s really known for his wise and provocative stand on water rights, since he was part of the lawsuit that forced the Snake River adjudication. We owe him some gratitude.
Indeed, Branden Durst, a current candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction sat next to me on the floor of the Idaho Senate as a Democrat. But he runs now as a far-right Republican.
Other elected officials I have served with have told me they first ran for office as a Democrat. But they understood the Idaho climate.
Some Idaho Republicans want to purify their ranks, killing RHINOS (Republicans In Name Only). I just wish we could elect folks who want our communities to thrive.