CHUCK MALLOY: Idaho is mostly GOP red, but Dems rule in Boise

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Sen. Fred Martin of Boise is ready for the nickname that goes with winning a razor-close election, and the good-natured ribbing that goes with it.

“Just call me Landslide Freddie,” said Martin, laughing.

Martin ended up winning re-election to his District 15 seat by a whopping 11 votes over his Democratic challenger, Jim Bratnober. That’s an improvement over the six-vote margin he had on election night, which led to a recount. Whether it’s winning by six votes, 11 or the proverbial landslide, Martin gladly will take his victory.

“The good part about winning a close election is that more people know who I am,” said Martin.

He certainly is no stranger around the Idaho Statehouse. Martin, who is entering his fourth term, was vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee last session and will step in as chairman of the Health and Welfare Committee — one of the most challenging assignments in the Legislature.

Martin has the distinction of being the only Republican serving the five legislative districts within the city of Boise (15-19). If Bratnober had been able to swing a half a dozen votes to his side, Idaho’s capital city would be as Democratic “blue” as Blaine County. Or, for that matter, just about anywhere in Massachusetts.

Martin’s two Republican colleagues, Reps. Lynn Luker and Patrick McDonald, lost in the November election — leaving Martin as the sole survivor. Steve Berch took out Luker and Jake Ellis defeated McDonald.

The political evolution in the City of Trees has been dramatic over the years. Not long ago, Boise had all Republicans in the Legislature, except for District 19, which covers the city’s north end. Boise’s legislative districts today are what the Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint areas were decades ago — places where Democrats rarely lose. That was before the modern-day dust bowl that brought a flood of conservative-minded Californians to the Gem State.

The Democrats’ takeover of Boise is an urban version of California dreaming — where people are looking for certain services and are willing to pay for them. “It’s a trend that we’re seeing in metropolitan areas such as Spokane, Salt Lake City, Portland and Seattle,” Martin says.

It’s a trend that could be coming soon to Meridian and Nampa as populations grow. Republicans still fill those legislative seats, and lawmakers bill themselves as “conservatives.” But in those areas, it’s not all about saying “no” to higher taxes and cutting spending. This crop of legislators will fight for things such improvements to Interstate 94 and reducing bottleneck traffic — which are typical battles in urban areas.

One of the factors that played well for Democrats in District 15 was Medicaid expansion (Proposition 2), which easily carried the district.

“District 15 is still a Republican District, but Democrats were more motivated this time by Prop 2,” Berch said.

Berch, who has been knocking on doors and campaigning for the Legislature since 2010, presented himself as an independent. He refrained from endorsing Democrat Paulette Jordan in the gubernatorial race, instead focusing on his own race. “There was an incredibly large number of people who wanted to vote for the person, rather than the party,” he said.

Martin agrees that 15 is basically a Republican district, but the question is how long. The Republican Party in Ada County is led by a former libertarian candidate, Ryan Davidson, and Martin said he didn’t get a lot of help from that group. The leadership in Ada County, while attractive to the conservative side, doesn’t look so good to folks who are more moderate. In their eyes, a centrist Democrat is closer to their hearts than a libertarian Republican.

Martin, for one, takes issue with those who think he’s not “Republican enough” for the party.

“I’ve been campaigning for Republicans since 1974, and I’ve never been a member of a different party,” he said.

For now, Martin is looking forward to chairing the Health and Welfare Committee and representing District 15 for two more years. Berch is looking forward to his freshman term and learning more about the process and people.

But it will be interesting to see what happens in two years. Martin could run for a fifth term, or step aside if he sees Democrats continuing to gain strength in the district — which appears to be the inevitable outcome.

• • •

Chuck Malloy, a Silver Valley native and longtime Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com.

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