All political observers know the election immediately following legislative redistricting leads to colossal turnover in the Capitol.
This year, that turnover, combined with a newly closed primary election system and key retirements, could lead to an Idaho Senate that aligns more closely with the House in ideological terms.
The changes could come from Senate newcomers who are not fresh faces around the Capitol. A number of lawmakers from the Idaho House, traditionally viewed as more conservative than the Senate, are planning election runs for seats on the other side of the Capitol rotunda.
The lawmakers planning the jump seem to reflect the culture of the Idaho House and hold beliefs that could change the voting habits of the Senate. Lawmakers planning the jump include Rep. Steve Thayn, R-Emmett, Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Post Falls, Rep. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, Rep. Jeff Nesset, R-Lewiston, Rep. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, Rep. Robert Schaefer, R-Nampa, Rep. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise, and Rep. Roy Lacey, D-Pocatello.
To gauge lawmakers’ conservatism, it’s necessary to turn to Idaho's top right-wing blogger, Adam Graham, who releases an annual scorecard on the issues, based on 10 hot-button bills in the Idaho Capitol. Graham metes out what should be the conservative vote on each bill and gives each lawmaker a grade based on that.
Of the group of House members planning election runs, Nesset has the lowest score, with a 63 percent ranking of his votes in the 2011 session. Bayer, on the other hand, was dubbed a “lion of conservatism” by Graham for his 100 percent ranking.
Other members of the group fall somewhere between Nessett and Bayer, typically around the 90 percent mark.
The rankings, combined with a deeper look into matchups and replacements reveals why the Senate could be more conservative next year.
The seat for which Nessett is vying is Republican Sen. Joe Stegner’s old spot. While Nessett may not have an incredibly high ranking from Graham, it’s double what Stegner’s was last year. Even then, the man tapped to replace Stegner after his December 2011 resignation, Dan Johnson, was picked by the Lewiston-area GOP for the role because they thought him more conservative than Nessett.
Regardless of whoever wins the Senate primary between Nessett and Johnson, the victor will be more conservative than Stegner.
Additionally, seats long held by Democrats could flip in the next election. Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, announced her retirement this week, and Guthrie quickly filed to run for the spot. With an 81 percent ranking from Graham, Guthrie is no “lion of conservatism,” but his number is higher than Bilyeu’s 25 percent.
Other departures may only add to the rush of conservatism that seems likely in the Senate.
Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, and Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo, both given 63 percent ranking by Graham, are likely to face each other in the May 15 primary.
In north Idaho, Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, owner of a 40 percent Graham rating, is retiring and will run for a county commissioner spot in her area.
In a couple races, however, the seats are likely to become more liberal. In District 19, a Democratic stronghold in Boise’s North End, Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, is retiring, and Buckner-Webb is poised to take the seat. Buckner-Webb’s 7 percent rating is just lower than LeFavour’s 13 percent.
Pocatello Democratic Sen. Edgar Malapeai is retiring and Lacey has filed for the Senate seat. Lacey, like Buckner-Webb, holds a 7 percent rating while Malapeai, like LeFavour, earned a 13 percent in 2011.
Insiders see the coming trend. On a recent edition of Idaho Reports on Idaho Public Television, Boise State professor Jim Weatherby, a longtime political observer, told viewers last week that the conservative wave may play out. “With seven or eight members of the House running for the Senate,” Weatherby said, “the Senate is going to be a much different place.”
Weatherby also predicted the Senate would look “a lot more like the House.”
In the end, could this cultural shift lead to more conservative bills, like urban renewal reform and removal of the charter school cap, making it through the Senate after being sidetracked? No one can say for sure.
Not even lawmakers among those planning to make the jump to the Senate can predict what could happen should the shift occur. Hagedorn told IdahoReporter.com that he believes the Senate could become more right-leaning next year, but that leadership in the body could still delay or stop some legislation. “The Senate will still be composed of a diverse group of individuals,” said Hagedorn, who describes himself as “a little more conservative” than the average senator.
But will the exiting representatives leave a gaping right-wing hole in the House? Hagedorn thinks not, due to the Republican stronghold on Idaho, but also thanks in part to the new closed-primary system. “I think we’ll see an even more conservative House, if we can even go there,” he said.
This all could be premature, of course. There is still a week to go in the filing period and not all candidates have declared their intentions. Thayn has drawn a primary challenger, while Schaefer will, at least, face a Democratic opponent in November.
There is also the possibility Republicans could lose some seats in the next election.
If Republicans lose a seat, it's most likely to come in Boise’s District 18, where former Rep. Branden Durst, a Democrat, will eventually face off with Sen. Mitch Toryanski, the Republican incumbent. Toryanski beat Durst by just more than 100 votes in 2010 and Durst is counting on the incumbent’s support of controversial education reforms last year to sway voters against him.
Potential candidates have until Friday, March 9, to file with the state.