State-Capitol

The Idaho State Capitol building and a statue of Abraham Lincoln on March 23, 2021, in Boise.

Idaho’s Republican primary produced a historic amount of blood-letting among incumbent lawmakers Tuesday, costing 19 of them their jobs.

That’s nearly five times the average turnover in legislative primary races dating back nearly 30 years.

It’s not uncommon for Idaho lawmakers to attract primary challengers. Since 1994, an average of 24 contested Republican primaries have taken place in each two-year election cycle.

Nevertheless, incumbents almost always prevail. On average, fewer than four challengers pull off the upset. Their best year came in 2004, when eight incumbents were defeated.

Tuesday’s primary, by comparison, featured 42 contested races involving sitting Republican lawmakers. Nearly half of the incumbents lost.

The victims included three-term incumbent Sen. Carl Crabtree, of Grangeville, who lost a four-way race for the 7th Legislative District Senate seat.

“I think incumbents win on average about 91 percent of the time, but there was no advantage to it this time around,” Crabtree said.

He attributed his defeat to “a very effective disinformation campaign” by the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which sent text and email messages to his constituents questioning his position on a number of issues.

“Pretty soon, that begins to wear on people,” Crabtree said. “It puts a question in their mind. They think, ‘Geez, Carl used to be a pretty good guy. Then he went down to Boise …’ ”

Rep. Charlie Shepherd, R-Pollock, was unchallenged in Tuesday’s primary and doesn’t have an opponent in the Nov. 8 general election.

While trying to phrase it politely, he disagreed somewhat with Crabtree’s assessment.

“I think the incumbents who lost yesterday probably lost touch with their voting base,” Shepherd said. “They didn’t take into consideration issues that were important to their constituents. That was especially true on the Senate side. They don’t think a lot of the problems their constituents are concerned about really are problems. They think the House worries about things that aren’t important.”

Eight incumbent Senate Republicans lost in Tuesday’s primary. Five of them were committee chairmen and three were vice-chairmen.

“I’m in some pretty good company,” Crabtree said. “All the power players in the Senate are gone. The backstop that’s been the Senate is gone. Now all the crazy stuff from the House will just fly through.”

Shepherd agreed the Senate will shift to the right, but he wasn’t ready to say it was falling off the edge.

“If you look at House races, some of the more extreme right candidates didn’t fare so well,” he said.

For example, Reps. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg; Karey Hanks, R-St. Antony; and Chad Christensen, R-Iona, all lost their reelection bids.

Similarly, most far right candidates for state office lost their primary contests.

“I think the message to both extremes is that we need to find some middle ground,” Shepherd said.

Tuesday’s results could actually facilitate that — or magnify the divisions — simply because the amount of turnover next year will be so significant.

When the large number of incumbents who chose to retire or run for higher office this year are combined with Tuesday’s election losses, it means at least 22 of 70 House seats will be occupied by someone new next year. That’s assuming no other incumbent loses in the general election.

In the Senate, the figure is 19 of 35 seats — meaning at least 56 percent of the chamber will turn over. That includes seven of the 10 committee chairmen and six vice-chairmen.

Those election losses and retirements represent more than 364 years of combined legislative experience.

Rep. Brandon Mitchell, R-Moscow, said all the new faces could help lower some of the barriers between the House and Senate, making it easier for the two chambers to speak with one voice.

“It’s almost like (voters) want the House and Senate to work more closely together,” he said. “They want us to be able to work together as a body to pass bills.”

Shepherd also noted that several House members ran for Senate seats this year. If they prevail in November, that could open the door to greater cooperation.

“I think they’ll be able to work with other senators and maybe persuade them that we need to be on the same page,” he said.

This article first published in the Lewiston Tribune.