Explaining Idaho: Growing Fast and Changing Politically


Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho (Image: Wikimedia)

Idaho, that odd-shaped state that stretches from Canada to Nevada along the eastern borders of Washington and Oregon, often has been overlooked by those dreaming of moving to the great Northwest. No more. The state  population of 1.8 million is growing faster than any other in recent years, adding 256,167 residents (16.3 percent) from 2010 to 2020, and causing a boomlet of stories about Idaho in national publications.

 A natural question arises about Idaho, known as one of the reddest states in the country: Is growth changing its political profile? It is, but not in the way you might think.

Idaho has its lakes and mountains, high plains and river valleys, farms and forests. Boise is a vibrant city with growing urban amenities. Small and mid-size towns scattered up and down the long mass of geography offer solitude and charm. There is much for newcomers to explore and appreciate. What’s changed is the political climate, which is growing meaner, sillier, and more small-minded.

I moved from Seattle to North Idaho 20 years ago. When confronted by liberal family and friends with raised eyebrows, I responded with a simple declaration: “I’m not moving there for the politics.” My husband and I had long vacationed at a cabin on Lake Pend Oreille and, smitten by the peaceful lifestyle, rural acreages, and small-town charms of Sandpoint, planned our retirement there.    Today we enjoy a busy life on 25 acres with two gardens, a horse, a pen where we raise four lambs each summer, and a flock of hens that lay the prettiest brown and blue-green eggs. In the fall and spring, we clean up the forest and burn the slash piles. That was the life we imagined, along with Bill’s continued work as a lawyer and my volunteering in the community. I served on the local school board for 11 years.

What we didn’t imagine was finding ourselves in what we now call “the blue nation of Glengary,” a collection of neighbors spread along a two-mile band of wooded acres and lakefront homes. Sandpoint is a half-hour drive along a winding road past farm country, over Gold Hill, and across the long bridge with its breathtaking views of the lake and Schweitzer Mountain’s ribbons of ski runs. The scenery is matched by the quality of friendships we have made in our “blue nation” near Glengary Bay. We don’t talk politics much but over time these good friendships reveal shared values about protecting the lake’s water quality, the importance of electing reasonable people to the county commission, the school board, and the state legislature. Last fall there were plenty of Trump signs in the area, but I was pleased to see a Biden flag added to my neighbor’s pole flying below the American flag.

2020 Presidential election map

This is not the Idaho most people imagine, and it is not representative of Idaho – old or new. My neighborhood is a tiny blue puddle in a sea of red. For all the talk (hope?) that the influx of newcomers would moderate the politics of Idaho, the opposite is the reality. The last Democrat to win an Idaho presidential election was Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Last November, after a decade of rapid population growth, Trump triumphed with 63.8 percent of the vote to Biden’s 33.1 percent. Only three counties gave majorities to Biden: Blaine, home to Sun Valley; tiny Teton (population 11,165) along the Wyoming border just 25 miles from Jackson Hole; and Latah, home of the University of Idaho. In Ada County, the fastest-growing area and home to Boise, Trump beat Biden by four points, a squeaker in Idaho terms. Kootenai County in North Idaho is another growth hotspot. It is home to Coeur d’Alene and site of a successful organizing effort by far-right conservatives in recent years. Its margin for Trump last fall was 43 points.

One type of business spawned by Idaho’s growth is specialty real estate, meaning politically oriented. After Paul Chabot lost a 2014 Congressional race in California he relocated to Texas. He soon realized others were interested in moving for similar reasons and founded Conservative Move to help “families and businesses move right.” He told KTVB in Boise last fall that Idaho is second only to Texas in places favored by his clients leaving a blue state – usually California – to settle in a red state.

Black Rifle Real Estate, based in Sandpoint, has a slick website with the heading: “Ready. Aim. Move. A Patriots-only real estate firm. Faith. Country. Family.” The firm is tied to the American Redoubt, a movement that advertises itself as a “refuge for freedom-loving patriots of all backgrounds.” They are active in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Eastern Washington. Unsurprisingly, these are places of little racial diversity. Census estimates in 2019 listed Idaho at 81.6 percent white, 12.8 Hispanic (mostly in the southern part of the state), and Black at a mere .9 percent.

How many newcomers have been recruited by these firms is unknown, but I suspect they are having some success. Huge Trump signs posted on barns and fences, and frequent Blue Lives Matter flags are strong hints. Idaho has long been known as a haven for retired law enforcement people. Mark Fuhrman, a familiar name from the O.J. Simpson trial, was only one of many. I know a few of them; one served as a county commissioner and was widely respected. Real estate firms with a political slant are likely riding a pre-existing wave more than creating it. Even so, they cause ripples of concern that the Redoubt movement could harden the region’s gun culture and move politics even further into the deep red zone.

I started my newspaper career in Boise in the early ‘70s and for several years covered the Idaho legislature. Republicans dominated, but nothing like today. To my inexperienced eyes, the place seemed largely respectful of differences in politics. A few Democratic leaders managed to wield influence, but one Democrat outdid them all: Cecil Andrus was governor and that made all the difference. Andrus served from 1971 to ‘77 when he left to become was Interior Secretary in the Carter administration. A sign of Andrus’ enduring popularity in the state was his re-election after the stint with Carter — two more terms, which ended in 1995. This was also the era of Sen. Frank Church, elected in 1957 and defeated by less than 1 percent of the vote in the 1980 Reagan revolution. No Idaho Democrat has served in the U.S. Senate since then.

 Church and Andrus are legends of Idaho political history. They came to power when labor unions flourished in North Idaho where mining and timber dominated. All that began to change in the ‘70s when I was covering the Idaho legislature for the Idaho Statesman and later Idaho Public Television. Liberals across the country were embracing environmental causes and cultural issues – feminism, abortion, anti-war. These causes didn’t play well outside of liberal Boise. Elsewhere, Mormons and conservative values prevailed. At the same time, traditional, unionized industries related to mining and forestry were declining. Idaho chugged along with its Republican political base until a decade into the current century when population growth due to in-migration began to alter the dynamics.

Image: Jasperdo on Flickr

Voter registration numbers tell the tale. Republicans consistently register more new voters than Democrats, especially in the areas of greatest growth. Between 2016 and 2020 Republicans increased their registration by 35.5 percent over Democrats. In Ada County (Boise), the population has increased by 8 percent since 2016, but voter registrations grew 11 percent. In Kootenai County, population grew by 9 percent, but voter registrations increased by 17 percent. (Kootenai County GOP registration grew by a whopping 29 percent over 2012 due to the far-right activism in the county GOP.) 

The result was a huge gain for Republicans by 2020 with 53 percent of voters registering Republican to just 14 percent for Democrats. That means 33 percent are registered as independents. Idahoans are quirky about labels and identifying as independent is a comfortable label for many. Another factor is that the Idaho GOP closed its primary a few years ago to prevent Democrats from crossing over to vote for the least objectionable Republican in areas where the GOP candidate was sure to win in the general election. (I did that a few years back, but after 2016 I couldn’t stand being in the party of Trump and reversed my registration.)

This swing to the GOP in the Trump era is obvious in the current Idaho House of Representatives, where some crazy stuff is going on. Lawmakers rejected a federal grant of $6 million for early childhood learning. One lawmaker opposed it because he believes mothers should be at home with preschoolers. Others worried that the curriculum would push a “social justice agenda” on Idaho’s little ones. Early education funding  lost by two votes. Governor Brad Little expressed disappointment and said he would try again. Idaho is one of only six states that does not fund any early education and one of many states now fearful of a so-called “social justice agenda.”

Those same legislators, members of the House of Representatives, also passed a bill to bypass the state attorney general when in need of legal services because they don’t like the flavor of legal interpretations issued from that office. Idaho AG Lawrence Wasden, a Republican, did not join other AGs around the country in defending Trump’s efforts to overturn the presidential election.

Rep. Heather Scott, one of the best known and most conservative members of the legislature, is from my region of North Idaho. She gained attention a few years ago for traveling to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to meet with Ammon Bundy. In the current legislative session, she helped to end Idaho’s involvement in Powerball, which brings in money targeted for education. Why? Because it’s now being expanded to Australia, and Scott, who is staunchly pro-gun, fears the Aussies would spend Powerball money on anti-gun causes.

Another representative from my area is Sage Dixon, co-chair of the Committee on Federalism, created two years ago to “monitor and review federal laws, acts and regulations.” This idea is not original to Dixon; he’s borrowed it from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the playground of conservative lawmakers across the country who dream of vetoing acts of federal government, including federal court decisions.

Last month I sent an email to Sen. Carl Crabtree, Republican, who represents me in Boise. I knew him to be a reasonable fellow and said I hoped he would vote against a bill that would make it virtually impossible to pass citizens’ initiatives. Two years ago, an initiative to expand Medicaid in Idaho was successful and conservative lawmakers, still stinging, were determined to head off a new effort that would increase education funding. (Idaho is 50th in the nation for per pupil spending.) Crabtree said he did not intend to vote for the bill. Two weeks later I saw that he had voted in favor. I emailed again. He responded promptly and said he had received additional information. “My opinion is with you, my vote was with the plurality of my constituents,” he wrote. When asked about the additional information, he explained that his base supporters, agricultural interests, were lined up on the other side.

Agriculture has long had influence in Idaho. But the larger truth today is the heavy hand of the Idaho Freedom Foundation and the rating system it attaches to key bills in the legislature. Republicans like Crabtree cannot afford to buck the IFF too many times or they will face a far-right candidate in the primary. It’s likely that today the IFF wields as much power as any single interest in the Idaho Legislature. It has ties to ALEC and the State Policy Network, a national consortium of conservative and libertarian think tanks. The result is look-alike positions to other red states: opposition to teaching social justice in colleges, rallying against governors’ stay-at-home orders, favoring public support of private schools while criticizing “government” schools, questioning all-things pandemic, especially masks.

Idaho’s political history includes not only Church and Andrus, but also Sen. William Borah, a progressive Republican who served from 1907 until his death in 1940, and Sen. Len Jordan, a Republican who served from 1962-73. Borah preceded Sen. Church as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He is remembered as an “intellectual giant” and “truly great man.” Idaho’s highest peak is named after him, along with many schools, the University of Idaho’s annual Borah Symposium on international affairs, and his bronze statue is in National Statuary Hall. Jordan is less celebrated, but his Senate record reveals a progressive spirit. He voted in favor of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the confirmation of Thurgood Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court and in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment.

The Idaho of Andrus, Church, Jordan, and Borah is still a largely rural paradise, but its inhabitants, old and new, have traded self-styled independent conservatives and progressives for hard-right, orthodoxy-spewing politicians. It’s a political climate the state’s political heroes would not have recognized or appreciated.

Mindy Cameron is the author of a memoir,”Leaving the Boys”, a story of motherhood and career, feminism and romance. Published last year.

Mindy Cameron
Mindy Cameron
Mindy Cameron, a retired journalist, lives with her husband on rural acreage near Sandpoint, Idaho. She is a former editorial page editor at The Seattle Times and managing editor at the Lewiston Morning Tribune. She also worked at the Idaho Statesman in Boise and for public television in Boise and Rochester, New York.


  1. Illuminating reporting. It’s easy for us in Seattle to assume that rapid migration into Idaho would tend to moderate its politics. So far, not so! I wonder bif the permanent work-from-home diaspora will nudge it the other way?

  2. Thanks, Mindy, for this excellent review. I suspect Idaho is replacing Oregon as a haven for conservatives, many in law enforcement, fleeing California. Many went to Southern Oregon, which is slowly changing. Your article will encourage those in several Oregon counties in Eastern and Southern Oregon, that are due to vote in May on an advisory ballot of sorts on the idea of joining Idaho. The old talk of eastern Oregon and Washington and northern California forming a new state, with Idaho, has been revived in recent years, no doubt encouraged by Trumpism. Cecil Andrew, who I greatly admired as governor and secretary, would be out of tune with these trends, bless him!

    • The article was an obvious liberal writing an article about Idaho and it’s growth. Mindy is not hoping for Idaho to remain Republican/Conservative. She would rather see Idaho become more Democratic. Bad idea for eastern Oregon, Washington and northern California to become a part of Idaho, expanding the state’s border lines. The areas are more rural and will not add much to Idaho as for as electoral votes. But here is the bad of what would happen, more space for the liberals from California, Oregon and Washington to move to. The spike in real estate will carry over to the area and the rural newbies would be bought out by greed/money, sell their properties to liberals, then move further into Idaho. The worst thing that could happen to Idaho is to expand it’s borders. Hopefully and prayerfully, it will never happen. Idahoans are not in support of this regardless of the push for it. Instead, the people of Oregon pushing for this should actually put their efforts and fight to make Oregon better, leaving Idaho alone.

  3. I wonder if one of the positive steps would be to establish more of a connection between Seattle and Boise, such as artistic exchanges and intercity visits. And maybe Spokane as well? One step wouild be to establish remote work pods for some of Seattle tech companies, as employees move to Idaho.

  4. Thanks Mindy. Well written. Worrisome that our North Idaho paradise is associated with some extremist political ideologies. I share your concerns. I ( and other SHS teachers I know ) was so saddened by recent school board to decision to lift the mask mandate for LPOSD.

      • It continues to be strange to me to have “liberal “ ideas associated with destruction. Idahos’s ideals might mean something different to different people. In my mind, the environment is number one on the list, and I would like to see it protected and preserved for the use of all Idahoans and others who visit here. That is for all of us. All of us older folks benefit from Social Security and Medicare, both government programs. I haven’t heard any conservative turn those benefits down. Masks and vaccines are designed to keep us safe from the Covid virus, and the people propigating the virus are the unvaccinated, not those who are responsible by wearing masks and being vaccinated. These seem to be “liberal” ideas that are meant for the betterment of all. Conspiracy theories and lies help no one and teach people to be skeptical of factual information that betters us all. A healthy conversation discussing political views and values is always a good thing, but denigrating a particular viewpoint by labeling it “liberal” doesn’t seem to be constructive. Those of us who want to preserve our beautiful state may want to try and find common ground. After all, we do live in a democracy that we hope continues.

  5. The following observation stands out, here. “Agriculture has long had influence in Idaho. But the larger truth today is the heavy hand of the Idaho Freedom Foundation and the rating system it attaches to key bills in the legislature. Republicans like Crabtree cannot afford to buck the IFF too many times or they will face a far-right candidate in the primary.”

    Does anyone know whether Independent voters, moderate Democrats, and moderate Republicans in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho have attempted to create THEIR version of the Idaho Freedom Foundation? If so, who are the organizers, what is it called and how is it funded?

  6. I am what may now be described as a “raving liberal” living in Coeur d’Alene for 50 years. I was born and raised in Lewiston, and my parents supported and worked for the progress Idaho made with Cecil Andries as Governor and Church as Senator. It saddens me greatly to see the direction Idaho is going and know my many letters to our current Senators requesting votes for the environment, education, etc. have no impact. I appreciate your well-written observations, and I hope there may be a way for like-minded people to unite and turn things around. Please keep us informed if such a thing exists.

  7. Mindy: For helping get a publisher for your autobiography/memoir, you should try Anne Depue in Seattle, a literary agent who is also an admirer of this article and your past work. Let me know if I can help with that. Regards, Eric (Ric) Redman (redmanseattle@gmail.com)

  8. Great article! In 1993, I moved to Idaho County from Friday Harbor, Washington, and as a flaming conservative republican, I was thrilled with my new area. I continued until 2012, when I stopped attending the Mormon Church, extremely right wing, after 43 years.

    For 45 years I was a strong follower of conspiracy theories and was active in associations that young conservatives have never heard of such as the John Birch Society.

    If you need info on north central Idaho and conspiracy theories in general, contact me. I did not vote for Trump but did for Paulette Jordan. I am an independent voter.

  9. What a depressing read. True, well-written, articulate, insightful, revealing—but, therefore, depressing as hell.

  10. If these conservative states are so horrible why are so many liberals moving there?

    If liberal states are so great why are they losing population?

  11. Stop trying to infect the great state of Idaho with liberal nonsense! Liberal utopias are becoming more crime ridden, expensive, and fascist (not the fake fascism you say Trump and conservatives support). Stay put like like good little sheep and continue to help your states and cities implode.

  12. With other words the patriotic and the socially and politically insightful, who vote in favor of family, country AND GOD, and against the relentless propaganda of social engineering, mandates and bizarre alternate realities, move to Idaho! Refreshing, hopeful and promising. Thank you, very helpful indeed.

  13. I would just like to know – if you (meaning, anybody in this conversation) like liberal ideals, liberal states, more government intervention, etc…..WHY IN THE BLUE HELL would you move to Idaho? And if you grew up here, why would you stay?

    The dumbest thing in the world would be for people from liberal enclaves (i.e California, Oregon, Washington) to come here to Idaho to try and change the politics. What for? Keep that stuff where you are if it works so well there.

    I moved here from New England to get away from the liberal nonsense. I felt myself not fitting in more and more as I aged into my 30’s. I fully intend to vote along the conservative ideals that Idaho has traditionally upheld. That is what attracted me here in the first place. I have to again reiterate, why would you lament the conservative politics here and complain about them as if it is a bad thing? Go move to California – its not that far from here!

  14. As a California expat moving to Boise in November, I can’t imagine why people would want to change Idaho to a liberal “utopia.” The liberal ideology has absolutely obliterated the beautiful state of California. It has increased poverty and made an even larger disparity between the rich and poor, as the middle class in California has become non-existent. The crime and lawlessness has skyrocketed, and everything is either taxed or legislated into oblivion. Government control is out of control. As a 29 year old, Idaho and it’s politics is a relief to me and hope it remains the way it is where I can raise a family and be successful. I will vote to keep Idaho red and uphold the ideals of Idaho and so will my family members who have also recently moved there.

  15. This woman is doing a huge favor to the people of Idaho by announcing her presence.

    Don’t be fooled and don’t allow anyone to sugar coat it – she and others like her intend to destroy your state. People like this aren’t content until the cities in the states they invade after as they flee the places they’ve ruined reek of urine and marijuana, until school boards are dominated by people who want to teach sex explicitly to children, and until BLM feels entitled to harangue your towns with bullhorns.

    People like this play the long con. You may not live to see Idaho destroyed but your grandchildren will if you don’t loudly and angrily shout down and defeat toxic carpetbagging leftists.

    Take it from me – I grew up in New Jersey, owned a rental building in San Francisco, and have, due to career, spent the last 35 years in very blue places.

    Someone needs to step up and run aggressively against every one of these Elizabeth Warren clones who speak gently while destroying your way of life silently and slowly, in the way rust destroys a bridge.

    You’ve been warned

  16. Sounds perfect. Thank you for the great article affirming my goal to move to Idaho. I can’t wait. I’m fed up with the delusional liberal sheep here in WA! I have a few friends that moved there recently.They love living in a free, sane State. Thinking about moving to one of the few blue areas to turn it red.

  17. I agree wholeheartedly with Vigo, Will, and Bill. Keep the conservative States, CONSERVATIVE!!! The author needs to go back to Washington, from whence she came, and repopulate it among all the druggies, homeless, and dirt and filth. After returning and living there for awhile, maybe she would once again really appreciate the conservatism in Idaho! Leave Idaho alone! Protect the conservatism there!!!


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