Idaho elections are usually rather ho-hum affairs. For decades, Republicans have so dominated the state that Democrats don't even bother to field a candidate for more than half the legislative races. Today nearly nine out of 10 lawmakers in Boise hail from the Grand Old Party, making Idaho one of the most solidly Republican states in the nation.
But Republicans could actually be in trouble this year, and they have no one to blame but themselves. Idaho politics has been roiled by controversy ever since the legislature voted in January to overturn a term-limits referendum that had passed in 1994 with 59 percent of the vote.
GOP Gov. Dirk Kempthorne vetoed the measure, warning that his fellow Republicans must honor the will of the voters, even when they disagreed. But heedless Republicans in the legislature overrode the veto (for only the third time in 20 years), arguing that they were acting in the voters' best interests.
After an unsuccessful challenge before the Idaho Supreme Court, term-limits supporters on May 14 presented nearly 47,000 signatures to the secretary of state, forcing the issue back onto November's ballot for a third time. After winning in both 1994 and 1998, they're confident they'll score a three-peat this year.
But it isn't just the term-limits measure itself that's on the line. Voters appear to be angry with the GOP lawmakers who voted almost unanimously in favor of repeal. "This is not a vote on term limits; it's a vote on the legislature and their conduct," said Dan Morgan, chairman of Citizens for Term Limits, as his group turned in boxes of petitions. "The question is, did the legislature do the right thing? The answer is no."
If that anger continues into November, the election could turn into a no-confidence vote for the state party as a whole. For the first time in years, Idaho could cease to be a de facto one-party state.
The turmoil in Idaho has other states watching closely. By an average margin of 67 percent, voters in 16 states have approved term limits on state lawmakers (see map). Many of those lawmakers would no doubt love to overturn the restrictions, so the response in Idaho could affect term limits nationwide. An angry backlash among Idaho voters would serve as a warning against similar repeals elsewhere. If, on the other hand, the controversy dies down and Republicans remain in power, repeals in other states will likely follow, and the term-limits movement will be all but dead.
Bruce Newcomb, Idaho's speaker of the house, led the effort to repeal term limits. He and his Republican colleagues insisted that their motives were altruistic-even heroic. "I've got to live with the courage of my convictions," he told reporters after January's controversial vote. "At least if I lose on this position, I've stood on principle.
"I think it's easy for the opposition to say that we were arrogant, with the perception of politicians today.... But I think the legislature did what they did because they truly thought it was in the best interest of the state."
To bolster that argument, Republicans pushed the emergency repeal through this year, even though state lawmakers wouldn't have been affected until 2004. That allows them to claim they were acting not for themselves, but for thousands of local officeholders-from county prosecutors to school board members-who would have been forced to resign this year.
But term-limits supporters aren't buying it. "The issue is the right of people to determine policy through the initiative process," said Terry Eastland, a founder of Idaho's term-limits movement and a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. "The establishment is not listening. I firmly believe that when the people speak, we have to listen."
Republicans like Mr. Eastland are challenging members of their own party in record numbers this year. But even if the pro?term limits Republicans win on May 28, they won't likely enjoy the traditional romp in November. Idaho's sleepy Democratic Party has roused itself over the term-limits issue, guaranteeing far more competitive races in the general election. (Every Senate Democrat voted against repeal.)
Still, the state Democratic Party will likely be viewed as too liberal by many Idahoans angry about the repeal. That could leave the Libertarian Party as the biggest winner to emerge from the term-limits mess. Libertarian candidates have filed for races up and down the ballot, and they're winning publicity for their pledge never to overturn a voter referendum.
With its small-government philosophy (to the point of favoring drug legalization), the Libertarian Party could fill the void created when the state GOP abandoned its principles.