TWIN FALLS — The presidential election was the biggest political story in the country, and kept people guessing all year. Idaho politics were often affected by the election in some way, with local politicians taking sides.
Refugee resettlement, which was a controversial issue in Twin Falls in 2015 and continued to be on in 2016, was also a major issue in the presidential race, and the debate over Medicaid expansion in Idaho will be shifted drastically because of the outcome.
But there were also down-ballot elections — Congress, the state Legislature, county offices like commissioners and sheriffs. While the U.S. Senate and House races were never expected to be close and never were, and the partisan split in the area’s legislative delegation stayed exactly the same as it was before the elections, the Twin Falls County Board of Commissioners will have two new faces in January and there will be new sheriffs in some of the Magic Valley’s towns.
1. The presidential election
This year, thanks to a law passed in 2015, Idaho Republicans held a presidential primary in March, rather than either a caucus or a May primary as had been done in the past. The Democrats, who opposed the March presidential primary bill in the Legislature, stuck with a caucus as they had done before.
Republican candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders all visited Idaho in the run-up to their parties’ nominating contests. Idaho Republicans went heavily for Cruz over Donald Trump in their March primary, while Democrats went even more overwhelmingly for Sanders over Hillary Clinton when they caucused two weeks later.
None of Idaho’s all-Republican congressional delegation backed Trump during the primary — U.S. Sen. Jim Risch campaigned for Rubio; U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador backed Rand Paul and then Cruz. However, they all backed him from shortly after he clinched the nomination until a month before the election, when a decade-old audio tape came out of Trump bragging about sexual assault. U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo and U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson then both said they could no longer support Trump’s candidacy. Crapo walked back his un-endorsement about a week later, but Simpson never did.
Idaho hasn’t gone for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, and nobody ever really considered Idaho’s four electoral votes to be up for grabs. However, there was speculation as to whether Trump would garner the overwhelming popular vote margin in the state that Republican presidential nominees routinely do, and as to how many votes independent conservative candidate Evan McMullin would get. McMullin was polling well in Utah, and some wondered whether the distaste many Mormons in Utah apparently felt for Trump would have much impact on the vote counts in heavily LDS areas of southern Idaho.
At the end of the day, Trump carried the state with 59 percent of the vote, with Clinton getting 27.5 percent and McMullin getting almost 7 percent. Libertarian Gary Johnson got about 4 percent.
2. Refugee resettlement
A movement to shut down the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Center started last year, after news came out that some Syrians could be among the refugees to be resettled in Twin Falls. (None have been to date.) As the Syrian civil war dragged on, displacing millions of people, refugee resettlement became a topic of worldwide debate and a major issue in the presidential race, with Trump’s hard-line views on refugee admissions and anti-Muslim rhetoric energizing some and horrifying others. As for Twin Falls, it started to attract national media attention as an example of a town divided over what was becoming a focus of national political arguments.
A drive for a countywide referendum on whether to shut down the refugee center fizzled this spring when organizers got about a quarter of the number of signatures they would need to get on the ballot. In June, however, the debate flared back up after news came out about a 5-year-old girl at the Fawnbrook Apartments being sexually assaulted by three boys from Middle Eastern refugee families.
A handful of refugee center opponents first brought it up at a City Council meeting in mid-June; at the time, police hadn’t made any arrests yet and Council members said they weren’t aware of the case. After the boys were arrested in late June, the story blew up on the anti-Islamic blogosphere, with many reports containing details authorities have said were inaccurate or exaggerated — some said the boys were Syrian, for example — and accusing the city, law enforcement and the media of trying to cover it up or seeking to link the assault to Chobani’s presence in Twin Falls.
Opponents of refugee resettlement dominated City Council meetings’ public comment period for more than a month after that. As the story spread, City Council members started to get obscene emails and even a handful of violent threats from anti-Muslim bigots. Breitbart, a popular conservative website whose articles frequently criticize immigration, Islam and refugee resettlement and that rose to even more prominence this year due to Trump’s popularity, sent a reporter to Twin Falls to cover the story. (The website’s former head is now Trump’s chief strategist.) Brigitte Gabriel, the founder of Act for America, came to Twin Falls to speak, hosted by the local Act chapter. Other national outlets such as Slate, Buzzfeed and the Washington Post sent reporters here to write about what was happening.
City Council meetings have gone back to normal and the attention has largely died down, but with Trump set to take office in January and having run promising major changes to immigration and refugee admissions policy, there’s every reason to think we’ll be debating the issue further in 2017.
3. Health care, Medicaid expansion
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This year started with a proposal on the table to extend primary care coverage to Idaho’s uninsured that ended up going nowhere. As the year draws to a close, the future of indigent health care is more uncertain than ever, with a new president promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act but with nobody clear on when or how this will happen and what will replace it.
Whether to expand Medicaid coverage, do something else for people in the “gap” who don’t qualify for Medicaid but don’t make enough to get subsidized insurance through Your Health Idaho, or do nothing, has been a topic of political debate in Idaho ever since the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that left whether to expand Medicaid up to the states. Before the 2016 legislative session started, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and Health and Welfare Director Dick Armstrong pitched a Primary Care Access Program to extend primary care coverage to people in the gap, paid for by about $30 million a year in state money. The plan came under fire from both the left and the right and stalled when a House committee declined to introduce the bill funding the program. The session ended with the House and Senate deadlocked on how to move forward — the Senate passed a bill authorizing Armstrong to apply for a Medicaid expansion waiver, which would let the state use federal money to pay for a state-designed version of Medicaid expansion, and adjourned, then the House killed the bill before adjourning for the year but leadership promised to appoint a legislative committee to study the issue during the interim.
The committee met, hearing testimony from both supporters and opponents of Medicaid expansion. The last meeting was a couple of weeks after Trump won the election, and the group recommended that the Legislature do something in 2017 without specifying what. The issue is expected to be debated during the upcoming session, but Medicaid expansion, which had arguably been unlikely before — it has been on the table for several years and hasn’t gone anywhere — is even less likely than before Nov. 8. It remains to be seen whether lawmakers will do something — there has been talk about primary care-centered proposals that would extend some additional coverage to some people currently in the “gap” — and whether there will even be a clear picture of where things are headed in Washington before Idaho’s legislative session ends.
4. State legislative elections
The entire Idaho Legislature is up for election every two years. Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, who represents the politically mixed District 26 which includes Blaine, Gooding, Camas and Lincoln counties, announced late in 2015 that her current term would be her last, and Democrat Sally Toone and Republican Alex Sutter ran for her seat.
The primaries were pretty quiet locally — incumbents Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome and Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, won against farther-right challengers. The exception was in District 23, which includes part of western Twin Falls County although more of the people in it live in the Mountain Home area, and where the primaries were more contentious — both incumbent GOP House members Richard Wills and Pete Nielsen lost their races to Christy Zito and Megan Blanksma, respectively.
None of the Republican incumbents in Mini-Cassia’s District 27 had opponents in the primary or the general election, and in District 25, which includes Jerome and much of rural Twin Falls County, the only contest in the general election was between incumbent Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, and Democrat Scott McClure. In districts 24 (Twin Falls) and 26, though, all three legislative seats were contested on the November ballot. In Twin Falls, the three Republican incumbents all had Democratic challengers, while in 26, as well as the race for Pence’s former seat incumbents Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, and Rep. Steve Miller, R-Fairfield faced off against Republican Dale Ewersen and Democrat Kathleen Eder, respectively. In 23, Zito faced Democrat Mary Ann Richards while Blanksma faced independent Bill Chisholm and Libertarian Christopher Jenkins.
At the end of the day, the state Legislature as a whole got a bit more Republican — the GOP picked up three House seats and one in the Senate. Locally, the balance of power stayed exactly the same. Toone beat Sutter, all the incumbents running in every other Magic Valley district were re-elected and the two Republicans won the House seats in 23.
5. Twin Falls county commissioners
Incumbent county commissioners Leon Mills and George Urie faced challenges in the May primary from Don Hall, a Twin Falls city councilman and former mayor, and from Jack Johnson, a now-retired Jerome County sheriff’s deputy who lives in Murtaugh.
Johnson and Hall both beat the incumbents. Hall was unopposed in the general election, while Johnson defeated Democrat Jill Skeem and independent Tony Bohrn. Hall is stepping down from the City Council due to his election as a commissioner, and the Council appointed Christopher Reid, who ran for the Council in 2011 and has served on a couple of city government-related committees, to the post. If Reid wants to stay for longer than a year, he will have to run for the seat in his own right in the November 2017 election.
In Twin Falls County, incumbent Sheriff Tom Carter beat challenger Cliff Katona in a hotly contested primary for sheriff. Carter was unopposed in the general election.
In Lincoln County, Rene Rodriguez won a five-way primary to replace retiring Sheriff Kevin Ellis. However, two of his primary opponents filed to run as write-ins in the general election, and won narrowly — County Commissioner Cresley McConnell, who ran for the sheriff’s job, came within 73 votes of Rodriguez.
In Blaine County, Steve Harkins, the current chief deputy, ran unopposed to replace retiring Sheriff Gene Ramsey.