The trench battles: Boise's legislative battlegrounds

It is all small change, relative to the record-shattering $6.2 million multimedia aerial war over Propositions 1, 2 and 3.

But some of the local legislative fundraising numbers are intriguing — and indicative of trench battles in local politics:

• Through Oct. 21, Democrat Betty Richardson has raised $96,646 in the open Senate race in West Boise’s legislative District 15.

• In that same period, District 15 GOP Senate candidate Fred Martin has raised $67,957 — an overwhelming sum in almost all legislative races, save this one.

• In South Boise’s legislative District 18, Republican incumbent Sen. Mitch Toryanski has raised $39,799 this year. But that’s on top of the war chest he had entering the election year — $41,956, which alone is normally enough to run a legislative race in a district of 43,586 constituents.

• Democrat Branden Durst, a former state representative, has raised $34,131 for his rematch with Toryanski.

• In another District 18 rematch, Democrat Janie Ward-Engelking seems to be leaving little to chance, as she looks to avenge her seven-vote 2010 loss to Rep. Julie Ellsworth. Ward-Engelking has raised $62,902 this year. Put another way, Ward-Engelking needs to find eight more votes, and has $7,862.75 per vote to do it.

• The numbers have Ellsworth grumbling. “Who’s attempting to buy this election and what business do they have in the lives of local District 18 residents?” Ellsworth wrote in a candidate rebuttal published Friday. It’s not often that a 12-year lawmaker, and a one-time member of legislative leadership, is lamenting a lack of funds. But through Oct. 21, Ellsworth has raised $21,315, still a decent sum for a legislative race.

The stakes are high, because this is a year of opportunity. For both parties.

As soon as Durst and Ward-Engelking filed, we knew these would be big-time rematches. Like Ward-Engelking, Durst lost narrowly, by only 103 votes — and he believes Toryanski is vulnerable because of his support of the Students Come First education laws and his vote for a bill requiring women to undergo an ultrasound before an abortion.

On top of all this, 18 is a demonstrated swing district. Over the past decade, this district has elected a mixed bag of conservative and moderate Republicans and Democrats — and now, both parties are eager to claim this district as their own.

Here’s another factor. This is the first round of legislative elections since redistricting — the once-a-decade redrawing of the map, based on new Census numbers. Both parties have a chance to plant a flag in the new landscape.

Consequently, District 15 is a battleground. West Boise has been Republican country, but it’s more favorable to Democrats than vivid red West Ada County. Democrats have made no secret of their desire to make inroads in 15.

This could be their once-in-a-decade opportunity.

GOP Sen. John Andreason and Rep. Max Black are retiring, setting up two open races.

Democrats recruited a pair of strong candidates for these open races. Richardson is a well-known former U.S. attorney and county party chairwoman. House hopeful Steve Berch is a hard-working campaigner who, before redistricting, made a committed but futile 2010 run in a heavily Republican suburban district.

Lastly, these candidates have succeeded in raising money. (Berch has collected $43,368 to Republican Mark Patterson’s $23,375.)

If the Democrats can’t win in District 15 this year, with two solid and well-funded candidates running in open races, it will be really difficult for the minority party to replicate this campaign effort down the road.

Legislative districts can be defined, and the tone can be set, by the first elections after redistricting. Think back to 2002, before Boise was seen as a Democratic island, a year before Dave Bieter was elected mayor. Elliot Werk gave Democrats a breakthrough on the Bench’s District 17, defeating incumbent Sen. Grant Ipsen. David Langhorst gave Democrats a second seat in District 16, Garden City and Northwest Boise, by knocking off GOP Rep. Hod Pomeroy.

A decade later, Districts 16 and 17 are seen as the Democrats’ to lose — although Republican Graham Paterson is running a well-funded race against Hy Kloc in District 16’s open House race, and Judy Peavey-Derr gives the GOP a well-known challenger to Werk.

Legislative elections tend to get short shrift, and this year, there are 6.2 million reasons why they are getting drowned out. But the results will be worth watching.

Ellsworth is correct in

Ellsworth is correct in questioning who is funding Ward-Engelking, but we all know the answer is the BEA/IEA. I have what might be some good news for her, however.

I live in a solidly Democrat precinct, but Democrat candidates and volunteers have been mysteriously absent so far this year. Two years ago Ward-Engelking and her volunteers, all of whom told me they were teachers, saturated my neighborhood, knocking on doors their first time through and following up with literature drops. This year she seems to be conducting a mail campaign. Not even Phylis King has been around, and she has no where near her usual number of yard signs. True, this is only one precinct out of how many, but it has always been one Democrats work exceptionally hard in, and I'm just not seeing any activity this year. Not sure what that means in terms of election results, if anything, but it is for sure very abnormal.

Why does Ellsworth question?

All she has to do is read the campaign finance reports. Her comments are typical of those who have not been as successful at fundraising as her opponent. The IEA can only give $1,000 to the campaign, so you can't say they are buying the election.

Surely you do not believe

Surely you do not believe the IEA is limited to giving only $1000 to candidates? I know you are smarter than that. In 2010 the IEA's PAC contributed $182,000 to the Olson campaign, which meant they could pony up "only" $40,000 for legislative seats that year. Even though they are pretty obsessed with the No campaign this year, with the help they have gotten from NEA to the tune of over $2 million, I'm sure they are giving more generously to legislative races than they did in 2010. This doesn't even take into consideration donations made by individual IEA members.

I would never accuse IEA or any other entity of "buying" an election, because money alone does not win elections. It can buy a lot of advertising, but not all advertising is effective and pursuasive, the same as some candidates are just not very appealing to voters. The IEA spends a lot of money on elections, but they have not been able to change the balance of power in the legislature. They can't even pick a winning candidate for School Superintendent.

Not only money

Legislative seats change party not only in the first election following reapportionment, such as the 2 in 2002 mentioned above, but also in other elections: 2 in 2004, 5 in 2006, 0 in 2008 and 2 in 2010. 2002 may well have "set the tone" but a case can be made that a more important tipping point was the 2001 Foothills Levy election. This year may represent an opportunity for Democrats in District 15 by virtue of the match-ups and the opportunity of a contest for an open seat. Long term the changes in party control are also affected by demographic changes, which is what happened in Districts 16 - 18.

@Bytheway also brings up the important point about the ground game and voter identification. If it is not being seen this year perhaps there is less of an effort and it may portend a weakness for Ward-Engelking. Alternatively, the focus may be elsewhere in the district and/or voters are being targeted more efficiently than blanket door to door contact.