UPDATED, 12:55 p.m., to reflect that Melaleuca was not among Education Voters of Idaho's donors.
By most metrics, Tuesday was a business-as-usual Republican election night in Idaho.
Mitt Romney, an adopted favorite son, ran up 64.5 percent of the vote, up from John McCain’s 61.5 percent four years earlier.
Reps. Raul Labrador (63 percent) and Mike Simpson (65.1 percent) were handily re-elected to Congress.
The legislative races were a wash. When the 2013 session convenes, the GOP will again control 57 of 70 House seats and 28 of 35 Senate seats.
But on the biggest races of the night, Idaho’s Republican machine found itself on the wrong end of a sledgehammer.
Propositions 1, 2 and 3 — the education initative pushed by state schools superintendent Tom Luna, embraced by Gov. Butch Otter and bankrolled to the tune of seven figures by Melaleuca CEO Frank VanderSloot — were swept off the books. The verdict was sound, swift and statewide.
Proposition 1 — the attempt to dismantle the teacher collective-bargaining process — lost handily, in a state that will never be defined as union-friendly. The no vote came in at 57.3 percent.
Proposition 2, the teacher merit-pay law, fared slightly worse, with a no vote of 58 percent.
Voters had particularly little use for Proposition 3, giving the the so-called “laptop law” the landfill treatment. A 66.7 percent supermajority voted no. All told, 429,663 Idahoans voted against Prop 3. By contrast, 417,268 Idahoans voted for Mitt Romney.
Many things. And one big thing.
Idaho Republican leaders made one gross miscalculation — one of epic proportions, given their propensity for winning elections and swaying voters.
They framed education “reform” as a partisan issue.
Education is not a partisan issue.
Not in Idaho households.
Not in Idaho classrooms.
Not in Idaho communities.
The more the Republicans tried to paint this as a partisan manner, the more they ran headlong into resistance and resentment.
That’s why the propositions failed so resoundingly. And not just in blue Boise, where the local school board publicly criticized the laws. The laptop law — the one supposed to bridge the technical divide between urban kids and rural kids — lost in every county. Its best showing, relatively speaking, came in Owyhee County, with 44.9 percent.
A thumping this severe doesn’t happen overnight. And the proponents — again, some of the state’s savviest politicos — proved remarkably adept at self-destruction:
• There is, first and foremost, Luna’s bait and switch. Luna can’t reinvent the record, but let’s review it. In the fall of 2010, he sought re-election saying nothing about a structural overhaul of K-12, and spoke instead about finding new funding sources for public schools. In January 2011, he rolled out the Students Come First overhaul, saying it was predicated by the “new normal” of austere budgets. Any talk of fighting for new dollars for K-12 was conspicuous in its absence.
• Supporters overestimated the level of anti-union antipathy in the state. They desperately tried to demonize the teachers’ unions that bankrolled the opposition. They tried to frame 2012 as a sequel to the bitter but ultimately successful 1986 campaign to retain Idaho’s right to work law.
That was almost a generation ago. Voters either have a short memory or a sympathetic view of their local teachers. Or both.
• The eight-year, $180 million laptop contract with Hewlett-Packard, was the political equivalent of a system crash. The deal, announced two weeks before Election Day, shattered any illusions that Prop 3 was a fiscally conservative initiative. The details that inevitably emerged only made the picture worse. Proponents had to defend the indefensible: an eight-year agreement to lease laptops for a steep $1,171 over four years. An ineptly heavy-handed ploy to play the “buy Idaho” card (or, more precisely, the “lease Idaho” card).
• Then there was the saga of Education Voters of Idaho, the purported voice of Idaho parents that was funded by the likes of Albertsons heir Joe Scott, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a host of Idaho business interests. When these mystery donors were revealed, six days before the election, supporters had lost any credible way to criticize opposition fundraising.
So many missteps. And one big misread of the Idaho electorate.
Opponents didn’t win by default. Theirs was a smart, disciplined campaign. On point and on topic. While supporters indulged in union-bashing, the opponents kept their eyes, generally, on the content of the laws.
The question is: What does the No on 1, 2, 3 group do next? I don’t think Tuesday’s vote was a rejection of reform, in any fashion — just a ringing repudiation of Luna’s vision of reform. Even on Prop 3, there is a widespread agreement that technology must a key ingredient in Idaho public schools. Our editorial board interviewed 54 legislative candidates this fall, and from none did I hear a desire to return to the horses-and-bayonets era of education.
How then to bridge the gap? The No on 1, 2, 3 leaders — such as Michael Lanza, Maria Greeley and retiring state Rep. Brian Cronin of Boise — have been handed a great opportunity to bring ideas to the table. They have something Luna and his supporters squandered, through a series of self-inflicted wounds: public backing.