Summarized by Michael Nielsen
Influx of Mormons Hit Pocatello Democrats Hard
Boise ID Statesman 19Jun00 D4
By Gregory Hahn: The Idaho Statesman
POCATELLO, IDAHO -- Chronicling the rise of the republican party in
Idaho, Idaho Statesman writer Gregory Hahn notes the significant
impact that the LDS church has had in changing Pocatello from the
last Democratic stronghold to a city where "It's OK to be Republican."
Pocatello, a long-time union town, is hosting the state Republican
convention. Democrats have been a perennial force in this university
town, with many even refusing to drink Idaho's Ste. Chappelle wine
because of its past connection with a prominent and conservative
Republican family. Nevertheless, the Republican Party convention is a
visible reminder that the times have changed.
Three factors contributed to the Democrats' demise in Idaho: the
decreased influence of unions, the strength of religious
organizations, and a reinvigorated Republican organization. Pocatello
has been one of the few Idaho cities to offer genuine two-party
debates, but blue-collar defections, an influx of conservative
Mormons, and enhanced Republican organizational and financial support
have changed the balance of power in the city.
In the early days of Pocatello's history, stagecoach robberies, bars
and brothels gave the town a rough reputation that contrasted sharply
with the reputation of the Mormon communities elsewhere in Eastern
Idaho. The result was a "Babylon in the middle of Mormon country",
and many years passed before that image began to change. By about
1900, Pocatello residents had big dreams for the city, and sought to
use natural resources, the railroad and other commercial strengths to
create the most important city in the state.
In most of Idaho, as New Deal Democrats began to age the Democratic
party lost strength. But in Pocatello, they retained their
preeminence, with only one Republican winning a significant county
office until the 1990s.
This began to change with the weakening of union power, and as the
LDS Church gained influence. The passage of the 1985 Right to Work
Act, combined with the fact that public works projects no longer must
pay the prevailing wage, resulted in many union members leaving the
state for higher wages, thus decreasing the influence of unions in
The impact of the LDS Church stems from the changed relationship of
Ricks College and Idaho State University. For many years, Mormons
viewed ISU as a place where their kids went to lose their religion.
But efforts to change this reputation have been effective, and have
been combined with simpler transfer procedures for students seeking
to further their education beyond the associate's degree offered by
Ricks. Now, more than 60% of ISU students are Mormon.
Many of the new students come from rural eastern Idaho, and bring
with them their conservative politics. This has led one local
politician, LDS Church member Evan Frasure, to spend more advertising
dollars in the ISU student newspaper than in Pocatello's daily
Demographic changes such as this have played a role in the changing
political preferences, but there are deeper issues. In-fighting among
Democrats combined with President Clinton's moral indiscretions and
his pro-environment policies to leave many party members disaffected.
They turned to the Republicans.
In addition, prominent Idaho Mormon Democrats found themselves with
no constituency when running for statewide office. Although they
could find support in the Pocatello area, they have struggled
elsewhere. With their former leaders, such as Cecil Andrus and Frank
Church, no longer active in the political scene, the Democrats found
themselves out-recruited by the Republicans.
Frasure understands the frustration that the Democrats are feeling.
For nearly 10 years, Frasure tried to be win election in Pocatello as
a Republican. He campaigned tirelessly, eventually defeating Democrat
Sen. Patricia McDermott. At about the same time, ISU LDS leader Ed
Brown and attorney Randy Smith announced that they were Republican.
"That was the break in the dam of the Democratic stronghold here,"
Frasure said. "Once you get an elected Republican, if you're
credible, it attracts other credible people."
Although some Democrats remain hopeful that the party will make a
comeback, many political observers expect the state to continue
shifting toward the political right. The main obstacle appears to be
differences in social agendas and religious beliefs among the
Republican faithful. As the party gains strength, the moderate and
conservative elements in the party will conflict periodically. New
residents to the state, most of whom are conservative, are expected
to help maintain the Republican momentum.