The much-discussed anti-incumbent, anti-establishment mood that’s infiltrated ballot boxes across the nation arrived in Idaho on Tuesday. Republican voters in Idaho’s first congressional district rejected the national Republican Party’s favored candidate, Vaughn Ward, in favor of state Rep. Raul Labrador. Labrador will go on to face freshman Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick in the November general election.
Labrador’s win was another setback for national Republicans, who backed Iraq War veteran Ward early on in the primary. The National Republican Congressional Committee saw Ward as such a promising candidate that party leaders featured him in their “Young Guns” program, “designed to assist Republican candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives build a foundation for victory.”
Labrador, on the other hand, went forward without institutional support, and instead won the endorsement of a local tea party organization, Tea Party Boise.
“Labrador clearly has more experience and more consistent alignment with the positions taken by TPB and our membership,” the group wrote in its endorsement. “He is also a strong, consistent conservative, willing to challenge his own party in Idaho on issues that we share.”
In a district that is 34.2 percent rural – well above the 21 percent rural average for congressional districts nationwide – conventional political wisdom says it should be unsurprising the Tea Party, anti-establishment, anti-Washington candidate won.
But it wasn’t rural voters who delivered Labrador his commanding 48%-39% win (three more Republicans were on the ballot). Labrador, instead, decisively beat Ward in the two most populous counties in the district — and the state: Ada County, home to the state’s capital of Boise, and Canyon County, just west and within the Boise Metropolitan area.
Labrador carried 58 percent of the vote in Ada County and 54 percent in Canyon County. Of the 17 other counties in the district, only Payette County gave Labrador an outright majority share of the vote. Ward carried outright majorities in Adams and Owyhee Counties, and carried a near-majority 49.9 percent in Nez Perce County. No candidate won a majority of the vote in the remaining counties of the district, and, in many, the two main candidates finished neck-and-neck.
Labrador’s clear victories in the more urban areas of his district mirror findings the Daily Yonder documented in Kentucky’s May 18 Republican primary, where Tea Party favorite Rand Paul defeated establishment candidate and Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson. Tea Party, anti-establishment candidates are underperforming in rural areas where a conventional understanding of politics says they should be performing best.
However, some factors unique to the Labrador-Ward battle certainly contributed to Labrador’s upset and unexpected win. Ward himself committed several gaffes, such as referring to Puerto Rico as a country and plagiarizing a campaign speech from President Obama’s keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The Tea Party movement was not united behind Labrador, either. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, originally from the district herself, endorsed and campaigned for Ward – but Palin’s celebrity status was both a gift and a curse.
“I’m not a fan of Sarah’s,” voter Janice Aagaard told the Idaho Statesman. “So once she hooked up with Ward and the fact he doesn’t have a permanent home here, I couldn’t vote for him.”
It is unclear if the conventional political wisdom has changed or if the unique factors in the Republican primary in Idaho’s first district account for what could be a trend in rural politics. But one thing is clear: Rural voters should not be taken for granted and dismissed as predictable – especially in Idaho’s first district, where Minnick won with only 51 percent of the vote in 2008.
Rural voters could make all the difference.