If anyone in Kootenai County could have predicted the Democrats’ downfall, it was Dan English. He had spent most of his life in the Idaho Panhandle and monitored more than one hundred local elections in his fifteen years as county clerk. The first ballots he counted, in 1996, revealed tight contests between Republicans and Democrats, but in the years that followed, the margins only widened. By 2002, the Democratic presence had been so whittled down that only one Democrat — English himself — still held an elected county office. For his re-election campaign that year, he distributed wooden nickels labeled, “Save the Last One,” reminding voters of a bygone time when his party dominated the county. That caught the attention of USA Today, which observed that English was a rare political survivor in what had become “the most Republican county in the most Republican state in the nation.” Once again, English was spared.
But by Nov. 2, 2010, when he faced another election, Kootenai County had swung even further to the right. President Obama was especially unpopular with Idaho Republicans, and any association with his party and policies had become a political liability. English is a gentle, affable man with bipartisan appeal: His children served on active duty in Iraq; he founded the nonprofit North Idaho Youth for Christ; and he was civically engaged well before he became clerk, serving on the school board and city council. “You don’t have anything to worry about. People like you,” his friends assured him, but English knew that his record no longer mattered as much as the letter “D” beside his name. That November evening, he noticed the election supervisor studying the absentee ballots with particular intensity. “I have to run this again. Something’s not right,” she told him. When she left the room, English pulled the results from the trash. “Sure enough, there I was, losing.” He called his wife and said, “I think this may be the end of the run.”
From my cover story for High Country News, “Right-wing Migration”, about the geographic root of modern Western conservatism and North Idaho’s political makeover.