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‘People are fatigued’: Republicans sweep Ada County seats, Gold takes ACHD in low turnout 2022 general election

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Ada County’s elections were a mixed bag for both parties in 2022, with thousands fewer ballots cast than in 2018 despite the population boom. 

On one hand, the Republicans swept the county elected offices, taking back the lone commissioner seat currently held by Democrat Kendra Kenyon and knocking off multi-term incumbent Coroner Dotti Owens. But, Republican-backed Ada County Highway District Commission President Mary May also lost her seat to former Eagle City Council Member Miranda Gold and the Democrats will continue to hold ground on Boise’s western edge in District 15. 

Turnout hit 61.4% with 186,703 ballots cast in Ada County out of 304,317 registered voters. This is far below the 78.2% turnout Ada County saw during 2018, the last Ada County election cycle in a midterm election year. Four years ago, Ada County only had 245,903 registered voters and 192,303 of them came out to vote. This still exceeds the ballots cast in 2022, even though we’ve added tens of thousands of new people to the area in the past four years. 

Why did voters stay home?

Candidates and organizers from both parties have different theories about what could have kept people home. Meridian City Council Member and soon-to-be Republican District 21 Senator in the Idaho Legislature Treg Bernt said the hard-fought May primary might have worn down voters. Plus, the added layer of increasing vitriol at the national level made voters disengage. 

“Knocking doors and talking with voters during the general election after the primary it was evident that people were fatigued,” Bernt told BoiseDev Wednesday morning. “There was a lot of money spent in the primary and people were fatigued and national politics had to do with it as well. I think that’s politics in 2022, it’s divisive. From the people I talked to in Meridian, people are sick of it. People are fatigued. People are done with it.”

Ada County Democrats Chair Erik Berg, who also lost his race to Ada County Assessor against Republican Rebecca Arnold, said the lack of a blockbuster Democratic candidate for Governor, like Paulette Jordan in 2018, also made it hard to motivate voters. 

“I wonder if the lack of a higher profile top-of-ticket race might have made it seem like people didn’t necessarily have to come out and vote,” Berg said. “(Democratic gubernatorial candidate) Stephen Heidt didn’t have as much of a campaign and there were a lot more people figuring ‘everything is already cooked’ and if they don’t know about the local races that really, really do matter I think it makes it so people are a little more nonchalant.”

Did partisanship impact the race for coroner?

Ada County’s new coroner will be Republican Rich Riffle, an Idaho political newcomer whose campaign only raised a little shy of $4,000 compared to Owens name recognition and roughly $19,000 during the same period. 

The difference between the two candidates ended up being only 795 votes, with Riffle coming out on top. Berg said this race was the one he was most disappointed by, saying he “couldn’t think of a better public servant in the state.”

He said this race pointed to the growing partisanship of local politics in Ada County. In 2014, Owens earned a higher percentage of the vote even in a year where Democrats across the board floundered in Ada County. So to see her only hit just under 50% of the vote now and lose to Riffle showed Berg how hard of a climb any Democrat has in the county even if they have years of experience and Owens is a pathologist, while Riffle was a deputy medical examiner in Oregon. 

Rich Riffle, Dotti Owens

“I think partisanship is getting tougher and tougher,” Berg said. “I also think one of the challenges she faced is Republicans are less likely and less willing to cross the aisle for endorsements or to vote a split ticket. We ran into that a lot with her where people behind closed doors saying ‘I support you, but because of the Republican pledge I can’t endorse’. We need to be open to the fact that the other party might have the better public servant.”

Bernt said races like coroner, assessor and treasurer aren’t partisan offices and don’t often involve policy setting that’s political in any way. He said Riffle might not have raised a lot of funds, but he was appearing at events with other high-profile conservative candidates like Ada County Commissioner Rod Beck and Tom Dayley, who will now take Kenyon’s seat. 

“There was a lot of events where I saw Rich there with other county candidates so I think he got support from the county GOP,” he said, congratulating the Ada County Republican Central Committee for their work on the election. “At the end of the day, that’s their job. That’s their job to elect republicans and fundraise for Republicans.”

More transit options than just roads focus of ACHD majority

With Gold taking May’s seat on the Ada County Highway District commission, it solidly cements a majority on the commission of officials who ran on improving transportation for bicyclists, pedestrians, public transit as well as cars. 

This win was one of the most high-profile contests for Ada County’s local elections, bringing in big money to both May and Gold as well as PACs running ads against each candidate. It’s a nonpartisan seat, but May had the backing of well-known Republicans like House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, the Ada County GOP and others in the hopes of her keeping the seat. Gold saw backing from prominent Democrats, like former Ada County Commissioner Diana Lachiondo and state legislators. 

Miranda Gold. Payton Khan and Mary May appear at a BOMA event in Boise. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

Bernt said it wasn’t necessarily surprising that May could lose given the way her district was drawn to include dense parts of the North End, some of the most consistently liberal in Idaho. He also said it could be worth examining how partisan messaging in the race from Republicans impacted May’s chances. 

“Sometimes when the county (Republican party) gets involved with nonpartisan races it can be a good thing, but sometimes it backfires in my opinion,” he said. “I don’t believe that local elections should be partisan. I think you should leave local elections as local elections and money should be spent on partisan races at the county and state level instead.”

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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