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 100 local elections in his 15 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. English knew, however, that his record no longer mattered as much as the letter "D" beside his name. "You don't have anything to worry about. People like you," his friends assured him, but English had doubts. That November evening, he noticed the election supervisor studying the absentee ballots -- often a preview of the final totals -- 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."
In the end, not a single Democrat was elected to a partisan office in Kootenai County. All three county commissioners, as well as the clerk, the assessor, the sheriff, the treasurer, the county attorney, and the coroner were Republican; so were the nine state legislators representing the area. Voters even backed a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, Raúl Labrador, by a 10 percent margin over Democratic incumbent Walt Minnick. (Labrador is now one of Congress' most conservative members.)
To outside observers, it may have appeared that the county swung along with the nation's political pendulum. American voters leaned right in 2010, awarding Republicans a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. But in Kootenai County, something far more enduring than partisan realignment had tipped the scales. As English put it, the 2010 election marked "the end of an era" -- not only politically, but demographically. Conservative newcomers, primarily from Southern California, had helped quadruple the county population since 1970. Allied with conservative North Idahoans, they systematically transformed the local politics.
It was part of a much larger pattern: Increasingly mobile Americans were deliberately seeking out communities that reinforced their own social and political values. Elsewhere, conservative emigrants helped push certain suburbs of Boise, Denver, Colorado Springs, Salt Lake City and Phoenix further to the right, while liberals relocated to urban centers and college towns. The shift had a polarizing effect: In 1976, less than a quarter of Americans lived in counties that voted overwhelmingly -- by more than a 20 percent margin -- for either presidential candidate. By 2004, nearly half of Americans did.
The consequences have only begun to emerge. Journalist Bill Bishop and sociologist Robert G. Cushing, in their widely praised 2008 book, The Big Sort, suggest that the U.S. has become a patchwork of ideologically distinct communities that elect representatives who are frequently unwilling to compromise. No wonder, they write, that Congress is gridlocked, and issues such as health care, which once crossed party lines, are now definitively partisan. "What happened," writes Bishop, "wasn't a simple increase in political partisanship, but a more fundamental kind of self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing social division." Americans had created communities that functioned as "social-resonators" in which they could hear the "amplified sound of their own voices and beliefs."
Indeed, Kootenai County's transformation suggests that the most indelible impacts may be felt in the echo chambers themselves -- in the counties, red and blue, where the majorities' values are reinforced in every facet of local government, and where it's easy to forget the way the other half thinks. "It's taking us a step back," one self-described conservative told me, "because by making our own private Idaho, we're insulating ourselves from the world."
Kootenai County spans 1,316 square miles, from its flat prairie border with Washington state across the north shore of Lake Coeur d'Alene to the dense pine forests on Fourth of July Pass. In the late 1800s, prospectors discovered gold, silver, lead and zinc in the mountains just east of the pass, and for much of the next century, mining undergirded the regional economy. In the 1970s, the "Silver Valley," on a fork of the Coeur d'Alene River, produced half the nation's silver and ranked among the 10 most productive mining districts in the world. The mines, and the unions that arose with them, made the region faithfully Democratic. Republicans rarely won local partisan elections, and unionized workers backed Idaho Sen. Frank Church, who sponsored the 1964 Wilderness Act and opposed the Vietnam War.
But North Idaho also contained deep conservative pockets. In 1964, the presidential election revealed strong support for Republican Barry Goldwater, and the area caught the attention of Ronald Rankin, a leader of Southern California's burgeoning conservative movement. In 1965, Rankin moved to Coeur d'Alene, the largest town in Kootenai County, from Orange County, south of Los Angeles, where he'd directed the California Republican Assembly and rallied Goldwater supporters. (At one event, Rankin reportedly told a young Ronald Reagan -- then making his first run for California governor -- that he was "too liberal.") According to the region's leading newspaper, the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., Rankin and his family moved to Idaho "looking for a quieter life." The following year, however, he revealed another reason in the Lewiston Morning Tribune, saying that "several very wealthy Southern Californians" had planted eight field organizers, including Rankin, across the West to "reshape the Republican Party from the bottom up along arch-conservative lines."
Kootenai County was a strategic target. Rankin told the Tribune he liked the "community atmosphere"; the small electorate was easier to influence, and almost entirely white. (The Aryan Nations, a white supremacist group, had its headquarters in the county until 2001.) It was a place, Rankin believed, where one person could make a difference -- where, by reorienting the local politics, he could help change the nation. "If we can carry the bottom of the ticket," he said, "then we have a chance of carrying the top."
Rankin's failures and successes read like a litmus test for the county's political transformation. His first move -- an attempt to recall Sen. Church -- was seen as radical, even among Republicans, and over the years, as the Spokesman-Review noted, he ran "for every public office from governor to a seat on a local highway district ... most always unsuccessfully." Eventually, though, Rankin's popularity grew. He hosted a radio talk show and had some success spreading his anti-tax philosophy. In 1996, he finally won a seat on the Kootenai County Commission and persuaded fellow commissioners to make English the county's official language. By the time Rankin died in 2004, local politics had shifted so drastically to the right that some conservatives considered him too liberal. (Rankin reportedly dubbed them "the far-righteous.")
The economy had slid out from underneath Democrats. The price of silver dropped precipitously in 1980, the metals market slumped, mines closed, and Idaho passed right-to-work legislation that effectively disabled the unions. Kootenai County's new economy was based on tourism, medical care and the high-tech industry. At the front of this transition was Coeur d'Alene native Duane Hagadone, an ambitious conservative who owned the Coeur d'Alene Press and other Northwestern newspapers. Hagadone believed that the region's economic future depended on its natural beauty, epitomized in the 25-mile-long Lake Coeur d'Alene. He was already on his way to becoming one of Idaho's wealthiest men when he built an 18-story hotel and resort on the lakeshore, featuring a golf course with a floating green and a new marina that offered cable television and room service to visiting yachtsmen. At a Chamber of Commerce meeting in 1985, after county commissioners approved the project, Hagadone gushed, "The potential of what we have in this great community in this great area is almost scary."
Meanwhile, Southern California was struck by a series of disasters in the early 1990s -- a recession, an earthquake, race riots -- that together marked the beginning of an exodus. Between 1992 and 2000, excluding birth and death rates, California lost 1.8 million more people than it gained; collectively, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona gained 1.4 million more than they lost. More than half of the immigrants to Idaho in that period came from California. Of the top four counties that lost emigrants to Kootenai, three were in California -- San Diego, Los Angeles and Orange.
Like many other mass movements, this one spread by word of mouth. In 1990, the Coeur d'Alene Press reported that one Orange County family had convinced "half its neighborhood" to relocate to Coeur d'Alene. A pastor told me that "whole (evangelical) ministries" came north together. By the end of the 1990s, more than 500 California police officers had retired to North Idaho, among them Mark Fuhrman, who committed perjury in the prosecution of O.J. Simpson. One officer told the Los Angeles Times that he left Anaheim because "the narrow roads got wider, orange groves became tract homes and street gangs became too numerous to count." He went looking for "another Shangri-La," and found it in Kootenai County.
Indeed, as the county's population soared above 100,000, it began to look less like Idaho and more like suburban California. The prairie was paved with curling cul-de-sacs and gridded with Starbucks, Del Tacos and Holiday Inns. The old Potlatch Mill on Lake Coeur d'Alene became a golf course, and another mill site, just past the outflow into the Spokane River, became an office complex and parking lot. Once, when county commissioners voted to approve a subdivision, a local politician opined, "They are trying to turn Idaho into Orange County." Another resident wrote to the Spokesman-Review, "When I moved there in 1976, Coeur d'Alene was a nice, sleepy town, just getting ready to construct its first McDonald's. Today, thanks to the horde of Californians who settled there, the place has espresso bars and strip malls and ferns and houses with diagonal wood."
Pundits predicted that Californians' migration to places like Kootenai County would have a moderating effect on the politics of the Intermountain West. The newcomers "are finding work in jobs unrelated to the traditional timber, mining and agricultural fields," observed Timothy Egan, a Western correspondent for The New York Times, in 1993. Egan suggested that these "lifestyle refugees" would cause an "environmentalist tilt in the (Western) electorate." But he overlooked a key detail: The counties from which these refugees came were the most conservative in California. They were, in fact, the birthplace of modern American conservatism -- home to the John Birch Society, early evangelicalism, the 1978 tax revolt that led to property-tax limits in Proposition 13, and two years later, Reagan's election to the presidency.
When California's conservative bulwarks faltered in the 1990s under the weight of rising taxes, stricter regulations, Mexican immigration, and the state's steady liberalization, conservatives went looking for what they believed they had lost. Many told me that Kootenai County became their idea of "God's Country" -- an American utopia, a refuge from "a world turned upside down." As one transplant told Egan, "There's this desire to return to a simpler, nostalgic life, even though we don't really have any idea what that is."
Last December, I met Tina Jacobson at a Starbucks in the suburbs north of Coeur d'Alene. I had been in the area for only a few days but already knew that, depending on whom one consulted, Jacobson was either the county's most principled or most pugnacious Republican. "I make no bones about it," she told me. "I am a Conservative. I spell 'Conservative' with a capital C."
The daughter of Dutch immigrants, Jacobson grew up in Southern California, where, from a young age, she listened to talk radio. She recalled with alarming clarity the day that her high school political science teacher "came bouncing into the room braless" and cried over Democrat George McGovern's loss in the 1972 presidential race. When Jacobson turned 18, she registered as a Republican and, soon after, entered politics, campaigning against a school bond. Eight years later, she escaped California and moved with her husband to Boise, where she eventually won election as a local precinct captain. Idaho's small population gave her an entry into politics that would have been impossible in California. She mingled with conservative heavyweights, and when she moved to the Coeur d'Alene area in 1993, for her husband's job, she sought, and won, an appointment as secretary of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee. That gave her access to addresses and voting records, which she scoured for emerging patterns. The next year, Helen Chenoweth, a leader of Idaho's conservative movement, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and later she hired Jacobson as an assistant. Jacobson admired the congresswoman and read her subsequent re-elections in 1996 and 1998 as landmarks in Idaho's rightward tilt.
In Kootenai County, the shift was especially noticeable. By 2002, registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats, and even as the nation swung left in the 2008 election, the Democratic Party didn't run candidates in five local Legislature races. Still, the county's Republican Party struck Jacobson as lackluster. "We needed to run the agenda, put forth resolutions, move politics in a direction that conservatives wanted to go," she explained. "If you're a majority party, if you don't use that to your advantage, what's the point?" She suspected, too, that as the local Democratic Party atrophied, its members were switching their affiliation in order to vote for moderate candidates in Republican primaries. "They still wanted to be a part of it, so they came to us because we were the only game in town," she said. "The battle was still Republicans vs. Democrats. The problem was, we were all wearing the same jersey."
At a Central Committee meeting after the 2008 election, Jacobson saw an opening when another former Californian, Bob Pedersen, asked for help to run for Congress. Pedersen came from Orange County, where he'd been active in the early evangelical movement and worked as a volunteer pastor. In his view, the pivotal point in California's decline came in 1992, when police officers charged with brutally beating a black man, Rodney King, were acquitted of criminal charges, setting off riots across L.A. Pedersen recalled standing on his porch with a gun, looking over that urbanized valley, the horizon lit with fire. "It looked like Armageddon," he recalled. "I said, 'I'm getting out of this. I'm not going to raise my kids here.' " In 1994, Pedersen and his wife packed their three children into a van and drove north. "I believed Idaho was the new Promised Land," he said. "It was beautiful. It was a new place to start."
Jacobson advised Pedersen that he wasn't ready to run for Congress. "He had no name recognition," she told me. "I said, 'Bob, if you want to make a difference, you're going to have to take over the Republican Party. Here's how it's done.' " Jacobson believed that the precincts offered citizens the greatest potential for political influence. Precinct captains walk their neighborhoods, meeting voters face-to-face, and together they form the county Republican Central Committee, which grooms candidates and has tremendous influence among regional and state Republicans. If a county commissioner or legislator steps down, the committee nominates replacements. Jacobson advised Pedersen that precinct captainships were rarely contested in elections; incumbents would be unlikely to even notice someone vying for their seat, until they saw a ballot.
In the spring of 2009, Pedersen placed an ad in the weekly Nickel's Worth: "Are you tired of the Republican Party? Conservatives Unite!" On April 1, 130 people packed into a pizza parlor in Post Falls, west of Coeur d'Alene. Pedersen was nervous, not expecting such a crowd. Through a hand-held microphone, he explained that the same kind of liberals leading the country toward financial and moral ruin had infiltrated the local Republican Party. "They're just Godless," he said. "They aren't Republican." That night, several volunteers joined him in organizing a club they called Rally Right. (Though its principles resemble those of the Tea Party, Rally Right's slogan states, "It's easier to fix the Republican Party than start a third party.") By the end of the summer, Rally Right boasted more than 2,000 members and invited candidates to speak at their meetings. Raúl Labrador came twice.
Pedersen vetted candidates for precinct captainships according to what he called "The Conservative Creed." It began, "Do you believe God is the foundation of this country, and do you believe in God?" and then asked about states' rights -- "a protection against tyranny of a federal government" -- and the right to bear arms. Finally, it asked, "Do you stand for the traditional marriage and do you stand against abortion?" Each candidate was tested twice.
In May 2010, 42 of the vetted candidates won positions on the 71-seat Central Committee; Jacobson was elected chairwoman. "It was all under the radar," she told me. "By the time we were done, it was too late for anybody to react."
Republican groups proliferated across Kootenai County after the 2008 presidential election, and among them was Rally Right's greatest rival, the Reagan Republicans. I met that groups' president and co-founder in the office of his custom tiling company, X Things Manufacturing, tucked in a dingy concrete complex in Post Falls. Ron Lahr, a funny man whose sarcasm often edges toward exasperation, wore a leather jacket over a green sweatshirt. He had moved to Kootenai County from Spokane in 2002, and connected with Jeff Ward, another Washington emigrant and a former staffer for George Nethercutt, the Republican who defeated that state's 30-year Democratic Rep. Tom Foley in 1994. "We talked a lot about how unsophisticated the politics were here in Kootenai County," Lahr recalled. Together they joined a "Pachyderm Club" affiliated with the Republican National Committee, and both became precinct captains. At one event, Lahr was instructed to write down his name and the city of his birth. "Of the 60 or 70 people there," he said, "most were born in California."
Lahr and Ward thought the Pachyderms and the Central Committee were hamstrung by party affiliation, unable to back candidates in the primaries or take part in non-partisan elections, such as for school board or city council. Non-partisan officials oversee the levying and management of many local taxes, and since incumbents rarely lost, many of the same people held their positions for years. Lahr and Ward suspected there were Democrats among them -- the county's last holdouts -- who were prone to irresponsible and excessive spending. "We thought, if we can influence the election for fire district, city council, school board," Lahr told me, "that's access to a lot of money."
Lahr and Ward formed the Reagan Republicans in 2009, aiming to not only influence the standard partisan races, but also to recast nonpartisan races as, essentially, partisan. No R or D would appear by a candidate's name on the ballot, but the group would ensure that voters knew candidates' affiliations and be inspired to vote. They set about compiling lists and neighborhood maps, and on Saturdays before elections, gathered club members and knocked on doors. With donations to their PAC, they acquired data on demographics and voting patterns. They learned, for example, that many Democrats did register as Republicans in order to vote in primaries. "If you just take the information from the county, it says, 'This person is a Republican,' " Lahr explained. "With our data, we can say, 'This person is registered as a Republican. Here's what we think they really are.' "
Within three years, the group helped 51 Republicans, including 15 non-partisan candidates, win primary and general elections. In 2009, three of their candidates fell short in races for Coeur d'Alene city council, but two of them, including Dan Gookin, who also had roots in California, tried again in 2011, this time amid controversy over the council's plan to spend $15 million reconstructing a downtown park. Gookin hired the services of Strategery, a side-project of Lahr and Ward's that offered more sophisticated assistance than volunteers could provide. The seat Gookin sought was open, and Democrats had nominated George Sayler, a popular retired legislator with a record of earning bipartisan support. (Gookin himself had once voted for Sayler.) But Sayler favored the park project and was an unabashed Democrat. A few weeks before that city council election, during a public conversation with Gookin hosted by the North Idaho Pachyderm Forum, an audience member asked Sayler if he supported President Obama. "What connection does that have with the city election?" Sayler asked. Then he replied, "I am proud I endorsed Barack Obama, and I would do it again."
A week later, Strategery reprinted the quote on a flier beside headshots of Sayler and Obama, and dropped it on peoples' doorsteps. Sayler lost by 15 percent.
The city council election aggravated an ideological conflict within the local Republican Party -- not between conservatives and moderates, but between those who believed, like Jacobson, that only conservatives counted as Republicans, and those like Lahr, who believed that any Republican, moderate or conservative, was better than a Democrat, and those like Gookin, who believed that there was still a sacred place for non-partisanship. The flier unsettled Gookin -- Sayler's politics, though no secret, struck him as "just one of those things" that needn't be mentioned.
Gookin moved to Coeur d'Alene from Seattle in 1993. Previously, he'd lived in San Diego, where he founded the For Dummies book series and authored many of them himself. When he arrived in North Idaho, he "wasn't really associated with one party or another" and was often accused of being both a Democrat and a Republican. "It's just a way to marginalize someone you don't understand," he told me. "They just kind of shove you into an area and say, 'This is where you're supposed to go.' " He thought that politics had grown nastier over his years in the county, and his own campaign was a casualty of this. "We're taking national issues and projecting them on a local level," he said. "It just doesn't work. It's not the same thing."
I heard this frequently throughout my reporting: The same politics dividing the nation in presidential and congressional elections had seeped into local government. The difference was that in Kootenai County, Democrats had all but disappeared, and so Republicans had no common enemy to rally against.
Many I spoke with blamed the Reagan Republicans for the party's conflicts, because their work in primaries pitted Republicans against one another. Others pointed to the 2010 election of precinct captains, which forced people to take sides. One Rally Right member told the Coeur d'Alene Press, "The Republican Party is not being fractured. It's just being cleansed of the people who are not true Republicans." Bob Pedersen perpetuated this distinction; according to Lahr, Pedersen wanted "to be the arbiter of who's Republican and who's not." Pedersen denounced Lahr and Ward as "the real enemy" because he often disapproved of candidates the Reagan Republicans endorsed. When Gookin met Pedersen at the fairgrounds one summer and mentioned that he was running for city council, Pedersen regarded him skeptically. "What do you think about government?" Gookin recalled him asking. "I said that I thought taxes should be low and government should be small. He thought that was a good answer. Then he said, 'What do you think about gay rights?' I told him I thought gay people had a constitutional right to be married. He said, 'Well, we're going to disagree on that.' He never talked to me again."
Among the many Republicans Pedersen refused to endorse was Luke Malek, who won a Legislature seat in 2012. John Cross, chairman of the Republican Central Committee of North Idaho, told me that some people didn't think Malek was conservative enough "because of who he hung around with," an accusation I heard applied to several moderates. Even Cross, who is considered highly conservative, initially drew Pedersen's skepticism due to his take on the role of God in politics. "It's not that I have an open disagreement with Bob about religion," Cross said. "I just -- how do I put this? -- I don't talk about it, and I don't define other people by it."
When I finally met Pedersen, in a Post Falls suburb, I was surprised to find him at once boyish and grandfatherly. He has cloudy blue eyes, thinning hair and eyebrows that bristle over the rims of his glasses. He works as an antique collector. "I want this to be known," he insisted. "I did not try to control the Republican Party. All I did was get conservatives elected. I'm nobody. I'd never been in politics before."
Despite Pedersen's delight in the conservative takeover, some Republicans told me they feared speaking out against what the conservatives defined as the party line. "The more the party gains power," one told me, "the less dissent it seems they're allowing." Gookin blamed this on a lack of effective leadership: "We don't have anyone saying, 'Knock it off, we both believe in the same thing. Get back there. We have enough room to tolerate different opinions.' No one wants to do that. And by being silent, you encourage it."
The infighting struck a new high in February 2012, when Tina Jacobson helped choose Richard Mack as the keynote speaker for the annual Lincoln Day dinner. Mack is widely celebrated among Libertarians and Constitutionalists for winning a U.S. Supreme Court case that found a gun control bill unconstitutional in 1997. This time, it was Jeff Ward who doubted Mack's loyalty. Ward and 13 other Central Committee members wrote a letter charging that, "It is quite evident that Mr. Mack's support of the Republican Party is inconsistent, intermittent and questionable," and suggested that Republican officials might be offended if forced to share his podium. The Committee put the question up for a vote, and decided 31-30 to disinvite Mack. The ensuing debate in the newspapers grew so hostile that Mack himself wrote in. Jacobson told the Coeur d'Alene Press, "This breaks my heart to see how we are treating each other. These are your comrades, not your enemies. We're Team Republican." Two weeks later, Jacobson re-invited Mack, alleging that a "false proxy" ballot had been used in the vote against him, and Ward dropped the issue.
Jacobson resigned from the Central Committee in May 2012. She told me that she wanted more time to work on her novel, a paranormal romance about an ambitious anti-tax crusader who is elected to the Idaho Legislature and falls in love with a ghost.