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."