A Red State Conservatism That Doesn’t Track the South

Posted January 5, 2009 at 6:43pm

In September 2007, few expected conservative Idaho Sen. Larry Craig to complete his term after the public learned of his arrest and guilty plea for soliciting sex in a Minneapolis airport restroom.

Yet Craig weathered the storm and will depart the Senate next month after finishing his third full term.

Much to the dismay of journalists and pundits based on the East and West coasts, Craig wasn’t forced to resign in disgrace. (Craig, who is married, denies he is gay.)

The source of this befuddlement lies in the general perception that Idaho is, in the words of the New York Times’ David Stout, “the reddest of all states” and, thus, fiercely anti-gay.

While it’s certainly true that Idaho is strongly Republican and markedly conservative, this general account obscures critical distinctions within American conservatism that help explain Craig’s lasting power.

Idaho, like other Rocky Mountain states, is rooted in a libertarian brand of conservatism, rather than the more familiar morally based conservatism dominant in Dixie. As a native Idahoan who attended college in the South and spent most of the last 13 years below the Mason-Dixon line, I was initially struck that two places that self-identify as “conservative” could be so different.

Back home in Idaho, conservatives talked about getting “the feds” off their back. It wasn’t until I moved South that I ran into the morally based conservatives.

This ideological distinction between Western libertarians and Southern moralists explains why Craig was able to serve out his full term: Most of his Idaho constituents —conservative though they may be — simply didn’t care whether Craig is gay.

Craig’s well-earned reputation as a conservative Republican led political observers to highlight the apparent irony of an allegedly closeted gay politician representing one the nation’s most Republican-friendly states.

If Craig hailed from California or New York, the Washington, D.C., political class wouldn’t have struggled so much to make sense of this story. But as a Republican from a deeply red state, the presumption was that Craig’s constituents would be aghast at the thought of a gay man representing them.

East and West coast journalists and talking heads are not the only ones who have highlighted Idaho’s conservatism and allegiance to the GOP.

Republican Gov. Butch Otter proclaimed Idaho the “reddest of the red states” shortly after his 2006 election. But Otter, the state’s most popular politician for years, serves to highlight the distinctly Western style of conservatism that he and Craig epitomize. Otter indulged in a playboy lifestyle for much of his four terms as lieutenant governor, garnering attention for a conviction for driving under the influence, a victory in a Boise bar’s “Mr. Tight Jeans” contest and a high-profile divorce and annulment from the daughter of Idaho’s billionaire potato baron.

None of these antics hurt Otter because his constituents embraced his cowboy persona and fierce anti-government positions. As a House Member, Otter was one of only three Republicans to vote against the Patriot Act. As governor, he suggested removing federal protection for recently reintroduced wolves and holding a “wolf kill” in which he said “I’m prepared to bid for that first ticket to shoot a wolf myself.”

Like Otter and many Western Republicans, Craig’s political career was influenced more by the Sagebrush Rebellion than the religious right. He spent his time in Washington focusing on the kinds of issues that Western conservatives really care about. Preserving gun rights and denouncing federal plans to manage water, land and endangered species tend to rally the base back home more than issues surrounding sexuality or stem cells.

And while it is certainly true that Craig opposed gay marriage and civil unions, these and other social issues have never been at the center of his agenda or his public persona in Idaho. These kinds of issues simply have much less currency in the Intermountain West, a nuance often lost amidst news stories tagging Idaho as an ultra-red state.

To be sure, in the summer and fall of 2007, many Idahoans hoped Craig would resign. But this reaction had more to do with concern and embarrassment over his arrest and guilty plea than it did with the belief that he is gay. While Western and Idaho-style libertarianism doesn’t seek out gay elected officials, its “live and let live” ethos doesn’t necessarily condemn them, as many East and West Coast observers have assumed.

Indeed, it explains how the Gem State’s senior Senator survived to leave the Senate on his own terms.

Robert P. Saldin is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Montana.