updated 7/16/2008 5:14:04 PM ET 2008-07-16T21:14:04

Idaho, tucked off near the northwest edge of the country, has been one of America’s unnoticed success stories in recent years. Since 1990 its population has grown by 42%, from 1.0 million to nearly 1.5 million, thanks to technological progress and economic creativity. From 2000 to 2004 it had a higher rate of positive internal migration than all but three other states (Nevada, Arizona and Florida, all considerably sunnier). It has spawned some awesomely large businesses. Mining is less important here than potatoes, of which Idaho produces one-third of the nation’s total. And it processes them: back in 1953, J. R. Simplot perfected the process of freezing French fries; his company soon got a contract with McDonald’s and has become one of the biggest potato processors in the world, selling 3 billion pounds a year. Idahoans complain about the Atkins diet, and bellyached when Governor Dirk Kempthorne put the peregrine falcon and not the potato on the Idaho quarter; but the potato business continues to thrive. In the 1980s Simplot put up $1 million to finance Micron Technology, which is now the state’s largest employer. In 1939 Joe Albertson opened a grocery store in Boise; in 2006 Albertsons had become the second largest grocery chain and was sold off to Supervalu, CVS and Cerberus for $17.4 billion; the headquarters has stayed in Boise. Idaho is home also to Morrison-Knudsen, the huge contractor, and dozens of smaller high-tech and service businesses that have recently sprung up. A few highly publicized liberal entertainment personalities and investment bankers have moved to Sun Valley or over the line from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and some liberal professionals are appearing in Boise. But a much larger number of conservative engineers and entrepreneurs have come, from California and all over, to Idaho for a fresh environment and fresh start, clean air and few crowds, and no cumbersome or expensive regulations, where family lifestyles are still prevalent, traditional values respected and traditional rules enforced. As Governor Jim Risch said in 2006, “People are coming not because they want to change Idaho, but because they like what they see.” Outsiders may not notice, but national football fans did when Boise State University beat Oklahoma in the 2007 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl 43–42, with a dramatic two-point conversion in overtime.

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Idaho is big—Montpelier, in the southeast, is closer to Farmington, New Mexico, than to Bonner Springs in the northern panhandle—and the wilderness is never far away. Towering over the state Capitol in Boise is the vast peak of Shafer Butte, and not far away are impassable mountains of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, the largest wilderness area outside Alaska, and the Salmon River, at 425 miles the longest undammed river in the Lower 48. Idaho was the last North American area European pioneers—fur traders—set eyes on. In the 1840s, New England Yankees led by ministers made their way west on the Oregon Trail through southern Idaho. Idaho’s northern panhandle, an extension of Washington’s Columbia Valley, was first settled by miners seeking gold and silver, then by loggers seeking timber. Mormons moved north from Utah and settled eastern Idaho. But federal water reclamation projects first authorized in 1894 brought the most settlers, and they transformed the barren Snake River Valley into some of the nation’s best volcanic soil-enriched farmland, which with its warm days and cool nights proved ideal for the Burbank russet potato. Idaho potatoes are ideal for baked potatoes and frozen French fries. Fresh in family lore are the people who pioneered this state, built the first towns and farms, established the first churches and schools and became its community leaders. Yet Idaho is also cosmopolitan. It exports potatoes—mostly frozen French fries—across the Pacific Rim, and its high-tech companies have competitors all over the world. If Idaho politicians used to concentrate on water and maintaining irrigation, now they also work to curb Canadian potato imports and South Korean semiconductor subsidies.

Not so long ago Idaho was a state of farms and small towns; Boise, the pleasant state capital, was just the largest of the small towns. Today Idaho is increasingly urbanized. Nearly 60% of its people live in just five counties, in and around Boise, Idaho Falls, Coeur d’Alene and Pocatello, and all but the last are growing rapidly. Some 38% live in Boise’s Treasure Valley, which has been growing rapidly, with big increases in the towns west of Boise—Eagle, Meridian, Middleton, Nampa. There have been large influxes from California and from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. Idaho’s Hispanic population grew by 92% in the 1990s and is now 8% of the total; driver’s license exams are given in English, Spanish, Serbo-Croatian, Russian, Arabic and Vietnamese. Here the political trend has been toward the Republicans: Most newcomers are from Orange County, not San Francisco, and they seek not cultural liberation, but an environment in which they can raise their children in traditional lifestyles.

At the same time, small counties that have depended on mining and grazing have been hurting. But they think of themselves not as downtrodden employees of absentee corporations needing a protective federal government, but as pioneering entrepreneurs who need to get a bloated, bossy federal government off their backs. The federal government owns 62% of Idaho’s land, and most Idahoans were furious at how President Bill Clinton's appointees managed it. The Clinton administration’s proposal to stop roadbuilding in about one-third of national forest land was bitterly opposed. Federal limitations on grazing on public lands have squeezed cattle ranchers already hurt by declining beef consumption and lower prices. Similarly, potato farmers dependent on irrigated water were enraged when the Idaho Statesman and local environment restriction advocates called for breaching dams on the Snake River to protect salmon. Idahoans have been furious as a federal judge in Portland, Oregon, has been moving since December 2000 toward requiring that the dams be taken down.

The political result of all these things was to make a heavily Republican state more Republican. George W. Bush—against breaching the Snake River dams, dubious about the reintroduction of grizzlies and the prohibition of roadbuilding in the national forests, eager to cut taxes on entrepreneurs—carried Idaho by a 67%-28% margin in 2000 and by 68%-30% in 2004. That, even though John Kerry’s wife owns a house—a cottage disassembled in England and brought over to Idaho—in Sun Valley; surrounding Blaine County, by far the richest in Idaho, was the one county in the state that voted for Kerry. Republicans have encountered more competition in state races. Republican Governor Dirk Kempthorne was reelected by a less than overwhelming 56%-42% in 2002. Kempthorne was appointed Interior Secretary in 2006 by Bush and, as a former senator, was easily confirmed; Lieutenant Governor Jim Risch was governor for the rest of the year. (Kempthorne is Idaho’s third Cabinet secretary; the others were Jimmy Carter’s Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus and Dwight Eisenhower’s Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benson.) Risch got the legislature to cut local property taxes by $260 million, raise the state sales tax from 5% to 6% and cut state spending $50 million; that was ratified by 72% of voters in November. But Risch ran for lieutenant governor again rather than governor; the Republican nominee for governor was 1st District Congressman Butch Otter, once the son-in-law of J. R. Simplot and a former lieutenant governor himself. Otter had spirited competition from Democrat Jerry Brady, who had run in 2002; the Republican won by a somewhat reduced margin of 53%-44%. Democrats also gave 1st District Republican nominee Bill Sali, a minority winner in the primary, a battle. But his outspoken conservatism was not enough of a liability in conservative Idaho, and he won 50%-45%. Democrats were gleeful that they picked up 6 seats in the Idaho House, but that left them behind 51–19 there, and still behind 28–7 in the state Senate; Republicans swept all seven statewide offices for the first time in over half a century.

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