MOSCOW, IDAHO — Welcome to Moscow. Idaho, that is. This little jewel of a town in the northwest corner of the state is a surprise for anyone who thinks of Idaho only in terms of Grade A Russets.
Funky independent bookstores, sophisticated wine bars, good old fashioned breakfast nooks — Moscow has it all. Home to the University of Idaho, it is also a bastion of liberalism in a very conservative state.
People here are close to the land: logging and farming are the main occupations, and wheat, soybeans, barley and lentils the main crops.
A few miles outside of Moscow, this grittier, more “real” Idaho comes through.
Take, for instance, a grocery store in Kendrick, where one can pick up almost anything.
“We Got it!” proudly proclaims a sign taped to the counter in front of the cash register. “It” apparently, consists of ice, worms, and maggots, with the latter two stored in the beer cooler.
The cashier laughs at the expressions on our faces.
“It’s for fishin,’” she explained.
A little further down the road, in the tiny town of Deary, Fuzzy’s is a venerable establishment that’s been around since 1947. Even now a cup of coffee will set you back just 50 cents. Most patrons, though, are not interested in caffeine.
At 3:00 in the afternoon, the bar is almost empty, except for a couple of good ol’ boys sitting behind two Bud Lights and watching a reality cop show on the television set among the bottles.
Fern, the barmaid, does not want to talk politics.
“Oh, this election,” she sighed. “Everybody has their own opinion. I just don’t even want to get into it.”
Bill and Bob, the drinkers at the counter, were not so reticent.
“We got to change rulers in this country,” said Bill. “Ain’t nothin’ gettin’ done this way.”
Bob, his friend, agreed.
“Yup. The whole state feels that way,” he said, a bit blearily.
Fern tries desperately to change the subject, and invites us to Deary Days, the big fair set for the next weekend. It will feature lawn mower races, a dance, and “all sorts of things,” she enthused.
“It’s a big drunk,” said Bill. “Y’all should be sure and come back for it.”
Idaho is a strange mix of breathtaking landscapes and heartbreaking poverty. Rolling hills and fir-covered mountains alternate with ramshackle houses, half-a-dozen rusting and partially dismembered vehicles in the unkempt yards.
Towns with just a few hundred inhabitants are slowly dying out here.
“These are the no-hopers,” said Vic, a longtime Idaho resident who is serving as my guide.
But on top of a hill in Harvard, Idaho, a straw-bale house commands a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside. Horses run in the paddocks, wind turbines generate clean power, and the house’s owner, a local physician, blesses her life.
“I know how lucky I am,” she said. “I live in the most beautiful place on earth. My neighbors are wonderful people.” She stops and sighs a bit. “In spite of their politics.”
Idaho is the reddest of states: Since 1952, it has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate only once (in 1964, when LBJ soundly trounced Barry Goldwater).The state now has a Republican governor – Clement Leroy Otter, know as “Butch” – as well as two Republican senators, and two Republican congressmen.
With just four Electoral College votes, Idaho will probably not see either of the candidates much during the campaign. This is unlikely to make much of a difference to the outcome: Idaho is classified as “Safe Romney” by election experts.
“I have no representation,” said Clay, a 26-year-old who works as a white-water rafting guide. “It is only Republicans in Congress. I know my vote will not matter in November, but I will go to the polls anyway.”
This is most likely because his mother, Deb, will make him vote.
“The process is important,” she said. “At least other liberals can see that there are people in Idaho who agree with them.”
The problem, she adds, is that “most voters are massively ill-informed. But if you are patient and work with them, they can be educated.”
Deb served as a political organizer during President Barack Obama’s first campaign, in 2008, going house to house to talk to folks. She enjoyed the experience, despite the results: Idaho went for John McCain, who got 62 percent of the vote to Obama’s 36 percent.
Deb is not organizing this year.
Back in Moscow, the conversation is no more upbeat.
“I hope Obama gets in again,” said Katherine Sterling, a writer and educator who moved to Idaho from Montana years ago. “But I would like to see a real leader in power. I don’t think we have that now.”
Sterling acknowledges that the president has had a hard time getting anything accomplished, given the obstructionists that dominate the legislature.
“As my sister always says, ‘this Congress couldn’t fart through cotton underwear,’” she laughed.
Jeanne Clothiaux, who used to own one of Moscow’s best restaurants, says she is troubled by the tenor of the election campaign.
“I am worried that Romney might make it,” she said, referring to the Republican challenger. “Maybe it’s just because I live in Idaho, but it seems to be going that way.”
Clothiaux says she is very happy with Obama’s achievements over the past four years, especially the Affordable Care Act, known widely as “Obamacare.”
But her husband, Mark Solomon, a former County Commissioner in Idaho, is not optimistic about Obamacare’s future out here.
"Idaho is unique among the states, I believe, in that the counties are the payer of last resort (for medical expenses for the uninsured),” he said. “ It is a huge amount of money. When I was county commissioner it was the largest expenditure after the sheriff's office.”
Solomon points out that under Obamacare, the federal government will assume almost all of that cost.
“But Idaho is still fighting it,” he said. “They do not want the federal government coming in, even if it will benefit them.”
Idaho’s state legislature is just as “red” as its national profile: Out of 70 members of the House, 57 are Republican, with just 13 Democrats. In the State Senate, there are 28 Republican and seven Democrats.
The overwhelmingly male lawmakers are also opposed to the idea of a state health insurance exchange, which is called for under the Act. If states resist, the federal government will step in and do it for them. Idaho likes this idea even less.
An editorial published in the Twin Falls newspaper, the Times-News, admonished the legislators for their contrariness.
“We may not like Obamacare, but it remains the law,” it read. “We may not like the idea of a state-run health insurance exchange, but it’s better than inviting the feds in to do it for us.”
A good sentiment, agrees Solomon, but unlikely to have much effect given the political climate in Idaho.
"I do not understand why people are determined to vote against their own interests," he said.