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“It's absolutely wonderful”: Why California conservatives can't stop moving to Idaho

CConservative Californians are fleeing the Golden State for the Potato State and are loving it.

A few months after moving to Twin Falls, Idaho, Russell Petti still couldn't quite believe how beautiful everything was.

At the DMV, usually used as a punchline for bureaucratic dysfunction and municipal resentment, cheerful employees offered help. At Chick-fil-A, workers approached the 70-year-old lawyer's table and asked if he needed anything else, sir, like a restaurant with white tablecloths. The parking lot of his local Best Buy overlooks a scenic bridge over a gorge on the Snake River.

“It’s absolutely wonderful,” said Mr. Petti, who moved last September from La Cañada, north of Los Angeles, California The Independent. “It really, really is. On the one hand, the people are just incredibly friendly and polite. It's like going back to another era.” He felt like he had stumbled into Mayberry, the fictional small town in North Carolina from the 1960s Andy Griffith Show. “For a while I thought they were kidding me,” he added.

Russell Petti said he was drawn to Idaho because of its balanced budget and small-town values. (Courtesy of Russell Petti)
Idaho has become an incredibly popular destination for California conservatives. (Postal register)

Mr. Petti is part of a sizable wave of Californians, often on the conservative side of the political spectrum, who have moved to Idaho in recent years, just one part of the state's complicated, much-discussed population shift.

In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, California's population fell by more than 182,000 people, the first population decline in the state's history. Given this striking statistic, tabloid headlines portrayed the change as a symbol of discontent something Typically Californian, although they couldn't agree on what.

Maybe it was the high cost of living, liberal politics, Covid protocols, or a sense of dwindling opportunity in Silicon Valley and beyond. Politicians seized the moment of state awareness when California Governor Gavin Newsom and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis waged a very public, somewhat strange side campaign against each other and their respective states in 2024, even though the former was not at all in favor of it was running for president, and the latter was on his way to being duped by Donald Trump. Critics and advocates of California alike worried that the state, and particularly its major cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, could end up in a “bad luck loop” of declining population and tax dollars.

Thanks to the pandemic recession and an increase in legal foreign immigration, California's population began growing again in 2023, so talk of a demographic apocalypse may have been a little premature. But at least based on interviews with recent transplants in Idaho, it appears there may be some truth behind the hype, as the state attracts thousands of conservatives dissatisfied with what California has to offer these days.

They moved here because their values ​​align here

Nicholas Contos, chairman of the Bonneville County Republican Party from Idaho

Between 2019 and 2023, 75 percent of the roughly 23,000 Californians who moved to Idaho and registered to vote identified themselves as Republican, a breakdown that is even more conservative than the state as a whole. Overall, Idaho was among the top five states where Californians moved most often between 2021 and 2022, according to census data, meaning this red wave accounted for a notable portion of the Golden State's overall population growth.

“They moved here because their values ​​align here,” said Nicholas Contos, chairman of the Bonneville County Republican Party in Idaho The Independent.

That's certainly true of Brendan Kirkpatrick, a 55-year-old who left the state because he was dissatisfied with its policies.

Mr. Kirkpatrick was born and raised in the Los Angeles area. He worked in law enforcement in the city of Bell Gardens.

He and his family moved to Meridian in the Boise metropolitan area in 2019 after he became frustrated with California's higher prices and taxes, felt a deteriorating quality of life, and observed what he believed to be a declining sense of law and order on issues such as immigration and homelessness.

“We were just tired of politics. I saw it first hand as a police officer in LA for 25 years,” he said.

Brendan Kirkpatrick said the quality of life in California has declined and he blamed the state's policies (Courtesy of Brendan Kirkpatrick)

During the height of the pandemic, rising violent and property crime rates in California were above the national average, which also temporarily spiked in many places. The state consistently has one of the highest per capita homelessness rates in the country.

Additionally, Mr. Kirkpatrick appreciated Idaho's more relaxed approach to masking and Covid.

“It’s a mix of all of those,” he added. “I don’t think it’s a thing.”

He knows numerous other people who worked in California law enforcement who have since made the move.

“Half the people here are from California,” he said, noting that many feel the same way he does. “There are a lot of similarities among people.”

So many people have left the West Coast for Idaho that the state even has a nickname for them: The Cows, as in California, Oregon and Washington, are shoveling all the people into the Gem State.

And it's not just a few isolated examples.

Jason Krafsky is an Idaho-based real estate agent with the firm John L. Scott Boise who relocated from Seattle itself in 2021 during the pandemic, lured by real estate potential and less stringent Covid protocols.

Since then, he has helped numerous West Coasters on their journey.

Thousands of Californians left the state during the Covid pandemic due to a mix of housing issues and the increasing ability to work from home. (AFP/Getty)

“I would say probably 70 percent of the people we know are from California and have moved in the last five to six years,” he said.

He said there's a feeling among both customers and new friends that the California, Seattle or Portland they grew up with is gone. This sentiment isn't just about state politics – the economy certainly played a role in this move for many in the age of the pandemic – but it is still tied to politics.

“It gets mixed into the cake,” he added. “I don’t know anyone who says, ‘I’m done,’ for purely political reasons.”

I couldn't afford it if I left a week ago to sell my house in Southern California and move here

Russell Petti, who moved to Idaho last year

Mr. Petti, the lawyer, for example, was partly pleased with the state's balanced budget, but was also frustrated by the slow local bureaucracy in La Cañada, even when it came to seemingly basic matters like repairing the aging roof of his house.

However, the attractive factors that draw people to Idaho are changing as the cost of living becomes less attractive as the influx of people from other states has driven up real estate prices. By mid-2023, Idaho was considered one of the most overvalued real estate markets in the country, although home prices had begun to decline somewhat since their pandemic peak.

“The housing market is going through the roof up here,” said Mr. Kirkpatrick, the police officer. “I couldn’t afford it if I left a week ago to sell my house in Southern California and move here.”

Furthermore, says Hans Johnson of the Public Policy Institute of California, the focus on politics and culture obscures some of the larger realities of both California's people and what drives them to change.

Research shows that housing, work and family ties are “by far” the top reasons people move out of California, he said.

The PPIC analysis suggests that high-income individuals are least likely to leave the state during the pandemic, while middle-income individuals are highest. The biggest losses were among adults without a college degree.

The Idaho State Capitol in Boise, Idaho (Associated Press)

Additionally, the state's population growth has been slowing for decades, and since 2000, more people have moved out of the state than come to California.

Overall, California is charting a unique path, he said, bucking the trends of other regions like the Rust Belt and Appalachia, where declining populations have coincided with falling property values ​​and weak economies.

“Some people outside the state like the idea that California is basically in a doom loop and everything here is a disaster,” Johnson said. “If you look at the reality, I would say the desirability of living in California is pretty high based on pretty straightforward measures that include housing costs.”

From the perspective of Paul Chabot, a real estate agent who runs Conservative Move, a network of real estate agents who support conservatives, California's economic fortunes and its political dynamics go hand in hand.

His clients feel like they are “leaving a bad relationship,” he said, as California loses its middle class and splits into a state with urban elites and working poor.

“If you can’t keep people in one of the most beautiful places, that requires a response from political leadership,” he said.

Mr. Chabot knows this feeling first hand. He was born and raised in Rancho Cucamonga, California, and moved to Texas with his family in 2016 to “create a space where we felt like we could raise our children in the same conditions we had in the 1970s grew up in California for years.”

Still, Mr. Chabot wishes his services were no longer in demand, even though he has helped thousands move to conservative jurisdictions like Idaho.

“I would like to get out of the business,” he said. “I would love for America to be united again… These experiments have failed. Until they fix the ship, you’re still going to see an exodus to Idaho and other states.”

Anna Harden

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