The unlikely California exodus: Idaho becomes a hotspot for Republicans looking to flee the golden state

California’s population crisis has become a political football, but in Idaho, the impact of the Golden State’s changing population is everywhere, reports Josh Marcus

Sunday 19 May 2024 15:05 BST
Former Californians, including Russell Petti, are moving to Idaho
Former Californians, including Russell Petti, are moving to Idaho (Shutterstock / Courtesy of Russell Petti)

Conservative Californians are fleeing the Golden State for the Potato State, and they’re thrilled about it.

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

At the DMV, usually used as a punchline to represent bureaucratic dysfunction and municipal grouchiness, cheery 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 white tablecloth restaurant. The parking lot of his local Best Buy overlooks a scenic bridge above a canyon on the Snake River.

“It’s absolutely wonderful,” Mr Petti, who moved from La Cañada, just north of Los Angeles, CA, last September, told The Independent. “It really, really is. For one thing, the people are just so remarkably pleasant and polite. It’s like moving back into a different age.” He felt like he had stumbled into Mayberry, the fictional small town in North Carolina from the 1960s Andy Griffith Show. “For a while there I thought they were putting me on,” he added.

Russell Petti said he was attracted to Idaho for its balanced budget and small-town values.
Russell Petti said he was attracted to Idaho for its balanced budget and small-town values. (Courtesy of Russell Petti)
Idaho has become an incredibly popular destination for California’s conservatives.
Idaho has become an incredibly popular destination for California’s conservatives. (Post Register)

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

In 2020, during the depths of the pandemic, California’s population fell by more than 182,000 people, the first population decline in state history. Faced with this striking stat, the tabloid headlines framed the change as a symbol of dissatisfaction with something quintessentially Californian, though they couldn’t agree on what.

Maybe it was the high costs of living, or the liberal politics, or the Covid protocols, or a sense of declining opportunity in Silicon Valley and beyond. Politicos seized on the moment of state consciousness, with California governor Gavin Newsom and Florida governor Ron DeSantis waging a very public, kind of weird 2024 sideshow campaign against each other and their respective states, despite that the former wasn’t running for president at all, and the latter was on the road to being trounced by Donald Trump. Critics and boosters of California alike worried about the state, and in particular its big cities like LA and San Francisco, falling into a “doom loop” of declining people and tax dollars.

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Thanks to the recession of the pandemic and an increase in legal foreign immigration, California’s population began increasing again in 2023, so perhaps the talk of demographic apocalypse was a bit premature. But, according to interviews with recent Idaho transplants at least, it seems like there is some truth behind the hype, with the state attracting thousands of conservatives dissatisfied with what California has to offer these days.

They moved here because their values match here

Nicholas Contos, chair of from Idaho’s Bonneville County Republican Party

Between 2019 and 2023, 75 per cent of the roughly 23,000 Californians who moved to Idaho and registered to vote marked themselves as Republicans, a breakdown that’s even more conservative than the state at large. Overall, between 2021 and 2022, Idaho was one of the top five states that Californians chose to move to, according to census data, meaning that this red wave was a notable part of the Golden State’s overall population trends.

“They moved here because their values match here,” Nicholas Contos, chair of Idaho’s Bonneville County Republican Party, told The Independent.

That’s definitely true for Brendan Kirkpatrick, a 55-year-old who left the state after becoming dissatisfied with its politics.

Born and raised in the Los Angeles area, Mr Kirkpatrick served in law enforcement in the city of Bell Gardens.

He and his family moved away in 2019 for Meridian, in the greater Boise area, after becoming frustrated with California’s higher prices and taxes, feeling a deteriorating quality of life, and observing what he believes is a declining sense of law and order on issues like immigration and homelessness.

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

Brendan Kirkpatrick said California’s qualify of life had been declining, and he blamed the state’s politics
Brendan Kirkpatrick said California’s qualify of life had been declining, and he blamed the state’s politics (Courtesy of Brendan Kirkpatrick)

During the depths of the pandemic, California’s increasing violent and property crime rates were higher than national averages, which also temporarily spiked in many places. The state consistently has some of the highest rates of homelessness per capita in the country.

On top of that, Mr Kirkpatrick appreciated Idaho’s more lax approach to masking and Covid.

“It’s a mixture of all of that,” he added. “I don’t think it’s any one thing.”

He knows numerous other people who were in California law enforcement who’ve since made the move.

“Half the people here are from California,” he said, noting that many feel the same way as he did. “There’s a lot of commonality among the folks.”

So many people have left the West Coast for Idaho there’s even a nickname for them in the state: The Cows, as in California, Oregon, Washington, locales all shoveling 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 himself made the move from Seattle in 2021 during the pandemic, attracted by the real estate potential and less stringent Covid protocols.

Since then, he’s helped scores of West Coasters make the journey.

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

“I would say, probably 70 per cent of the people that we know are from California, and they’ve moved in the last five to six years,” he said.

Among clients and new friends alike, he said, there’s a sense that the California, or Seattle, or Portland they grew up with is gone.  The feeling is not about state politics alone — economics in the era of the pandemic certainly played a role in the move for many — but it’s also bound up with politics all the same.

“It’s mixed into the cake,” he added. “I don’t know anybody who says, ‘I am done,’ for completely political reasons.”

I could not 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 instance, was partially attracted by the state’s balanced budget, but also had grown frustrated with lagging local bureaucracy in La Cañada when it came to even seemingly basic matters like fixing his house’s aging roof.

The pull factors drawing people to Idaho are changing, however, with the cost of living becoming less attractive as an influx of out-of-staters has pushed up home prices. By mid-2023, Idaho was considered one of the most over-valued housing markets in the country, though home prices have begun to decline somewhat from their pandemic peak.

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

Additionally, according to Hans Johnson of the Public Policy Institute of California, the focus on politics and culture obscure some of the larger realities of both the California population and what’s driving it to change.

Research shows that housing, jobs, and family ties are “by far and away” the primary reason people move from California, he said.

PPIC analysis suggests those with high incomes were least likely to leave the state during the pandemic, while those with middle incomes were most likely. The largest losses were among adults without a college degree.

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

What’s more, the state’s population growth has been slowing for decades and more people have been moving out of state than arriving to California since 2000.

Overall, then, California is charting a unique path, he said, bucking trends of other regions like the Rust Belt or Appalachia, where declining populations have overlapped with cratering home values and struggling economies.

“Some people outside of the state like the idea of California being basically in a doom loop and everything is a disaster here,” Mr Johnson said. “If you look at the reality, I would say that the desirability to live in California is quite high, based on pretty direct measures which include the cost of housing.”

From the vantage of Paul Chabot, a realtor who runs Conservative Move, a network of real estate agents assisting conservatives, California’s economic fortunes and its political dynamics have gone hand in hand.

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

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

Mr Chabot knows this feeling firsthand. He was born and raised in Rancho Cucamonga, California, and moved his family to Texas in 2016, seeking to “make a space where we felt we could raise our kids in the same conditions we were raised in in California back in the 1970s.”

Still, despite helping thousands move to conservative jurisdictions like Idaho, Mr Chabot wishes his services were no longer in demand.

“I’d love to go out of business, he said. “I’d love for America to be united again...These experiments have failed. Until they right that ship, you’re still going to see an exodus to Idaho and other states.”

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