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ID CD1: Johnson, revisited

Are we misunderestimating Keith Johnson? After our latest runthrough of the odds for the Republican candidates for the Idaho 1st congressional district nomination, in which we placed Johnson in the lower of two tiers of probability to win, we heard from the Johnson campaign. They said they thought they were being sold short, and offered to send more information to make their case that they’re more strongly positioned than we indicated. Fair enough.

Keith JohnsonWere they sold short? After a re-look, and a look at some facts available now but not last Wednesday (when the last analysis was done), our thought is that Johnson’s standing is a little better than we originally suggested. But not enough, for now, to call for a wholescale rethink of the dynamics of the race.

The biggest single change marker is in campaign finance. As of February 1, Johnson’s campaign finance report hadn’t been filed. Later in the week it was, and showed him raising a respectable $72,104, most of it from individuals but about $18,327 from PACs, which suggests that some of the money people, at least, think he has a shot. Among the six candidates, only Sheila Sorensen has comparable PAC backing. (In many respects, individual contributions are better than PAC funds, but the PAC money is a market for how races are assessed.) But the funds raised overall put him in a clear fourth place among the six.

There is also this: With $40,243 cash on hand at the end of 2005 (the end of the reporting period), Johnson had more funds available than any other candidate except Bill Sali (who had $133,904). That isn’t a perfect indicator of much, because some of the other campaigns may have been buying things Johnson had yet to buy; exact comparisons are dicey. It also doesn’t account for revenue dumps pledged or planned but not yet occurred. But it’s worth noting, and a small plus for Johnson.

Another point looked a little better for Johnson after review, compared to the stories making their way around political circles. Various tales were told about a particular section of Johnson’s announcement speech; by some accounts, he is supposed to have said something to the effect that government should ensure the place and prominence of religious faith in the family. Would’ve constituted a big problem area for Johnson if he said it. (How exactly was government supposed to have done that?) We didn’t initially clarify what he said, since we didn’t plan to quote him on the subject, but did bear in mind the rumors about it shooting around political circles. In fairness to Johnson, here is what the text of his announcement speech has him saying:

Unfortunately, too many people today think separation of church and state means faith has no place in our public lives. I believe they’re wrong, and that families suffer when their values are not reflected in the government that represents them. Government must have no place in our exercise of faith. But as a husband and father, I’m committed to ensuring that God always has a place in our families, and in our country.

There’s something problematic even in this, because it blurs the lines of Johnson speaking “as a husband and father” on “ensuring that God always has a place in our families” – or is it prospective Congressman Johnson saying that? The closely nuanced writing gives him cover, though, and enough wiggle room to have it both ways for the moment.

The problem that remains is that Johnson has to find a way to make himself positively distinctive from Sali of the conservative religious grass roots, from Sorensen of the moderate/conservative urban/suburban viewpoint (or image), and from Semanko of the rural-conservative/Craig image. What’s the shorthand description for Johnson? Damned if we know. The close alliance with religious conservatism, the heart of Sali’s candidacy, is what he seems to be reaching for in his clincher passage from the announcement speech. But that’s an all-or-nothing crowd, satisfied with nothing but the rarest of red meat, and Johnson seems to be working a campaign of nuance.

Elsewhere, should be noted that Johnson has substantial campaign endorsers, including two peer in statewide office (Secretary of State Ben Ysursa and Treasurer Ron Crane), and former Lieutenant Governor Jack Riggs, all respectable folks. (Probably reflecting too that Johnson evidently has a sound record as controller. And there is actually some interesting professional stuff in his background that might sell well, if he finds a way to use it.) And his campaign has some solid names scattered around the district as well.

How they match up to the Sorensen and Semanko campaigns (the Sali organization being a whole different sort of animal, from a different campaign phylum) is a matter for some debate. Sorensen has some big names (Simpson and Symms among others) and some smaller ones, and Semanko has a substantial swath of Republican organization people, along with a lot of Craig loyalists. It’s not dismissive of Johnson’s network to, for now at least, place it a respectably close third behind those two, based on what we know (or think we know) of them to this point.

Tallying up, the Johnson people make a solid case for a ranking above Skipper Brandt and (we think – though not everyone does) Robert Vasquez. So do they overtake the other three? Not yet. They come closest perhaps to Semanko, so’s not far ahead on money but probably beats him on organization. And remember that all of the other candidates were active in this race before Johnson got in: They have soaked up a lot of the money and support and constituencies.

We’d still put Johnson behind the three S’s, for now, but by a slimmer margin than we had thought. The really key phrase here is, “for now.” This race has been constantly fluid and remains so; every one of the six candidates has a shot at winning. Keep those cards and letters coming.

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