Sali and the Democrats

The Democrats were overjoyed. One campaign aide was almost literally dancing down a Boise street, so happy was he about the choice the Republicans had made of who would represent them in the general election for the 1st congressional district seat. Worst candidate of the bunch, he said; others would have been tougher, but this one was so bad that the election would be a slam dunk. Big sigh of relief.

That’s right: I’m talking about May 1994, when Helen Chenoweth was nominated by the Republicans for a seat in Congress. She went on, as we know now, to serve three terms before leaving of her own volition (in honor of a campaign pledge). She turned out not be an easy mark at all: She defeated incumbent Democrat Larry La Rocco.

This is worth bearing in mind as we hear, today, the terrific opportunity being placed before Idaho Democrats with the nomination of Bill Sali to that same seat, and of a highly presentable Democrat, Larry Grant, to oppose him.

And that word is being spread far and wide. You see is in emails and blogs. And you see it implied in quotes like this one from Idaho Democratic Chair Richard Stallings: “The Republicans have made a lot of mistakes in recent years, but nominating their 1st Congressional District candidate last night was a serious misstep. They have chosen a nominee who is despised within their own party – and with good reason. Bill Sali is one of the most divisive personalities in Idaho politics.”

A Daily Kos web site diary post about the race (which otherwise includes quite a few useful bits and pieces) actually includes the line, “The only problem for Grant currently is money.”

Well, no. It isn’t his only problem. This could be the most competitive race in the 1st since at least 1998 and maybe earlier, which means a Grant win is viable – could happen. But the odds still run the other way, and Democrats would not be well-served to ignore the obstacles before them.

Start with the basics: The district.

The DKos item remarked of the Idaho 1st, “This Congressional district was represented by a Democrat before the 1994 “Gingrich Revolution”, Larry LaRocco. He won in 1990 in an upset, in a district virtually similar to now, that gave George Bush, Sr. 64% in 1988. Our current Bush got 68% in 2004. Jim Matheson and Chet Edwards represent equally “red” districts – and have won and kept their seats. Neither will ever be “safe” incumbents, but neither are they easy to beat. Idaho’s Republican, sure, but the vast majority of voters (and 57% of Idaho Republicans) want stable leadership first. And they’re not adverse to electing Democrats statewide, either, as Governor Cecil Andrus and current Education chief Marilyn Howard can attest to.”

Where to start? The district is geographically similar to 1990 (on a map you could hardly tell the difference), but its people are much changed. Since 1990, the great bulk of the growth in Idaho, a fast-growing state, has been in the 1st, in places like Meridian, Post Falls, Eagle, Kuna, Hayden. Look at those precincts with newly-minted Idahoans and you will find Republican conservatism of an angry, unyielding sort. This is the kind of place Sali has represented in the Idaho House for 16 years, and it likes him just fine. The kind of conservative places that Grant hails from – Fruitland – is more like the 1st used to be than the way it is now.

The 1990 election should not be used, anymore, as any kind of a political baseline. With hindsight it looks increasingly like an aberration, and apart from the results (the single best Democrats in Idaho have had since 1958) it represented an unusually low voter turnout owing to a confluence of factors, a perfect storm. Perfect storms happen, but they are, definitionally, rare.

Do Matheson and Edwards represent similarly red districts? No. Matheson’s Central Salt Lake is politically competitive, and Edwards has been in office since 1990, when his historically Democratic slice of Texas was still electing Democrats, and has been skilled enough to hang on since.

An in electing Howard, Idahoans elected just about the least partisan Democrat around – she is an educator, not a political animal – to the lowest-ranking statewide position. Congress? Governor? Not since 1992. And look at the party margins in the legislature and in the courthouses for a real dose of reality.

1st district breakout by countyThe argument for Sali’s weakness has one statistical component: His win by just 26% of the vote, suggesting that 74% of Republican voters wanted someone else. Sounds good, but there are a few problems with this line of analysis. First, the same could have been said of any of the six candidates, had they won – none were so much better known than the others that any was breaking out into a big lead. That’s not necessarily a political problem. Second, who knows for how many voters Sali may have been an acceptable second choice?

If Sali’s 26% representated only a very narrow base, you might expect that to be picked up in narrow, spotty wins geographically around the district. it is true that four of the candidates won counties. Robert Vasquez took Canyon, Owyhee and Boise, near his home turf; Skip Brandt took Idaho, Clearwater, Benewah and Lewis, in his north-central stomping ground; and Sheila Sorensen took Latah, Shoshone, Valley and Adams. But Sali took eight counties, and the biggest prizes, Ada and Kootenai, across the district. Now ask yourself: would the Vasquez voters in Canyon (especially, but probably also the others too) have much problem with switching in the general to Sali? Didn’t think so. About the Brandt voters? Not really. And the Sorensen counties? Well, any decently-campaigning Democrat ought to take Latah and Shoshone anyway (and Grant likely will), but that’s not where most of the votes are. The votes are concentrated in Ada and Kootenai, which Sali won decisively, and Canyon, where he came in second to a candidate whose supporters mostly should find the transition easy.

But none of all this goes to the core of the Democrats’ strategic problem.

The core of the brief against Sali, and the reason for the post-election delight, is personal and specific to him. Had, say, state Controller Keith Johnson been nominated, the race might have boiled down to policy specifics and a referendum on Republicans in Washington. That would be a difficult argument for 1st District Democrats to win, even this year. Sali’s nomination throws in an extra factor – his deficiencies as a legislator (addressed in an earlier post). The problem will be getting the people of the 1st District to grasp it.

Sali’s strategy is clear enough already: This is a race, he will say, between conservative me and liberal Grant. He began pounding that in on election night, and he has continued doing it, and likely will use all his resources to continue doing it up to November. That’s a familiar argument, and a whole lot of 1st district voters who have been accustomed to voting for conservative Republicans will probably link onto it. Why should this latest Republican be any different? He will not sell himself personally (to the voter electorate at large); he will simply argue for voting for another conservative Republican, as this district has every time save two in the last 40 years. This is a realistic strategy, and it easily could work.

Explaining why Sali is different, in a way that’s compelling and can’t be dismissed as simple snark, will be challenging. It’s possible – this is a race Grant could win. But the path to getting there is disconcertingly complex – more complex than it is for Sali.

If Idaho Democrats do display the kind of political skills needed to win this race, they could in fact be on the first step back to competitiveness in Idaho. But that will come with careful planning and hard work; premature celebration won’t help.

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One Comment

  1. StephenYellin said:

    Mr. Stapilus,

    As the author of the DailyKos post you linked to, I want to thank you for pointing out certain facts in your article. In my own defense, I should point out that Jim Matheson’s district gave 63% for President Bush in 2004, which is not far off from Chet Edwards’ 67% or this seat. Yes, on a local level is it politically competitive in Salt Lake County, but that constitutes only 60% of the district. The rest is solidly Republican. Likewise, certain parts of Edwards’ turf have Democratic officials, the Mayor of Crawford, Texas being one. To be honest, I wasn’t aware of just how few Democrats have been elected to the Idaho legislature in recent years, so I would agree that the lack of structural base is a major problem.

    As for my quote on Grant “only” needing money, I should note that the context of that sentence was to encourage readers to donate to Grant’s campaign. If Grant is even to approach the competitive level and goals that you proposed, he’ll need more than $100,000 raised after several months of campaigning. After all, Sali has the Club for Growth ready to pour more money into the state from where it came for the primary. And I think we’d agree that Sali’s path to victory is far easier if his opponent can’t fight back financially. Hence my emphasis on Grant “only” needing money.

    I agree that organization and message discipline are equally important in that regard. Unfortunately, there’s not much an Internet blogger from New Jersey can do about the Idaho Democratic grassroots. It was not my intent to mischaracterize this race as a “slam dunk”, and I hope I didn’t make it seem that way in my article.

    I’ve read many of your posts before and have been impressed with every one. This one is no different. I thank you for pointing out what you’ve said in your article, and I will take care to remember those points in my future coverage of the campaign.

    May 28, 2006

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