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The big jump up and shout news this week from the backers of Idaho 1st House district Democrat Larry Grant comes to this: His opponent, Republican Bill Sali, just received a pile of money from the Republican Retain Our Majority Program (ROMP) fund.

The rationale is cleanly put by Jonathan Singer on the MyDD Democratic blog: “To this point, I knew that House Republicans were concerned about the possibility that they would lose control of the chamber. Yet I had no idea that they were in such a state of panic that they would divert hundreds of thousands of dollars to Idaho, one of just two states in which a majority of residents approve of President Bush; into a district in which President Bush received more than two-thirds of the vote; for a candidate who has already raised more than $500,000 – especially at a time when the NRCC is trailing the DCCC in cash-on-hand.”

Now. Flip over to Congressional Quarterly (yeah, right, registration required), as solid a reporter of congressional politics as you will find anywhere, and you’ll find the Idaho 1st listed as “safe Republican.” (We discussed it with them last week.)

The view here is that CQ is closer to the mark. We’ve noted before a tendency among some Democrats to underestimate their difficulties in this race.

Sali did raise over a half-mill for his primary – but that’s just it, he raised it for his primary, a notably difficult primary, and now he and his backers have to go back to the well. Grant has raised about half as much, but because he had no serious primary contest, he has relatively more money on hand. Sali’s well-heeled primary backers – Club for Growth and its close allies – will not let him go unfunded in the general. Funds get shifted around in the giant D.C. money pot. And so here we are. We’re unconvinced the ROMP money is a big deal. We’re not seeing evidence of “panic.”

However. In discussing the rating of the race with CQ, we suggested (not entirely facetiously) adding an asterisk to the “safe Republican” designation. Odds may favor Republican retention of the seat, but enough of what you might call “free radicals” are floating around to keep this race alive, and even turning it around. We may have hit a useful point for discussing some of them.

It should be noted, again, that Grant is a quality candidate, and even Republican leaders haven’t offered much direct criticism of him. He is running an energetic campaign. A good deal of Republican support of Sali is less than enthusiastic. The national trend lines continue to suggest a wave of some size for Democrats this fall. Even in Idaho, President Bush’s support is mediocre (even if still among the best in the country). Republicans are in national control, the national direction isn’t broadly considered a good one.

So why not figure that Republican voters will soften this year, that Grant can just reach across the middle?

Possibly some of that will happen – and it constitutes a wild card. But you also have to consider the existing environment, one frozen in place for a dozen years now.

The biggest obstacle for any Democrat running for office in Idaho outside of a few small locations (central Boise, Blaine County, Bannock County, Moscow and maybe Lewiston) is a kind of branding.

Among a large segment of the voting population, Democrats have been so thoroughly tarred, as worthless at best and evil at worst, that they can’t get a hearing. Democrats are a priori awful, instantly dismissable – whatever they say need not even be listened to. If some trace statement does get through that – shocking! – seems to make sense, it is quickly dismissable as being for campaign consumption only. Republicans, in contrast, are not necessarily considered great or superb, or even as (logically, since their campaign talk is so often anti-government) fine stewards of government. They’re simply not supposed to be as bad as those Democrats are and, in their dislike of government and most of what it does, are at least more like us. At least, that’s the message they get consistently from conservative talk radio (the only kind in Idaho, and big in Idaho), from Fox News, from all the politicians (who are almost all Republican) the political figures they know. It’s a monotoned political culture, and contrary messages do not easily break through.

Busting through that is the challenge, these days, for any Idaho Democrat running outside the small Democratic pockets.

Sali’s personal political track record would make him highly vulnerable, if enough voters come to know it – as they don’t know (and as matters stand, likely won’t in November). But suppose. Democrats could – it would be a risky maneuver – turn Sali into their Exhibit A of what has gone wrong with serious self-governance in Idaho – the civic laziness, the susceptibility to demonizing, the lack of professionalism, the over-cynicism. It would involve throwing the voters’ attitudes back in their faces, and in Sali the Democrats could hardly have a better case study.

None of this would be easy (it would certainly constitute “negative campaigning”) and it might turn off the voters.

Are there better ideas for breaking through? Maybe. But right now, a working majority of Idaho voters are as solidly Republican as deep South voters were Democratic a century ago. Changes in that kind of locked-down response don’t come easy.

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