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Protesting too much?

This space has not taken much notice of the formation in Idaho’s 1st House district of Republicans for Grant – Larry Grant being the Democratic candidate for that congressional seat.

But we’ve lately begun to wonder why Idaho Republicans have started to take such extensive note of it. Do they know something we don’t?

There is no voter registration by party in Idaho, which means that if you say you’re a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian or most anything else, then you are. Most people are reasonably honest about it, and the people who signed on as Republicans for Grant have to be fairly described as Republicans – all or nearly all (there’s one possible exception) have Republican activity, campaign work and in at least one case a major-office candidacy, in their background. We don’t think their party affiliation is much arguable. And they are prominent people in the state, leaders in one way or another.

And Bill Sali, the long-time state representative from Kuna who is the Republican nominee, does have an unusual and striking set of weaknesses.

Set against that, three factors. First, all or nearly all of these people have crossed the line before, contributing to or at least openly supporting Democratic candidates from time to time. Their support of Grant is not precedent-shattering. Second, there are no Republican elected officials or leading party officials, or even former elected or leading party officials, on the list – that would be an eye-opener. Third, the “Republicans for” approach is far from new; a long list of Democratic candidates in past years have sported such committees. We can’t think of one that proved decisive in a campaign, and some of those included people who were prominent statewide as Republicans. Most such groups faded from memory almost as soon as announced.

This one has not, at least so far. And for that Republicans – for Sali – are responsible.

First, even before the counter-group’s announcement, there was Mike Simpson at the state Republican convention, saying there are no “Republicans for Grant,” only Democrats for Grant.

Then, repeated low-level snipes at the members of the group. Then, acceleration.

Visits by Vice President Dick Cheney and House Speaker Dennis Hastert to pump up Sali’s candidacy – not just to raise money, which would be the norm, but to call for Republican unity. Unity was the text and the subtext.

Saturday, former congressional (and legislative) candidate Dennis Mansfield released an e-mail exhaustively detailing the contributions to Democrats by members of Republicans for Grant. Today, an op-ed in the Idaho Statesman by Mansfield and another former congressional candidate, David Leroy, on the subject of Republican unity. They concluded, “This year we’ll all work to elect Sali to Congress — to help the other three members of Idaho’s delegation fight for Idaho’s interests, and to help retain the all-important Republican majority in Congress. Republican Party members support Sali.”

What’s gotten interesting is this persistent call for unity, which to these ears has taken on an underlying tone of real concern.

That’s what didn’t happen in the races Leroy and Mansfield cite as past examples of the party coming together after a contested primary, in 2000 after C.L. “Butch” Otter won a contested Republican primary, or after Helen Chenoweth did it in 1994. In those races, the party did coalesce around the winner, and it was no big deal. It was simply assumed, and no national leaders or op-eds seemed to be needed to press the point home.

Which raises the question: Are these Republican leaders seeing something going on out there that hasn’t surfaced yet?

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