One of the core principles of Republican strategist Karl Rove is supposed to be: Hit ’em not where they’re weakest, but where they’re strongest. Undermine their core strength, amd they’re in trouble.

In the Idaho 1st district race, Republican Bill Sali keeps doing it to himself.

Sali’s core strength is supposed to be that he is an absolutist, rigorously pure of ideology – a black/white guy, no shades of gray at all.

Now comes a ballot issue on which Idaho voters will have to decide next week – an important one, on land use policy, Proposition 2 – and polls make clear that most Idahoans have figured out what they think. (Last weekend’s Idaho Statesman/KIVI-TV poll shows the margin between favor/disfavor as close.) Elected officials and candidates have let loose their thoughts, as have just about all of the candidates for office.

Bill Sali apparently can’t decide.

He told the Statesman that “it’s one of the most complicated things I’ve read in my life.” Too complicated for him but not for hundreds of thousands of Idaho voters and every other candidate on the ballot? (His opponent, Democrat Larry Grant, is in opposition.)

That lack of a position appears to obtain even though, as Prop 2 manager Laird Maxwell correctly notes, Sali has not protested Maxwell’s listing of him as a Prop 2 backer on the initiative’s web site.

Could the fact that some of Sali’s key out of state backers support the measure have anything to do with his indecision?

We noted this pecuiarity several weeks ago, assuming it would be clarified before now. With a week left before the election, looks as if Sali may remain the fuzzy candidate clear to the end. (If that should change, we’ll post to that effect.)

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Oregon U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat, represents the most liberal part of Oregon – his district consists mostly of Portland – but he’s been getting a considerable dousing in more conservative waters as he campaigns for Democrats elsewhere.

Earl BlumenauerHe is only barely opposed in this election, and so has the free time. It may turn out to be useful experience if he winds up campaigning statewide in 2008. (Okay, he’s done the disclaimers. But it remains a live possibility.)

Blumenauer’s travelogue, which includes a fairly detailed section on his stopover and campaigning in Idaho, has been posted on Daily Kos.

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Acall from the Associated Press/Portland this afternoon prompted the question: To what extent is the national political mood likely to influence down-ticket races? Or, will state and local Republicans pay the price for the unpopularity of Republicans based on the far coast?

The correct answer seems to be “sure – to some extent,” which begs the question of to what extent, which is something we’ll all be wiser about in another week. But some impact is highly likely.

Politicians are picking it up. Oregon’s governor race is one of the clearest examples. It is not directly tied to the Bush Administration or to Congress – the candidates are not running for, never have run for and are not serving in federal office. But the swing in energy in Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski’s campaign came suspiciously close to the time he and his ads starting linking – sometimes with subtlety, sometimes not – Republican Ron Saxton with Bush and Washington Republicans. And if that’s a little subjective for you, the latest Saxton TV ad blitz – in which he acknowledges that he’s a Republican but promises that he won’t be too much of one – ought to be a convincer.

Or consider the numbers.

This is the rundown of partisan balance in the state Senate and House in Washington, Oregon and Idaho for the last two major wave elections, in 1994 and 1980. The numbers indicate the seats held by each party – listed as Republicans/Democrats – before and after those two elections, by chamber.

Yr/Chambr WA prv WA aftr OR prv OR aftr ID prv ID aftr
1994/Senate 21/28 24/25 14/16 19/11 23/12 27/8
1994/House 33/65 61/37 32/28 34/26 50/20 57/13
1980/Senate 19/30 25/24 7/23 9/21 19/16 23/12
1980/House 49/49 56/42 26/34 27/33 50/20 56/15

.

In all 12 transitions, Republicans gained seats – House and Senate, net totals, in all three states. The size of the gain was widely variable, though. They range from the astonishing Republican pickup of 28 House seats in Washington in 1994 – a number proportionately greater than in the U.S. House that year – down to the modest Oregon changes in 1980. (But remember that in the cases of the Washington and Oregon Senates, moreover, the numbers are held down because only half of those seats are up for election in a single two-year cycle.)

You can figure that the wind at the back of congressional Democrats will help their colleagues down-ticket. As to how much . . . there’s a range of possibilities.

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Open communications permeate our society too richly to allow the areas of political segregation – the cultural walls – we’ve built up, to last forever. Sooner or later someone figure out a way through them, and then the bricks will fall.

One of those might be an intriguing experiment in counterintuitive campaigning: Democrats, even somewhat liberal Democrats, campaigning in a theoretically Republican venue. In this case, Christian radio.

Three Oregon House Democratic candidates – Rob Brading, Charles Lee and David Edwards – have started advertising messages on Christian radio stations. The ads have a similar feel: In each, the candidate talks in an easy voice, about how his faith affects his candidacy. Lee, for example: “My father taught me that living by God’s Law makes life easy—all you have to do is tell the Truth and you’ll be fine. But he also taught me that the Truth needs courage and firm convictions to survive.”

All three are in serious races, Brading opposing House Speaker Karen Minnis, Lee against Representative Kim Thatcher and Edwards against Everett Curry – all three seats are substantially up for grabs, in politically marginal areas. (The most interesting of the three may be Edwards/Curry, since Curry is a pastor of a Baptist church in southern California, and since Edwards took a big hit in the Oregonian – including a pulled editorial endorsement – over a hotly disputed matter of political ethics.)

This reach for the “Christian vote” could – if it hits its target – have a real impact on the calculus in those places. We’ll be checking back to see if it worked.

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The trend line is persistent: Newspaper subscriptions continue their downward plunge.

For the six months ending in September, circulation nationally fell another 2.8%. Exceptions appear, but the overall is clear enough, and of a piece with the trend line in the last decade and more.

In Seattle, that has meant more circulation losses at the two dailies, albeit at slower paces – they’re sinking a little more slowly. The Seattle Times weekday circulation now stands at 212,691 (down, over six months, by 1.3%), the Post-Intelligencer at 126,225 (down 4.9%). For a close-in metro area of three million and more, that’s shockingly low. The third-largest paper in the state, the Tacoma News Tribune, dropped 5.7% (now 116,150).

In 2000, the Times stood at 225,687, the P-I at 75,794.

And probably no one expects a reversal in the next six-month report.

This kind of trend line can’t go on forever.

The sort-of bright spot for newspapers in this is that traffic on their web sites (from which they earn relatively little) is continuing a steady growth.

Question: When does the tail start wagging the dog? It’s beginning to look as if you can pinpoint the date on the right kind of spreadsheet . . .

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Of the 1st district Idaho daily newspapers which endorse, we correctly estimated that Democrat Larry Grant either might sweep the endorsements over Republican Bill Sali, or all but one. (One more is yet to come in this race.)

The paper we were thinking might go for Sali was the Nampa Idaho Press-Tribune, considering its usually very conservative editorial stands.

Not this time. Their editorial today is the thoroughgoing and powerful – and skillful – editorial blast against Sali we’ve seen all year. “Skillful” is added in because it did what is tough to do: It explains clearly why, though the candidate may be acceptable philosophically, he is unsuited for the job he seeks. It does so in fair and reasoned terms. Emanating from a solidly conservative editorial board, it has some chance of being taken more than usually seriously by conservative voters.

UPDATE: Corrected for prematurity; we had understood an endorsement had been made, which hadn’t.

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Today’s Idaho poll offered up by Mason Dixon – broadly regarded as one of the better polling firms in the country – courtesy the Boise Idaho Statesman and KIVI-TV in Nampa, shows a general election campaign riding on the razor edge.

The core numbers are these:

Office Republican % Democratic % Undecided %
1st US House Bill Sali 39% Larry Grant 37% 21%
Governor Butch Otter 44% Jerry Brady 43% 12%
Lt Gov Jim Risch 45% Larry La Rocco 36% 18%
Supt Pub Instr Tom Luna 40% Jana Jones 37% 23%

That these numbers are as close as they are in Idaho is noteworthy on its face, and an indicator that recent polls showing a closing of the races are not outliers.

Looks like a serious horse race. But more specifically, what do we make of it?

Start with the caveats. Polling in Idaho is always iffy, done by the best of firms and in the best of ways. We’ve long been convinced significant numbers of Idahoans lie to pollsters (some of the matchups historically between polling and voting results suggest as much). There’s a traditional gap, historically of around 5%, shorting Republican support in pre-election polls – in one of the Statesman stories on this poll, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brady said he agrees with that view (shared as well by former Republican Governor Phil Batt). And we should note that while the statewide margin of error is a fairly normal 4%, the MOE in the 1st district – Sali-Grant – is a high 6%, a serious limitation on the confidence we should attach to the figures there.

All that said, a few other thoughts jump out.

The poll clearly indicates a reason for throwing big money in the 1st district race, and for a reason suggested also by the Greg Smith poll from August: There are a lot of undecided voters in the first district, meaning that the race is evidently not settled and up for grabs. The indication is that much of this springs from concerns about Sali, who – the poll says – has a 35% unfavorability, higher than any of the other candidates for major office. Bit advertising money can help repair that, but that repair probably wouldn’t be helped if the coming air blitz, most of it heavily financed outside Sali’s campaign, is – as appears likely – aimed at destroying Grant instead of boosting Sali.

There’s some suggestion too that Republican gubernatorial candidate Butch Otter has been hurt by back choices combined with bad timing.

Earlier this year, a political analogy suggested itself easily in the race for governor: In 1998, U.S. Senator Dirk Kempthorne swooped in and, without breaking a sweat, made some easy rounds in what amounted more to coronation than to serious campaigning, and he won easily. Otter, also a familiar and generally popular political figure in Idaho, also conservative and Republican, also raising and spending far more than his Democratic opponent, also a beneficiary of the state’s strong Republican infrastructure, also a skilled campaigner, looked to do the same thing. But he’s run into problems. His headlines this year have been awful, from alliance with a federal lands selloff plan (which he later repudiated and apologized for) to refusal to appear at a public television debate (a decision he may now regret). For all that Otter now (in the Statesman) refers to campaigning as if he were behind, you’ll not find many political people in Idaho who think he has: Most think that by historical standards of running for governor, he’s campaigned hardly at all. And Congress, from whence Otter is coming, is a whole lot less popular now than it was in 1998. And, while Kempthorne faced a Democratic opponent whose campaign sputtered and finally gave up completely in the last of the campaign, Otter faces one re-energized by the polling news and national assistance, who will at a minimum be highly visible and active through election day.

And maybe most of all, Kempthorne didn’t have to campaign in a national atmosphere so toxic to Republicans that it seems to have permeated even Idaho.

All those factors just noted may have contributed to something else: Otter’s relatively high – 27% – unfavorability rating, second only to Sali’s (and well higher than Democrat Brady’s 14%). One of Otter’s best assets is his personal campaigning self; the man is as naturally skilled a campaigner as Idaho has seen. The catch is that he hasn’t been doing a lot of it, and he may be starting to pay for it.

Is this race close? It could be.

We’re now in the final stages, and much of what remains (other than late air attacks) will be ground war: Getting one’s voters to the polls. Historically, Republicans have been heavily outperforming Democrats in this area.

But there’s a joker in this pack: The hidden core of Democratic voters. About a decade ago, after crushing and accelerating losses in the state in 1992, 1994 and 1996, a large number of Democratic-leaning voters – in our count, somewhere around 50,000 of them – gave up and quit voting. Democratic numbers after 1996, into 2004, fell consistently by about that amount in part for that reason. What if the changed atmosphere, polls and prospects bring many of them back to the polls this year? And depress Republican turnout?

The last week of this may be notably critical in Idaho.

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By way of notation, for any interested . . . ‘Twas almost exactly a year ago when this side moved from pure HTML to database (those older posts remain accessible through archives); we were loathe to let go hands-on site manufacture, but the demands of the modern web made it necessary, and WordPress software has been a worthy handler.

The features it made possible (common and ordinary among many web sites these days) probably contributed to this site’s growth: Our average daily visits have more than tripled in the past year, and we don’t seem to be levelling off. Total visits during that time stand at 314,388.

Thanks for stopping by. You’re in growing company.

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Democrats in eastern Washington and western Idaho were cheered this week when their candidates, Peter Goldmark and Larry Grant, in the 5th and 1st respectively, were upgraded to the national Democratic “red to blue” list – the party’s list of hot and truly competitive races. Which both, in fact, seem to be.

A moment, please, for what this says in larger-picture perspective, as we look toward the election 10 days off.

The “red-to-blue” list is intended to be relatively exclusive, allowing in only the strong shots at winning – “to provide financial and structural aid to the strongest Democratic candidates across the country.” As that suggests, the main purpose is provision of help over the course of a campaign; coming this late, the designation is closer to a badge of honor. (Not a small thing, really; it’s a mark of legitimacy.)

But the designation can be considered another way too, in the context of Democratic prospects, and how they have changed. Six months ago, Democratic pickups in the House in the range of 12-20 seats – maybe, just maybe, enough to take control – was conventional political wisdom. The first “wave” of “red to blue” candidates was chosen in late April; there were 22 of them, and included one northwesterner, Darcy Burner, running in Washington’s 8th district against incumbent Republican Dave Reichert. At that time she still polled discernibly behind Reichert, but had good momentum; today, the race appears too close to call.

Back in April, polling and analysis indicated that 2006 probably would be a Democratic year, but not drastically so. A Democratic win of the U.S. House, requiring 15 seats, might be doable but was highly uncertain. So the national Democrats’ take was that if the House capture was going to happen, it likely would be done by these 22 candidates, hence the idea of throwing some special help in their direction.

Then a second wave was added in early summer, and then a third – in all, reflecting the sense that more seats were becoming competitive and that Democratic gains might be larger. Few national analysts considered more than about three dozen seats seriously competitive in early summer; now, the list roughly doubles that.

As of mid- the late October, there’s a growing sense that Democratic House seat gains might be in 30-40 seat territory. The new 4th wave, adding 17 campaigns to the list for a total of 61, and including Goldmark and Grant are a part of that assessment – that as the number of apparently realistic Democratic wins has grown, that breadth has grown to encompass these campaigns in these unlikely red-Republican areas. These campaigns are local, too, of course, but much of the special energy and direction they have taken reflects as well the national mood. (In 2004 Republican Cathy McMorris beat a high-quality Democratic candidate who outspent her with 60% of the vote; Goldmark is a quality candidate, but he would have lost that year too.) This is a nationalized election, has been gradually becoming ever more so for months, and Democrats in the Washington 5th and Idaho 1st are benefitting from that.

We won’t make a prediction, at this point anyway, on the outcome of either of those races – they’re very much in flux. But we will suggest this: Watch the national trends on election night, the Northeast and Great Lakes area returns especially, and the size of the Democratic wave on November 7, and you may get an early indication – and the national Democrats’ “red-to-blue” choices may reflect some of that.

If the trend seems just about large enough to bring Democrats to power in the U.S. House, then figure Burner in Washington’s 8th will likely be a part of that, but the other two may not be. If, as CW today suggests, the gain is much larger – really does hit that 30-40 range, or beyond – then Goldmark and Grant may well be lifted over the top.

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Musing: You have to wonder if the impact is all it might be. But it might be. Could it be that a 10-year-old civil case could cost a half-million dollars now, so much more than the $20,000 back then?

Karen MinnisThe subject is a sad incident dating from 1995, just now unearthed (the process and timing of which would be interesting to know, and isn’t entirely clear yet). The political principals are Karen Minnis, now speaker of the Oregon House, and her husband John, who in 1995 was both a state legislator (she worked for him then as an aide) and a police officer. Briefly, the story is this:

The Minnises in 1995 opened a pizza parlor at Hillsboro. Both otherwise employed, they hired John Minnis’ brother Tuck to manage it. It was an unfortunate choice. According to court records, Tuck Minnis soon began sexually harassing the help – the descriptions in court records put his actions well beyond the pale of ambiguity – culminating in an attack on a 17-year-old girl who worked there, at the restaurant, the point of “attempting to tear off plaintiff’s clothing in an apparent attempt to rape her.” She told her mother, who in turn called John Minnis (at the statehouse) to complain.

The eventual lawsuit (another female employee also eventually sued) said the Minnises “retaliated against plaintiff [the girl] for resisiting and reporting the sexual harassment conduct, as alleged above, by engaging in a course of intentional conduct designed to traumatize plaintiff and force her to quit, including but not limited to excusing defendant Tuck Minnis’ conduct toward plaintiff, assigning plaintiff to undesirable later night shifts, ordering her to change or wardrobe on and off work, setting rules for women employees that were not applied to men, reducing plaintiff’s work hours, changing her job description from hostess to cook, punitively treating her in a rude and angry manner, and writing her up for alleged insubordination on the job.” (She was at the time, remember, age 17.) She stopped working at the restaurant soon after, and then sued. The Minnises paid $20,000 to settle the civil suit. John and Karen Minnis removed Tuck Minnis as manager of the business, but kept him on as an employee there until November, when he apparently left voluntarily.

All of which has been quietly lurking in the Washington County court files, until Friday. As of now, the details are available on a web site called The Minnis File, paid for and authorized by FuturePAC, which is the Oregon House Democrats. The site includes a summary of the situation, a legal analysis by attorney Marc Blackman (which suggests some violations of crominal law as well as civil violations), and a clutch of relevant legal documents. Don’t let it be said those guys can’t smack hard.

And don’t imagine they don’t understand exactly what linkage to make. A new video ad, also out Friday (this was closely worked out – the video was from the campaign of Rob Brading, Minnis’ Democratic opponent): “In Washington, D.C. they covered up for one of their own. Anything to protect their power. In Oregon, Karen Minnis and her husband did the same” – a direct analogy to the Speaker Dennis Hastert mishandling of the Mark Foley revelations.

Back to the opening question: What impact on the high-wire race between Minnis and Brading – which may be the top legislative race in Oregon?

Day before yesterday, we heard from a Democrat a bit discouraged about Brading’s prospects. The reason was money. Although Brading has raised an extraordinary campaign treasury for the state House – around a half-million dollars – Minnis has blown past that into the realm of the incredible, raising a million dollars for a state House race. (How you could even spend that much in a useful way raises questions.) It’s a hot race where the edge still has seemed to be with Minnis.

And now?

Neither the Minnis nor the Brading web site have acknowledged the development – yet.

The story’s key playout will happen in the next three to four days, as it hits mainstream (which it seems likely to do) and as the district processes it. We’ll revisit this for another evaluation, but our first guess is that this relevation has leveled the field. That $20,000 back then may have cost $500,000 now.

UPDATE The Oregonian reports this morning – note that the story now has hit mainstream media – that John Minnis is planning to file a libel suit next week against the Brading campaign over this. Karen Minnis, who noted that she was not named in the original lawsuit, called the disclosures “a new low.”

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The winding down of this year’s campaign means time is coming not only to vote but also to consider how this process can be improved next time. Do we really want a 2008 campaign season that becomes simply a bigger and badder version of this one? Thought not (for most of us, that is).

Here’s one such suggestion (we will have more soon).

Consider the Thursday ruling by the Supreme Court in Montana (Montanans for Justice v. State) throwing out (more precisely, declaring void) three ballot issues which actually will appear on the state’s ballot. These issues were backed by some of the same outfits which sent their tentacles into Washington, Oregon and Idaho this season. Here’s a piece of what the court said happened:

Proponents began collecting signatures throughout the state of Montana in March 2006 and collected them until June 23, 2006, the date on which all gathered signatures had to be submitted to county election administrators for certification. Proponents utilized some Montana citizens to collect signatures but relied primarily on paid out-of-state signature gatherers to obtain the overwhelming majority of the signatures submitted. The uncontradicted evidence established that Proponents paid over $633,000.00 to out-of-state signature gatherers who collected signatures for these three initiatives. Individual signature gatherers were paid between fifty-cents and $2.50 per signature per initiative.

Proponents submitted their signed petitions to the county election administrators, who in turn certified them . . . On August 16, 2006, Opponents filed their Complaint alleging that Proponents’ signature gatherers violated the statutory requirements governing ballot issue petitions by obtaining signatures in a deceptive manner and by falsely swearing to the contents on the signature gatherers’ form affidavits.

The district and supreme court agreed the deception and false affidavits were not just present, but pervasive. And took the noteworthy step of killing the issues even though they could not (because of ballot printing schedules) be removed from the ballot.

No similar legal challenges have been filed in the northwestern states, maybe in part because courts in this region have strong precedent in place to allow ballot issues to go forth to election, on grounds they’re not ripe for review until then. But what are the odds that such extensive problems as cropped up in Montana but are absent here?

True, Oregon has a (useful) law banning payment of signature gatherers by signature, which was part of the Montana problem. But the influx of money and the message behind it – get that thing on the ballot – inevitably will lead to similar problems.

Our suggestion: Prohibit payment of people for gathering signatures for ballot issue petititions.

This would impinge on no one’s personal freedom of speech or political activity. You and your allies want an issue on the ballot? Great: Volunteer your time. And persuade other people to volunteer theirs.

But it would restore – we could call this the Initiative Restoration Act – the emergence of ballot issues from the grass roots. It would help return initiatives to their original intended purpose: A safety valve for the people at large when they feel their interests are not being met by state legislatures. It would not take the money out of campaigns to pass or defeat (that being another subject). But it would undercut the ability of narrowed moneyed interests to hijack the politics and political discussions of states around the country, turning those states and their people into the playtoys of millionaires – something that has happened altogether too much this year.

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Do the national Republicans appreciate the extent to which this is beginning to make Republican Bill Sali look ever more like a seriously at-risk candidate in a heavily Republican district?

Word up today that yet another massive buy on Sali’s behalf from a national Republican committee – at a time when national Republican money has been pulled from some states – and that Vice President Dick Cheney will pay yet another another visit to the 1st district, once again to help Sali. There seems to be no bottom to the generosity of the national Republicans and allied groups (hello, Club for Growth) on this race – by election day, their independent expenditures on Sali’s behalf will approach the total campaign expenditures of Sali and Democrat Larry Grant taken together. What the national Republicans will spend in the last month of this campaign, in fact, probably will exceed Grant’s total spending (which has not been shabby for a Democrat) all year. That’s in addition to the Club’s central underwriting ever since last fall of much of Sali’s campaign treasury.

Gee, you’d think these guys didn’t have confidence in Sali to do his own thing. Which raises the question: To what extent is Sali doing his own thing?

It suggests two more questions too.

One is the question of why – Why Idaho 1?

National Republicans are right now like head surgeons at a massive battlefield hospital, a MASH unit, overwhelmed by casualities who need immediate attention – in this case, financial – while their available resources are limited. They have a lot of money to dispense, but it isn’t infinite. The triage must be painful. We’ve seen the reports about national Republican efforts pulling out of Senator Rick Santorum’s re-election campaign in Pennsylvania, with the result that he’s running out of money and has “gone dark” – no TV ads – at least temporarily and maybe for the last couple weeks of the campaign. Santorum’s pain is shared by quite a few other Republican campaigns around the country.

But not Sali’s. In a national view, one would think Sali’s campaign has two strikes against: The fact that he’s not an incumbent (Santorum is a Senate Republican leader); and the district, a solidly Republican place where, even if Sali loses now, a Republican presumably would have a decent shot in 2008.

We’ll be pondering what makes Sali or his race or his district so notably key in a national context. No easy answers come to mind (other, possibly, than the sheer embarrassment of losing a House seat in Idaho).

Meantime, we also might ponder this. Is there something wrong when national interests come to not merely participate in (as they always do) but to dominate – in ways we have not seen in years past – a local congressional race? Whose interests – surely not the constituents’ – are really being serviced? Does something about that seem not quite right?

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