Aug 31 2007

The replacement roster

Published by at 9:12 pm under Idaho

Word flying around national news media, via unnamed sources, is that two things are about to happen. One is that, at 10:30 Saturday morning, at a press conference (which we do know has been called), Idaho Senator Larry Craig will resign. The other is that, sometime later but in the near future, Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter will appoint Lieutenant Governor Jim Risch to the job.

Both may be right; not having heard from sources claiming to know, we can only speculate based on external criteria. Those external criteria indicate that (1) odds favor a Craig resignation (support among his normal alliances and networks having collapsed), and (2) a Risch appointment is a completely credible scenario, but not yet to any absolute point.

Jim Risch

Jim Risch

Speculation, at the national level anyway, has centered on Risch, and understandably. (Stopping right here and noting that the governor’s office explicitly says that no decision has been made.) He’s the one substantial Republican other than Craig (and we’re excluding from that candidate Rex Rammell, who would be running a splinter campaign) who has specifically expressed interest in running for the Senate in 2008, saying he likely would run for it if Craig did not. Risch has twice won statewide elective office (on top of a state Senate career spanning nearly 30 years) and last year won widespread applause for his seven-month run as governor of the state. (This site was among those extending kudos.)

His experience would allow him to jump in quickly. He hasn’t walked the congressional corridors, but short of having served there, he’d be solidly prepared. There would be few political problems. If Risch were running for the Senate as an incumbent next year, he likely would be hard to beat, either in the primary (and he’d probably clear the field of major challengers) or the general. (Democrats may not want to hear it, but they should remember that Risch has beaten Democrat Larry LaRocco twice in years past.)

There’s a little more: A Risch appointment would allow Otter to appoint a new lieutenant governor, maybe one closer to him. (State Senator Brad Little comes to mind as a prospect.)

(An online poll on the Spokesman-Review Huckleberries blog has Risch winning the vote on predicting who the next senator will be: Risch 47, Otter himself 14, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne 8, Representative Mike Simpson 6, Bill Sali 3.)

So a Risch appointment would come as no surprise. But there are counter-arguments. He and Risch aren’t especially close; Risch almost ran against him for governor last year. (They appear to have worked together capably enough, though.) He’s not the only possibility.

Otter in fact can appoint anyone, almost, he wants to. His only specific limitation is to an Idaho resident who meets the legal qualification (constitutional) for the job; and there’s a sort of political/ethical mandate that he appoint a Republican, as he surely will. So what other options would Otter have?

Here’s an abbreviated list of names we’ve seen and heard mentioned.

bullet Himself. Yeah, he could. Okay, he’s not gonna. But it’s been done before, and in Idaho: In 1945 Governor Charles Gossett had himself appointed to the Senate, and in the next election not only did he lose his Senate seat, but his replacement as governor lost his seat too. Won’t happen. But just sayin’.

bullet Representative Mike Simpson. In some ways, Simpson, as the senior House member, well regarded around the state, strong politically, might almost have a sort of “right of first refusal.” He has at times indicated interest in the Senate (and the governorship, too). He and Otter got on very well when they served together in the House earlier this decade. We’ve talked this week with Idaho Republicans convinced that Simpson will be the appointee, not on the basis of inside knowledge but because of the external points. (There’s enough interest to draw an attack on Simpson from Club for growth, which has backed the other Idaho House member, Bill Sali.) This appointment would trigger a special House election in the 2nd district, but we’re hard put to see why that would be a big problem. A Simpson appointment – if Simpson wants the job – very credibly could happen.

bullet Representative Bill Sali. Sali’s backers have been mounting a campaign of sorts to press for a Sali appointment; but we don’t see the argument for it. This one would fall into the category of a major surprise.

bullet Interior Secretary (former Governor) Dirk Kempthorne. Gotta include the name; but he’s already been there, done that, left after one term . . . why would he leave the cabinet to take it? Seems highly unlikely.

bullet Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. Young, highly regarded (including from unusual and unexpected quarters), Wasden has like Risch been elected twice statewide. A longer shot, but there’s some logic to it, and his name has come up several times.

bullet State Senator Brad Little. He’s a close friend of Otter’s and also one of the best-regarded state legislators, across the political spectrum (which doesn’t mean he’s a soft Republican – he’s state Senate Republican caucus chairman). A Little appointment would mean the big-time launch of a major political career. This would be a dark horse choice which has a serious rationale behind it.

bullet Former Senator James McClure. The idea here would arise if Otter wanted the Republican party to determine the next senator, as happened the last time an Idaho governor – Republican Robert Smylie – made a Senate appointment, that of former Governor Len Jordan. (Several others also vigorously sought that appointment, in 1962.) From an email we received: Otter “can look really good by appointing Jim McClure as interim U.S. Senator. Not certain, [but] his past seniority might be worth something regarding committee assignments. He already knows all the players – and how to play the game. He is best qualified to be most effective for Idaho in the short term.” McClure, a very skilled senator over three terms, would be an interim appointment, till the next election – but he would do the job soundly in that time. And Republicans could then has out the options in the primary.

bullet E-mails are touting a bunch of prospects. (One we saw – and we have no information that it was authorized – promoted appointment of Boise activist Brandi Swindell.)

And an army of others.

Will it be Risch? Could be. But we’re hesitant to jump to conclusions until such time as Otter announces his.

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