Writings and observations

Over the course of a lot of years, we’ve talked to a lot of Republican Idaho elected officials who in no way wanted a closed primary (of the sort Oregon has, where you have to declare party affiliation to vote in a party’s primary). The fat is now burning. From an e-mailed state GOP release on Friday:

The Idaho Republican Party filed suit late Friday in U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho against the Idaho Secretary of State, in an effort to close the party’s primary elections process, so only registered Republicans would be allowed to vote in Republican primaries.

“The party presently has expressed its choice to implement closed primary elections, and we have taken concrete action to carry out these wishes,” said Sidney Smith, Executive Director of the Idaho Republican Party. “We hope this suit will move quickly through the process and lead to an effective structure that respects the rights of our party members.”

This session, the legislature did not implement an appropriate closed primary system such as the “call for ballot” process. The Idaho Republican Party urged the legislature to approve closed primary legislation this year, in order to avoid litigation, but several proposals were unsuccessful.

Therefore, according to the resolution approved by the party Central Committee in January of this year, the party was required to file suit within 10 days of adjournment of the legislature, thereby making this suit unavoidable.

Won’t affect this year’s primary, the calendar being too late for a serious change now. But it could – who knows? – have some effect on this year’s politics . . .

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Well, this is going to be the real news of the season at Olympia: Dave Ammons is leaving the Associated Press to go to work for the secretary of state’s office.

We’ve not had the pleasure of meeting Ammons, in person; but years of reading his weekend columns on Washington politics for so many years makes that seem a detail. Political reporter at Olympia for the AP since 1971, he may be one of the handful of truly key statehouse reporters in the country, in place so long as to develop an overwhelming memory of what has been (with insight into what will be), and the best news platform of all, the AP. For those outside the news business: Most news used by newspapers and broadcasters gets there via the AP, and the AP’s coverage of stat events and politics is what most people around a given state read about it.

David Postman of the Seattle Times wrote a 2001 column on Ammon. It’s worth a read, and a reflection on how little point there would be to such a column at all if the subject were most journalists. But Ammon – the source, certainly, of a large chunk of what we’ve come to learn about Washington politics – is one of the exceptions.

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Former Governor Cecil Andrus, who in 2006 supported Larry Grant for the U.S. House and this year supports his primary opponent, Walt Minnick, for the job, played master of ceremonies at the downtown Boise press conference at which Grant announced he is pulling out of this year’s race. With the earlier departure from the contest of Rand Lewis, that gives Minnick the direct shot at the nomination.

Andrus mentioned in passing that he’d just learned of Grant’s decision today, but thin rumors were floating around Boise yesterday. There were matters of timeliness. One was that, as Grant said, the time was about to arrive when the candidates would need to get into doing comparatives against each other – some sort of attack, direct or subtle. If Democrats wanted to avoid that, now would be the time for dropout. There’s also word that Minnick’s fundraising – expected to be released within a few days – has gone well, crossing the half-million line and running ten times or more what Grant has raised so far. There’s also the point, raised at the press conference, that the national Democratic Party has targeted the Idaho 1st this year, but couldn’t get involved while the primary contest was ongoing. So this could bring them in earlier.

A piece of this probably does have to do with joining forces; Grant could have done a separate withdrawal rather than the joint appearance and endorsement he did do. (After the press conference, Minnick and Grant and for a while Andrus repaired to a nearby coffee shop and spent a considerable time in apparently detailed discussions.) That would seem to suggest that, rhetoric notwithstanding, the Democrats do recognize that their target, Republican Representative Bill Sali, will be very tough to take out. And he will – barring some sea change in the ground-level structure of Idaho politics, there’s not a lot of good reason for thinking Sali will fail to at least match his vote results from last time.

But there is, evidently, a certain amount of discipline on the Democratic side, which would be a first step toward shifting the environment. That and focus: Minnick vs. Sali, a battle of extremely different people.

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Glen Taylor

Glen Taylor

You can still run into Idaho people who recall Glen Taylor, a U.S. senator from 1945-51, who will write him off as an embarrassment or worse. Cecil Andrus, who years later would enter politics and become governor, recalled that as a young man he saw Taylor come through town and do his stand-up campaigning bit, and thinking that if this was what politics was, he wanted no part of it.

Taylor was by profession an entertainer, a singer and dancer and skit player in the old traveling show circuit that began to die out with the coming of talkie movie theatres. But he was also substantive, a true ideologue (probably the closest to a true socialist Idaho ever sent to Congress) and surprisingly substantive. And politically courageous besides.

Which is by way of seconding College of Idaho Professor Jasper LiCalzi‘s suggestion of Taylor’s memoir, The Way It Was With Me, as a good read. Taylor was as entertaining a writer as he must have been on stage, and he includes tales that could only have been told by someone who knew his political career was far behind him, and who had moved for good from the state where he ran. LiCalzi remarks in his blog post that “This is the most enjoyable political memoir I have ever read but it is the person that is most fascinating.” Not hard to feature (even if the book may not be especially easy to find).

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April snow

Snow in the Blue Mountains Tuesday/Stapilus

So when is this winter thing supposed to be over? Heading into the Blue Mountains Tuesday – and yes, this is the Blues but still, this was April 8 – was heading into snow, then slush, then snowpack, and for about a quarter-hour near the top, genuine blizzard with the snow solidly horizontal. The trucks were spooked. So ws most everyone else.

So much for a nice pleasant April drive.

First chore headed out this morning in Boise was to scrape an inch-plus of snow off the car. (After hearing reports about rough travel to the northwest through Snoqualmie.)

The snow hasn’t stuck. But hey. This is supposed to be April.

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Some credit to Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter, for owning up. Some governors in his position might bluff through, saying the last legislative session was just fine; or might fuzz over the fault in lack of progress in a long list of key areas (transportation being a big one Otter was working on directly).

Otter acknowledges that he – his relations with the legislature – are part of the reason for all that. And in fact, the fault is best spread around; there’s a tendency to focus on one easily identifiable person when large-scale things happen, but usually a lot of people are involved. As here.

Having said all that, Otter has been going public recently with quite a few statements blasting away at legislators. And you have to wonder, with two rocky sessions now under his belt, if session 3 is going to be a lot different.

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Jeff Kropf

Chris Gregoire campaigning at Vancouver/Stapilus

The lasting impression, watching Washington Governor Chris Gregoire working a crowd at Vancouver on day one of her first major campaign swing of the year, was that she’s gotten better at this than she was four years ago.

She should have, of course. Candidate Gregoire in 2004 was Christine, with the proper name and the litigator’s manner. Intelligence and competence came across clearly enough, but she could be a little hard to warm to. 2008’s candidate Chris seemed more relaxed and easy, at least as energetic (maybe more so) but less wired. The crowd at Vancouver, where we watched her in action, was a group of Democratic activists, officials and supporters and so primed to support her, but the interaction seemed warmer than would have been obligatory. Every so often the lawyer flashed an appearance, and some of her pushes for enthusiasm were a little forced. She’s still not a natural at this, but nonetheless a stronger candidate than last time around.

(We look forward to running a comparison between Republican Dino Rossi 2004 and 2008 – sorry, no name change in his case.)

The stump speech was basic – no very striking twists – but fully functional. Job one for an incumbent seeking re-election is to make the case that things are better than they were when the term began, or at least that the incumbent did the best they could. Gregoire addressed all that thoroughly. Unemployment was highest in the nation then, and much lower now, she argued; the job market is much improved; the state has won kudos for capable management; and so on. It’s a case Rossi will necessarily attack, of course, but Gregoire is not neglecting her role in making it. Over-modesty will not be her undoing in this campaign. (Go ahead and laugh; but any number of incumbents over the years have neglected to make the case for themselves only to wonder why the voters didn’t award them another term.)

Her references to Rossi – who she didn’t mention by name, only by implication – were brief but sharp: He is “critical and fearmongering to the state of Washington . . . who in tough times cuts education, cuts public safety . . . indecisive and puts up their finger and asks how the political winds blow . . .” The lines of attack seem clearly mapped out as well.

This was, as noted, an early stop on Gregoire’s bus tour around the state: “She’s traveling to 10 cities in four days on a biodiesel bus.” The Vancouver event was located at a firefighters union hall, and drew a substantial labor contingent, along with what looked like most of the Democratic candidates and legislators from the area. If four years ago large sectors of the state seemed a little underserved by the Gregoire campaign, the sense was that won’t be true this time around.

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There will be many more, but we do now have some early polling results on what the Obama-Clinton race looks like in Oregon. It isn’t much of a surprise: The assumption here (as broadly elsewhere) has been that Barack Obama probably could count Oregon among his wins.

Of 597 likely voters: “In a Democratic Primary in Oregon today, 04/07/08, six weeks to the 05/20/08 primary, Barack Obama defeats Hillary Clinton 52% to 42%, according to a SurveyUSA poll conducted exclusively for KATU-TV Portland. Obama leads by 30 points among men. Clinton leads by 7 among women. A 37-point Gender Gap. Clinton leads among voters age 65+. Obama leads among voters younger than 65. Among Oregon Democrats focused on the economy, the candidates tie. Obama leads among voters focused on Iraq. Clinton leads, ever so slightly, among voters focused on health care. Clinton trails by 8 in greater Portland, trails by 16 in the rest of Oregon.”

It indicated just 3% undecided.

MORE THOUGHTS on this – especially on the Senate race numbers, noted in comments here too – at Daily Kos, including lots of comments.

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Ellen Craswell, who served 16 years in the Washington legislature and in 1996 ran for governor, got a chance to do something only but a few people do: She tested, on a statewide level, the proposition that her world view could win support statewide.

It didn’t. In that test, the 1996 gubernatorial campaign, she took 42% of the vote to 58% for Democrat Gary Locke. Ever since, her race has stood as a kind of benchmark, and reasonably, because Craswell was totally straight-up about who she was and what she thought. Her message was unalloyed conservatism growing out of conservative Christian beliefs. (Gay rights, in her view, were “special rights for sodomites.”) She did not try to soften or blur the message; it was what it was. And so were the voting results.

She was similarly clear and focused in the legislature, and her path there was hardly easier. Of her six general election results in legislative races, just two (in 1978 ad 1980) marked really strong wins; after that, she took 54% in 1984 (a strong Republican year), and 51.1% in 1988; she lost her last legislative race in 1992 (44.6%). Her message, finally, wasn’t one most voters wanted to sign up with.

But there was never any doubt what it was.

She has maintained a lower profile since, but in a 2005 Seattle Times Magazine interview she said of politics, “We [her husband was highly active too] enjoyed it while we were in it, but now it’s time for another generation to carry the torch. It’s another season in our lives.” She said she had no regrets; the interviewer described her as having “gracious serenity.”

She died Saturday at Poulsbo.

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Jeff Merkley

Jeff Merkley

Steve Novick

Steve Novick

About six months ago, when Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley entered the race for the U.S. Senate, his prospects as an opponent to Republican Senator Gordon Smith were uncertain, which they still are. But he did seem to be the very likely – maybe just short of prohibitive – Democratic nominee. He was one of the top Democratic leaders in the state, a solid campaigner, aligned on issues with most of the state’s Democrats, recruited by national Democrats and with the support of most of the state’s Democratic establishment. No one else running or even thinking about it at that point had ever even been elected to any office.

Today – well, who knows? Last week, when he and his chief Democratic rival, Steve Novick (who is a first-time candidate), debated at the Portland City Club, Novick said in his opening statement that while he’s been accustomed to and even comfortable with his role as an underdog, he’s having a hard time defending that posture now. (Barack Obama said something similar about the time he became a front-runner.) And nobody took particular issue with Novick’s characterization. One veteran Oregon politics watcher has told us he thinks Novick will win.

Right now, we’d characterize this race as too close to call. A whole lot will depend on these candidates’ end games.

And that’s more by way of sense and feel than hard evidence, of which there isn’t a lot.

The campaigns certainly may have internal polling unshared with the rest of us, but what’s out there publicly doesn’t seem very conclusive; we can’t recall seeing any polling matching Merkley and Novick head to head. Mostly what we’ve seen are separate matchups against Smith. Last October SurveyUSA found Smith-Merkley was 48%-39%, and Smith-Novick was 45%-39%. In February, Rasmussen’s matchups had Smith-Merkley at 48%-30% and Smith-Novick at 48%-35%. (Not exactly a lot of gain there for the Democrats overall.) On the basis of that, you could say that Novick’s numbers were a little better than Merkley’s, but any fair-minded statistician would tell you that’d be pushing the point too far. The most you could realistically say is that in those polls the two of them performed comparably.

What we’re sensing more is that the two candidates have leveraged their differing assets to more or less comparable effect.

That’s been more impressive overall on the Novick side, since he’s had fewer traditional assets – less money, less of the Democratic organization and establishment, no electoral track record (or nice title before his name), and so on. But he’s made the most of what he has, and is. Few entrepreneurs would have made such creative (or daring) use of his unusual physical conditions, generating frequent national attention even on Fox News, playing it up in ads (at least one of which was truly inspired), even getting a beer named for him (“Left Hook Lager” – though eventually someone may raise a question about the sales operation). Unknown outside the political arena a year ago, Novick probably is fairly well known around Oregon now – probably better known that Merkley. Like a catchy hit record, he’s given himself a hook, so to speak. (You could say that Merkley doesn’t have one, in that the average Oregonian image of him probably is fuzzier.) But to what extent does that familiarity and even appeal lead to votes? That’s harder to know. But the endorsements he has gotten (more than we’d have expected a few months ago), including one from one of the most popular of Oregon Democrats – former Governor John Kitzhaber – may be of some help there.

He’s benefited from some Merkley campaign stumbles, too, such as the last report of the polling question (for Merkley) which suggested Novick “made a political career out of developing negative attacks, poll-driven campaigns and advising candidates what to say to get elected.” Merkley’s work as speaker during the February session initially seemed like a political plus; it probably turned into a net minus, even if the session was better than some critics argued, and that’s apart from the month-long hole it blew in all-out fundraising (and the bad press for the fundraising he did do).

There’s another indicator: What also seems notable is that both candidates are taking substantial shots at each other. If either had a “we’re positioned to win” comfort level in this race, you’d see one side avoiding or coolly deflecting the shots – but that’s not what’s happening – the mutually exchanged shot quotient seems to be rising, not falling.

At first that looked like a Novick plus, but more recently, at debates at Eugene and last week at Portland, Merkley seemed to be getting better at it. This can be tricky stuff in a race where the candidates agree on policy a lot more than they disagree, but Merkley threaded the needle well in a couple of places Friday. One was his query about Novick’s sharp tongue (Hillary Clinton as a “traitress,” Barack Obama as a “fraud”, albeit both in limited contexts) and whether he could function well in the clubby Senate. Novick’s assurances that he could seemed to run counter to his tough-guy campaigner approach: He could be alternately pouring on the Tabasco, and trying to scrape it off.

Oddly, Merkley scored even better with his seemingly peculiar question about Novick’s fierce critique of the singer Bono, asking why Smith would be a better senator than Bono. Novick didn’t hold back – he got into a full-throated rant against the singer, and (in true Novick style) unstinting on hyberbole, calling him the bigger hypocrite on earth. Merkley played the comeback neatly, with a big, incredulous smile: “The most hypocritical human on the face of the earth?” That drew some laughter from the crowd. The point here, of course, isn’t Bono; it is that alongside the standard issue positions, Novick is an idiosyncratic guy with some very particular ideas and points of view. It makes him a wonderful conversationalist (and shows up how his mind works), but idiosyncrasy isn’t always an asset in politics. And in his rebuttal question, Merkley seemed to seize on how that quality can be used to his advantage.

Merkley is becoming a stronger speaker and debater; Novick has no doubt toughened him. And Merkley retains many assets of his own. His organized network probably is stronger. We don’t have current totals, but his money picture doubtless is considerably better than Novick’s, and the use of it – in TV and other ads and promotions – is just about to come into play. If Novick in fact has been better known in the last couple of months than Merkley, that’s likely to be reversed in the month ahead. And whatever the numbers may say, Novick seems like a more quixotic shot against the polished Gordon Smith (however brilliant his campaigning shots against him may be), as compared to the more established state House speaker, and that could weigh with Democratic voters too.

Add up the columns, and this race falls into a gray area, up for grabs.

After which, as the Oregonian‘s David Sarasohn concluded in his column today: “But whoever wins the May 20 primary will start the next day essentially broke, while Smith will face the morning with at least $8 million.”

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