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Independence and external influence

In most places around this country, the political facts as they now line up in Idaho’s 1st district would mean highly probable catastrophe for Republican incumbent Bill Sali. Here we have a Republican incumbent massively behind in the campaign finance race, rarely a positive sign. (By one analysis, only three House races in the country put an incumbent at a greater financial disadvantage.) The Democratic nominee, Walt Minnick, has been running an energetic and (from all we’ve seen) a capable and visible campaign, on top of that ace fundraising. Sali recently has delivered himself of sundry quotes and votes (timber funds and Madicare among others) that offer great material for the opposition. And this is, again, about as strong a year for Democrats as this nation has seen in a generation.

As matters sit, though, we still think Sali has the odds. The reasons have to do not with the candidates or the campaigns, but with the voters.

You can get some of this from a post by Dennis Mansfield, himself (in 2000) a former candidate for the Republican nomination in the 1st district. Writing in part about the announcement of a planned $350,000 ad buy in support of Minnick by national Democrats, Mansfield had some thoughts:

. . . many, many Idahoans love that certain “Helen Chenoweth/Bill Sali” quality in their Congressman. These folks are fighters and Idahoans who vote, completely enjoy that. No offense to Larry Grant but he didn’t capture that spirit, even though he was a gentleman and refused the DC “stuff”. He lost because he was Larry Grant…and because he had failed to bottle that “Chenoweth/Sali” scent…ultimately ’cause he didn’t have it to bottle.

Now, Walt Minnick is running. Those who read this blog know that I respect the daylights out of Walt. He’s no lefty-liberal “wacko” (as Limbaugh so disrespectfully puts it)…he’s a good man, potentially swimming in some turbulent political white-water.

The problem is that the DCC (and the RCC, too) swoop into Iowa, er Ohio, ugh I mean Idaho (yeah that’s it) and simply cause unbelievable (and unneeded) tension, disrespect and dishonor. They don’t know how our rivers flow…

We’d agree with the Idaho Statesman‘s Kevin Richert that “the Democrats’ money does come with the risk of a backlash.” But let’s drill down a bit.

In thinking about this, rewind to last cycle, when Bill Sali was virtually underwritten, and in very big way (and very visibly), by the Club for Growth, a D.C.-based conservative group whose money went a long way toward seeing Sali through a tough primary and a tough general election – and which, though its out of state activities were widely reported, seemed to do him no harm. (The Club seems to be a lot less active in Sali’s race this time around.) The Club doesn’t sue kid gloves in its efforts, certainly no less than the national Democrats do; and they’re unlikely to be any more familiar with “how our rivers flow.”

So Mansfield’s conclusion that “Bill Sali will not lose this race, because Idahoans will not let the national guys win,” seems a little lacking, if only for this: Whoever wins in Sali-Minnick, some of the national guys have won, and some other national guys have lost. Realistically, the race doesn’t pit some national interest against some local interest; both Sali and Minnick are supporters of separate and different national interests.

You can square the circle, though, if (and only if) you adopt this premise: The national powers that be are all Democrats; the Republicans are not, haven’t been and won’t be in power. That requires you to bypass among other things a Congress controlled by Republicans from 1995 until last year, a White House controlled by Republicans since 2001 and a judiciary which has been moving much more in the conservative direction over the last decade. But ask Idahoans who are the powers that be and who are rebelling against them . . . well, Mansfield’s “Idahoans will not let the national guys win” works for Republicans because President George Bush and the till-last-year congressional leadership weren’t “national guys.” Somehow. But we’d suggest that just this is part of the mindset of a whole lot of the people who form Idaho’s electoral majority.

And if your preference is that “Chenoweth/Sali quality” – and there’s no denying it has sold consistently in the 1st – then part of your thinking has to be that your representative is there simply to raise hell, not to rack up accomplishments, because the very idea of practical accomplishment by a member of Congress is a ridiculous notion on its face. (Wander around the Northwest and you’ll see very different notions, in the various districts, about what members of Congress are supposed to do back there.) Which play into the whole matter of who has the real power, and who doesn’t.

Read Mansfield’s take on this closely, and you’ll get into part of the reason Sali is stronger than many conventional campaign metrics would have him be.

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