"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

When Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith ran those TV spots earlier this year invoking the names of Democratic senators he’d worked with, he may not have quite grasped what he’d unleashed. He was clearly trying to attach to the prevailing tide; but ever since, the prevailing tide has been shaking him off. (Democrat Jeff Merkley now seems to have a narrow edge in what’s still a breathtakingly close race.)

Even Ron Wyden, who took Smith to task for his appearance in a Smith TV spot, has shot back from the usage.

Now, maybe most damaging, presidential candidate Barack Obama. This is the first time Obama has appeared personally in a TV spot for a Democratic Senate candidate, and while the fact that the Smith-Merkley race is very close was doubtless a factor, you have to suspect that Smith’s earlier invocation of Obama’s name had a lot to do with it too.

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There are sound enough reasons for opposing Washington’s Initiative 985, the Tim Eyman-backed proposal which would shake up the state’s transportation system. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (one of the majority of papers to endorse against it) summarized that it “invites Washingtonians to encourage red-light running, make the streets more dangerous, demolish a good option on the financing of a new Highway 520 bridge and rob the state of the ability to provide for schools and other general fund responsibilities. This inanity, nastiness and shortsightedness are being presented as a guise to reduce traffic congestion.”

Okay. But you can understand why there’s some sympathy for it out there: Parts of the system are dysfunctional, borderline corrupt, and 985 does at least shine a spotlight on some of them.

This slice from an e-mail send out today by Eyman suggests some of that point:

“Photo Red companies top anti-985 donors” reads the jump on today’s homepage of the Spokesman Review. Over 1/4 of the total money raised from I-985’s opponents ($160,000) has come from a red light camera company: Signal Electric $40,000 so far. “Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions” has donated $10,000 so far.

But their political contributions to the No campaign weren’t business-related; they contributed for altruistic reasons.

As the story notes: “Jerry Vosberg, vice president of Signal Electric, said the company’s $40,000 contribution was not motivated by the potential of lost profit.”

The same selfless reason explains the other contribution: “Josh Weiss, spokesman for American Traffic Solutions, said the company contributed money in solidarity with communities it serves.”

How admirable. Note the rhetoric from these companies matches what we hear from politicians: it’s not about the money, it’s all for the “greater good.”

Just because these companies profit millions of dollars every year from these cameras, that’s not why they’re in business. Just because cities profit millions of dollars every year from these cameras, that’s not why they’re putting them up. Just because EVERY camera contract has a provision that allows the company to move the cameras to a different intersection if revenue isn’t being maximized, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong, it’s not about the money.

I-985 removes the profit motive for photo red light cameras and photo speeding cameras. As a result, we read comments like this from Wenatchee’s mayor: “(Mayor Dennis) Johnson said the city’s incentive to install cameras is gone if I-985 passes.” Oops, looks like the ‘no’ campaign hadn’t distributed its talking points in time for that Wenatchee World story.

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Got an election e-mail from the Bill Sali congressional campaign that looked, and mostly was, a totally normal such missive: An endorsement from a fellow Republican in the Idaho congressional delegation, Mike Crapo.

The endorsement as such (of one party member by another) is standard. Till this line, midway down: “Bill’s opponents are trying to put him in a negative light, but let’s face facts: Bill is Serving Idaho well.”

Let’s face facts? That’s what you normally say when either (a) the facts are really ugly and unpleasant, like a Wall Street meltdown, or (b) when the reality isn’t something very widely believed. Which is it in this case?

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The general election is a week and a half out and many of its eventual results are yet unclear. But we can begin to see some of the outline of post-election Idaho, and it is likely to be different political place.

That’s likely to be true whatever happens in the unfolding contests at least somewhat up for grabs – U.S. House (in the first district), U.S. Senate. When the votes are tallied a week from Wednesday, even if a Walt Minnick or a Larry La Rocco do manage a win (possible albeit difficult), Idaho will remain a very Republican place. All of the state officials (none up for election this year) will remain Republican. The legislature will stay overwhelmingly Republican – there seems little prospect that more than very few seats of the 105 will change parties. (If more than are countable on the fingers of one hand actually do, that could mark a truly massive and rare national wave akin to 1932.) Most of the courthouses will be little changed.

Two highly significant changes, setting a stage for ongoing development of Idaho politics, could develop out of this election, though. And over the next few election cycles, there’s a real chance they could change the state in big ways.

One, maybe the lesser, is consolidation of Democratic support in Ada County.

This is not a given. The 2006 election, and the mayoral election the year before, revealed clear Democratic majorities in the city of Boise, substantial enough to seriously challenge the age-old Republican dominance of Ada County. Of course, we can’t yet know whether that will in hindsight look like high water, with some retreat this year. But we will have a good handle on that a week from Tuesday.

Our speculation, though, is that this year’s election is more likely to lock in a growing Democratic presence in Ada County – the state’s top population center – with the prospect that it could become dominant and expand to nearby counties. There’ll be at least three clear indicators of whether that’s happening.

First, look at whether Democrat Barack Obama is able to win Ada County. In the last two general elections, Democratic presidential nominees won only one county in Idaho – Blaine. Ada County went to George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 with 61% of the vote each time. And yet . . . there’s serious speculation Obama might be able to take Ada this time as well (and maybe Latah or Shoshone?), and if he does, that would be a big indicator. (Don’t take this, of course, as a suggestion that Obama is anywhere near winning Idaho overall.)

Second, watch to see whether Democrats can hold on to all or nearly all of their Boise legislative seats. (They’re unlikely to expand into the suburbs, at least this cycle.)

Third, watch the Ada County Commission race of David Langhorst, the Democratic state senator who left a safe legislative seat to run countywide against a Republican incumbent. He may win, and if he does, Democrats will have a majority on the county commission – not unprecedented entirely, but certainly a rarity.

If those three things happen – and all are distinctly possible – Ada County is turning, and Democrats may find they have an actual significant voter base to work with in the years ahead.

The other big area of change could involve the ongoing structure and focus of the Idaho Republican Party.

There have been times in modern history when Idaho Republicans have been fractured, most notably (in very recent times) in the mid-to-late 80s up to 1990. After big losses in 1990, Idaho Republicans (with no small assist from then-Chair Phil Batt) came together and minimized internal conflict. They talked (to oversimplify) about Reagan-style conservatism and generally encouraged a broad buy-in of that. To the right of the country, but it worked to develop a solid working majority in the Gem State.

In part owing to their success, that unity has begun to unravel in the last few years. You could see it most clearly in the 2006 1st district Republican primary election, as bitter a primary as Idaho has seen in a long time. You saw it again in the battle this year over control of the party structure.

All of that may be just prelude to what’s coming next.

If John McCain loses, decisively, his run for the presidency – as looks the case – and Idaho becomes a political minority within the country, the Republicans in charge in Idaho will have some difficult decisions to make: How do they respond? They could simply bunker in and decide Idaho is going to be something other than what America is; but if Democrats are able to solidify their gains in Ada County, they will be observing a long-fused time bomb in their midst if they don’t respond in the right way.

(A quote from a new New Yorker online piece: “Everything that worked for forty years has suddenly not just stopped working, it has become self-defeating. Republican candidates, strategists, and pundits are like witchdoctors who keep repeating the old incantations over and over, their voices rising in furious shock, to no effect. That’s the sound of an era ending.”)

The guess here is that there will be two responses, growing out of the current factioning in the party and maybe exemplified by two national figures, both highly plausible candidates for the presidency in 2012, and both popular among Idaho Republicans. But not necessarily equally popular among all Idaho Republicans.

One will be Mitt Romney – so call that side of the equation the Romney Republicans. They are more Main Street, business oriented, pragmatic (in the sense of being not especially ideological) and more wedded to the party than to the “cause,” relatively willing to compromise (at least to a point). You can imagine elected officials like Jim Risch, Mike Simpson and Mike Crapo being good examples of this group.

The other group, of course, would be those inspired by Alaska Governor Sarah Palin – social conservatives, highly ideological, more interested in the cause than in the party. The most obvious well-known example, presumably, would be Representative Bill Sali.

What’s easy to imagine now is Idaho Republicans naturally dividing into Romney and Palin Republicans, with the divisions that hit the party structure earlier this year starting to manifest in primary and other contests. You can also imagine the whole structure of Idaho politics starting to shift if, in years ahead, that development smacks against a growing urban Democratic base. (What happens after that could be hard to easily foresee.)

So watch closely on election day. You just may see the early signs of thaw in Idaho’s long political deep freeze.

(We’ll revisit some of these thoughts shortly after the election results are in . . .)

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The Wood River Journal, the weekly newspaper at Hailey, is ending publication effective today. Its assets (including its archives) have been sold to its long-time rival at Ketchum, the Idaho Mountain Express.

Call this one a little surprise, and a really short term in newspaper ownership. The Post Company (publisher of the Idaho Falls Post-Register) bought the Journal in April; the in-state ownership sounded at the time like a new life lease for the Hailey paper.

The Journal (and predecessors) had published for 127 years. From one of its last articles:

Faced with a deteriorating economy and falling real estate market, the Journal’s owners have reluctantly concluded the Valley cannot support two newspapers. The assets of the Journal have been sold to the Idaho Mountain Express.

“We are deeply saddened by this,” said publisher Jerry Brady, president of the Journal and Post Company, which has been managing the newspaper since May 1. “All of us who tried to save the Journal and its long tradition gave it our best shot. However time and capital ran out on us. Sale to the Express was the best course open at this time.”

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Two weeks from now we’ll have a much clearer idea of how well the various pollsters did, which will be notable in some races. In the case of the Idaho 1st House District, where Republican incumbent Bill Sali is being pressed by Democrat Walt Minnick, polls are all over the place.

But one out today in that race, from SurveyUSA, has some especially interesting crosstab information – if it pans out. (The poll was conducted last weekend; 4-point margin of error). From the descriptive sheet:

For Sali, the problems are acute, and assailing him from several directions, with the numbers suggesting that the freshman Congressman is his own worst enemy.

Despite the fact that Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) led Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in Idaho’s 1st district, 57 percent to 37 percent, Sali not only trailed Minnick in the horse race, his net favorable rating was the same as Obama’s: minus-14. The survey found Sali’s favorable/unfavorable rating to be 33 percent/47 percent, and revealed Obama’s to be 37 percent/51 percent.

Conversely, Minnick’s net favorable rating was a solid plus-22 — the same as McCain’s. The poll showed Minnick’s favorable/unfavorable rating to be 45 percent/ 23 percent, and McCain’s to be 53 percent/ 31 percent.

Furthering the narrative that Minnick’s position in the lead might be more a function of Sali’s negatives than the Republican Party’s problems nationally, the GOP was still seen as “best equipped to handle the economy” in this poll by a margin of 54 percent to 37 percent.

Among the survey’s additional findings: Bush’s approval rating in the district was 35 percent, with 56 percent disapproving; Congress’ approval rating is an abysmal 9 percent, with 78 disapproving — the lowest in any poll conducted for Roll Call this year.

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Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin

We raised the question a while back having to do with vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin‘s main link to Idaho, her time at North Idaho College and the University of Idaho. The question concerned her frequent changes of venue during her college years, involving thoe institutions and others in Alaska and Hawaii.

A piece in the Los Angeles Times today, looking into Palin’s college years, clears up some of that, and some more; it’s a good read for anyone interested in the connection. It isn’t especially either positive or negative, but it does fill in some curious gaps.

Her near-invisibility at the University of Idaho does remain a curiosity, though. Turns out that Jim Fisher, now editorial page editor at the Lewiston Tribune, once taught her in a 15-student upper-level class, but doesn’t recall her at all. Neither does her academic advisor at UI.

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Finally, here’s the picture in Washington state, where as in Oregon the presidential is in no serious doubt, but the next top race – for governor – is genuinely close.

For governor (there being no U.S. Senate race in Washington this year):

And the closest U.S. House race, in District 8, with limited polling but an intriguing trend line:

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The presidential race in Oregon seems to be a progressively foregone conclusion, but that Senate race – albeit with a blue tilt – is absolutely a popcorn watch.

Now the more exciting Senate battle:

As in Idaho, there’s not really enough data for a solid chart in the one hot U.S house race (in district 5).

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At the Atlantic blog run by Andrew Sullivan, you periodically see posted Pollster.com composites of polling information, showing trend and status. These are usually noted under the heading, “reality check.”

Seems about right. And at two weeks out from election day, seems a fair time to run them out for the Northwest. Major races in Idaho first.

Senate race:

There is a chart for the first U.S. House district race, but the polling it represents is thin for compilation purposes.

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Got an e-mail on Thursday from friends in Kitsap County, where they just voted by mail: “What a great day!” They noted their presidential choice – which in Washington state seems not much in doubt – but not their gubernatorial. And that one is in some doubt.

It will not be as close as the last one, in 2004. 133-vote margins just never happen, except maybe once. We should have a pretty clear idea on election night, or the morning after at least, who will be governor the next four years. But, while we continue to suspect that Democratic Governor Chris Gregoire will narrowly outpace Republican challenger Dino Rossi, it’s not likely to be by much. This isn’t likely to be an early-evening call.

What with ballots out and cast, the newspaper endorsement picture in Washington is wrapped up now.

Gregoire’s corner includes the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Tacoma News Tribune, the Spokane Spokesman-Review (just today), the Vancouver Columbian, the Portland Oregonian, the Everett Herald (today), the Kitsap Sun (today), the Bellingham Herald (today) and the Mount Vernon Skagit Valley Herald. The Tacoma, Everett and Spokane papers are reversals from four years ago, when they backed Rossi.

Rossi got backing from the Seattle Times (today), the Tri-City Herald, the Yakima Herald-Republic and the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. The endorsements at the Tri-Cities and Walla Walla are reversals reversal from 2004, when those papers endorsed Gregoire.

The Rossi endorsements generally focused on the budget, noting that Gregoire has increased spending just ahead of dark money days. (The Gregoire arguments tend to be a little more broadly-based.) The Tri-Cities argument, though, is so specific it merits a review here:

And as much as we admire and respect Gregoire — and even understand to some extent why west-side politics may have constrained her giving meaningful support to the Areva project — our first loyalty is to the Tri-Cities, which remains bitterly disappointed over this loss.

Areva represented the possibility of adding a $2 billion uranium enrichment facility and 400 high-paying jobs to the Tri-Cities but is gone now for good.

But instead of growing our nuclear future, we’re worried about Richland losing its existing fuel fabrication plant and its 600 good jobs.

When upgrades are needed in Richland, will Areva spend the money here or just build a plant next to its new uranium enrichment facility in Idaho?

The fact is the Herald’s gubernatorial endorsement probably was Gregoire’s to lose, and lose it she did.

Areva probably will cost her votes in the Tri-Cities, though it may draw a blank elsewhere.

In all of this, you get some feeling of closeness. There’ a little endorsement movement toward Gregoire, but it’s not everwhelming. This thing is tight.

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The Idaho Statesman becomes the first Idaho paper to endorse for president (so far as we’ve seen – if you’ve seen any to the contrary let us know). And in a state that will go for Republican John McCain, but in a city that probably will go for Democrat Barack Obama, it went for Obama.

Highly notable (and useful) was this line toward the end of the end of the editorial: “In what, by comparison, pass for measured moments, McCain and Palin simply insinuate that the Democratic ticket is out of touch and elitist. It’s not only a bogus claim – given Obama’s and Biden’s backgrounds – but it’s a silly form of reverse snobbery. Our nation has to stop equating intellect with elitism and viewing intelligence with scorn and skepticism. Considering the problems at hand, there is no better time than now to change our thinking.”

Some lowest-common-denominatorism is to be expected in political campaigns, but at least we should aspire to better.

Side note: Does this mean Republican Jim Risch will get the nod for U.S. Senate? (See: Oregon, endorsements . . .)

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