Writings and observations

Walt Minnick

Walt Minnick

There is no lack of Idaho voters who would enthusiastically agree with the quote attributed to Washington conservative Grover Norquist, that he wanted to shrink government “to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” That’s just the kind of approach – you can check it in the rhetoric – that so many Idaho Republicans have been running with, to great electoral success, for so many years.

The measure of Walt Minnick‘s success – as the first Idaho Democrat to win congressional seat in 16 years – may be the degree to which he blunts the force of that attitude. Not so much by rhetoric, as by virtue of example.

“In terms of constituent service and instilling an ability to represent people in the district that are dealing with our government, I’m going to do everything I can to be the best there is,” he said in an interview this morning. Which may sound like a normal statement of good intentions from a newly-elected, except that in this case there may be more to it.

To put a point on it . . . All members of Congress do constituent service and run field offices and staffs; the Republican incumbent Minnick defeated, Bill Sali, did. And, “I certainly share the philosophy that a smaller government, a less intrusive government, is in everyone’s best interest,” he said. However – and this is where Idaho Republicans less often go: “You deal with the government as you find it. I don’t think describing it in pejorative terms is likely to induce cooperation. We will work the system we find as effectively as possible.” And, “I’ve always [found] in my experience, if you treat people well,” those people will tend to be more helpful. “If people want to help you in the dept of transportation or the Social Security Administration, they will work late they will go talk to their bosses, they’ll try to find interpretation of rules that allow them to tell you yes. It’s no different from a corporate or other organization, or local government organization.”

Minnick gives you the sense that this is how he’ll approach a lot of the job: Cooperation whenever possible, use of relationships (he knows personally people on the Obama transition crew, for example) and much less often any sharp edges. (You can imagine without much stretch that he and Representative Mike Simpson, who has devoted a lot of effort to building relationships all over the House, may find expansive grounds for cooperation.) Given the opportunity to take a shot at Sali or other Republicans, he declined (somewhat like Barack Obama since election day). In terms of personality and approach, Minnick probably will be hard for the opposition to demonize.

There is a more partisan aspect to Minnick’s win: He is about to become the de facto head of the Idaho Democratic party, as the top-ranking elected Democrat in the state, the highest-ranking since January 1995. And that will be a challenge, because his election was one of the few bright spots for Idaho Democrats last week; put his race to the side, and Democrats overall lost ground in Idaho. “It was a difficult night for Democrats,” he said. “There was more disappointment than applause.”

Minnick offered two factors for his win. First, “I was able to honestly convince a lot of people, regardless of their party, that I would be a more effective problem solver . . . A lot of people were fed up with Washington and fed up with gridlock and excessive partisanship, and saw in me a person more likely to be effective.” And second, “We ran a pretty professional campaign … strategically and tactically, at every level, we ran a campaign that was thoroughly professional, adequately staffed, and we were able to properly fund it.”

Our take is that, while Minnick’s campaign certainly was as solid as he describes it, that probably was the lesser factor. Idaho has had 24 congressional contests since the last year before this (1992) when a Democrat won one, and that Democrat was back on the ballot (for the Senate) this year and worked exceptionally hard. Not all but some of those Democratic campaigns over the years have been well-run; Minnick’s was one of the best, but others felt like winning-caliber campaigns too.

The other factor feels more directly applicable, because Sali very much conveyed the feel of a partisan warrior, and Minnick very much didn’t: Their personal styles and their messages reinforced in a really resonant way. That seemed all the more true the more people were exposed to both of them, as especially in Ada County, where both candidates lived and focused much of the campaign. In Ada, Minnick outran other Democrats generally (Obama included) and picked up most of his district-wide vote margin.

This has some pertinence to the future, to 2010. Already last week, some Republicans had started circling, figuring that Minnick won only because Sali had his own political weaknesses (some of them within his own parties). But they sounded exactly like the Republicans in 1984 circling the newly-elected Democratic congressman in the 2nd district, Richard Stallings, who had just narrowly defeated a Republican newly convicted of four felonies. Stallings, they figured, was a one-termer.

He wasn’t – went on to three strong re-elect wins – in large part because he paid close attention to constituent service, hired his staff carefully and got along with people. Constituents picked up on the point that he and his staff did solid work, and kept them in office to do it, party label notwithstanding.

A lot, in other words, like Walt Minnick sounds as if he is positioning himself to do.

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Note: Today we’re launching what we expect to be regular – as regular as we can make it – feature here, outlining what the region’s newspapers see as the top news, then running through some of the best read we encountered during the day, from news organizations and wherever else. Let us know what you think.

FRONTED Moving beyond the election, while looking ahead to Obama Administration decisions and options (see the Spokesman Review front page), many of the papers reflect on whither Republicans now (the Oregonian, the Seattle Times in Washington) . . . The Idaho Statesman previews Veterans Day . . . a string of bankruptcy and diminished economy stories . . . overall, more light and feature oriented (Olympian, Kitsap) than just before the election …

RECOMMENDED

1Sharp reflections on how the very close and very high-profile (regionally) election for mayor of Eugene says a lot about a city more closely divided than many – those who mistakenly buy the granola stereotypes – typically realize. In the Register-Guard.

2A birds-eye view of the bankruptcy picture in the region (especially but not limited to the Inland Empire) at the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

3Reactions on Washington’s new death with dignity law, with some insight into how the skeptics in the medical community plan to deal with it (there are opt-out provisions) in the Tacoma News Tribune.

4At the Lewiston Tribune, an apparently technical piece (see via newseum) by Kathy Hedberg on no- or low-tillage farming, but with broader implications for the farm and rural economy.

5David Reinhard‘s going-away column at the Oregonian, in the middle of which he tells a good story on himself.

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Northwest

You can slice the vote from Tuesday in all sorts of ways. One is the way Bryan Fischer, the evangelical activist in Idaho, does: In the presidential contest, 75% of evangelicals nationally (according, we’d guess, to exit polls) voted for Republican John McCain and 25% for Democrat Barack Obama. An interesting stat. (Fischer’s takeaway is that those 25% of evangelicals need to get with the program; that and, we need more evangelicals. Fischer: “Bottom line: if we want to salvage the future of this country, all we need are more evangelicals.”)

Elsewhere, the magazine Christianity Today has mapped the evangelical vote around the country by state, and come up with some results to chew on.

The estimate is that in Washington state, 24% of the vote was evangelical, and it split 64% for McCain and 32% for Obama.

In Oregon, the slice was 27%, and McCain got 66% of it, to Obama’s 31%. Very similar to Washington’s.

Idaho was a little different: 33% evangelical, with 80% going to McCain and 18% for Obama. More striking, in other words, than the larger number of evangelicals voting, was the overwhelming degree – compared to Washington and Oregon – they voted for McCain.

By way of orientation: In Alabama, the 46% evangelical vote went 88% for McCain; in Oklahoma, the 52% of the vote that was evangelical went 77% for McCain.

Washington and Oregon evangelicals, overall, were less overwhelmingly Republican than in many other states.

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purple presidential

Purple presidential vote/UMich

The world is suddenly full of political maps, some of them cleverly done, showing the results of the presidential race in reds and blues. Not many of them take into account the purples.

After all, as some cartographers at the University of Michigan point out in showing off their purple maps, there are no purely red or blue counties in the United States – someone in all (or nearly all) of them is still voting for the minority party. And in quite a few cases, the margins are pretty thin.

So this map, cropped (to reflect only Washington, Oregon and Idaho) from one developed at the University of Michigan, may be a little more enlightening than most. it was drawn from results in the presidential contest only, so that’s the sole comparison, but it still seems useful. The brightest reds (as in Madison and Franklin counties in Idaho) are the most Republican, and the brightest blues (like King County in Washington and Multnomah in Oregon) are the most Democratic.

(Hat tip to the reader who pointed out the UMich map section.)

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There’ll be a big change in the representative Idaho’s 1st House district gets the next couple of years – a soft-spoken pragmatist. Democrat Walt Minnick, replacing an ideologue prone to controversy and conflict, Republican Bill Sali. In personality, Minnick is a lot closer in style to the new senior senator, Mike Crapo, than Sali is. In policy, Minnick is doubtless well aware that he can go only but so far, and may well take advice from Crapo (and probably from some Democrats too) that he join the Blue Dogs.

Minnick will of course be immediately targeted by any number of Idaho Republicans, and the 2010 Republican primary for the 1st might even be as crowded as the jam-packed ’06. Point A here might be that, we all saw what emerged from that one, so caution in making predictions is warranted. Point B would be that – the closeness of Tuesday’s result and the difficulty Republicans have had in winning this seat (just four years in the previous 40) notwithstanding – any anticipation Minnick will be a pushover would be misplaced. When Democrat Richard Stallings defeated Republican incumbent George Hansen in 1984 (just after Hansen’s felony convictions), a long line of Idaho Republicans figured he’d be easy pickings in 1986. Stallings went on to win that year decisively, and twice more after that in landslides. Could as easily be that Minnick is in this seat for a spell.

All sorts of analysis suggests itself coming out of this win – which we had considered possible but somewhat short of likely – but the most immediate seems to be this: What in the 1st district changed, just enough, to allow Minnick a win?

map of 1st district

Start with the fact that this was a close win, 50.6% in a two-man race. When Minnick writes in his post-election email about going to a fitful sleep on election night, not whether he’d win or lose, that makes sense. There could have been no certain way of knowing until the mid-morning hours arrived. A few things had changed, just enough, to allow for it.

There were more votes in the 2008 race than in 2006, but that’s normal since presidential years always poll higher. This is a case where percentages illuminate a little more.

The 2006 race included two independents, but when you calculate Sali only against Democrat Larry Grant, Sali prevailed with 52.7%. The difference between then and this year could be reasonably seen as the difference of 2.1%. Reflecting that, you find that while Minnick’s percentage was better than Grant’s in five counties – Ada, Benewah, Bonner, Kootenai and Washington – it actually fell in four: Clearwater, Latah, Lewis, Nez Perce. Minnick’s ’10 campaign strategist may want to take note: There could be some room for gain in North Central Idaho, picking up on some of the percentages there that Grant got.

So where did Minnick pick up the extra votes to push past Grant? Mainly in three counties.

Sali won Ada County by about 3,000 votes two years ago, and lost it by about 5,000 this time. The 1st district doesn’t include a lot of Boise, which has been trending blue, but maybe enough of it to help make some of that difference. That Ada County swing was the biggest factor boosting Minnick, all by itself enough to offset any losses in the North Central and much else besides.

The other two key counties adjoin in the Panhandle, Kootenai and Bonner. Minnick lost Kootenai, but only narrowly, by a little over 700 votes out of more than 60,000 cast; in 2006, Minnick lost by almost 4,000 – a major difference, roughly equating Minnick’s winning margin. The difference in Bonner, which Sali narrowly won but Minnick decisively won, was nearly as significant. This turned out to be one of those years, apparently, when the Kootenai-Bonner area was feeling a little less conservative than it sometimes does.

None of this should be pushed too far. Look at the legislative and county races and you don’t see a lot of difference between 2006 and this year; if anything, the Republican margins overall were tighter two years ago. Minnick-Sali did not fit into the pattern easily. It stood apart from it.

So strategic lesson two might be this: The larger population centers might be more amenable to Minnick than some of the smaller ones. (He did better than Grant, by a couple of points, in big-population Canyon County too.) Could it be that, over time, Sali wore less well in the larger centers than in the smaller ones? Maybe. Could be that the reverse is true.

There’s a lot more to say about this fascinating race, and what’s to come. We’ll be back with more soon.

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Votes are counted till they’re counted, which is making frustrating the slow count at Multnomah County. In the balance: A close U.S. Senate race, in which Republican incumbent Gordon Smith at present holds a narrow lead over Democrat Jeff Merkley.

If we’re reading the count of vote not-yet-counted correctly, however, not all but the bulk of the remaining ballots still out are from Multnomah, where Merkley has been winning at a clip of 66.5%. If our back-of-envelope math is somewhere around right, that would suggest a Merkley win of somewhere are 20-30,000, and maybe a little higher.

There’s a reason no one has conceded or claimed victory in this one yet (time at this writing: 12:07 p.m. Wednesday). But we may know soon.

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Oregon

Walt Minnick
Walt Minnick

In this election, one of the most remarkable results in the northwest is this: Walt Minnick won.

It is a narrow win, and by many standards it shouldn’t have been especially notable. Minnick was a good candidate, smart and personable, had run statewide before (in 1996 for the Senate) and learned from the experience, and his campaign was first-rate. Sali was regarded even by many Republicans as a not very strong legislator, and phrases like “brain fade” and “absolute idiot” have permeated. Sali’s campaign has been in debt, was underfunded compared to Minnick’s, and until the last few weeks seemed sluggish and low key.

And these all seem to be key factors, because Minnick’s win wasn’t like that of many other Democrats around the country: It’s wasn’t atmospheric, not part of the rolling Obama thunder. That’s simple to say because Minnick’s campaign stands out in Idaho as virtually the only thing to change in partisan politics in the state from two, four, six, eight, 10 years ago.

The Idaho Senate race took on numbers typical of that era – 58% Republican (Jim Risch), 34% Democratic (Larry La Rocco, despite running almost astonishingly hard and over so many months). 2nd District Representative Mike Simpson pulled 71%, about his normal number – no diminishing this year. Legislative numbers didn’t budge; some Republicans who seemed endangered last time (like state Senators John Goedde, Joe Stegner and Lee Heinrich) cruised this time. Ada County Democrats did succeed – and it was a real success, in the face of determined Republican pushback – in holding on to the brace of legislative seats they won in 2006, a sign Boise is digging in as a blue city. But instead of winning a majority on the Ada County Commission, they lost what might have been their landmark race (with Democrat David Langhorst) and on top of that lost their incumbent Democratic commissioner (Paul Woods).

That’s why Minnick’s win is so remarkable. Narrow as it was, just over 3,000 votes over Sali, it stood in sharp relief to everything else in Idaho. And not only that, everything else for a period of years – it’s been exactly a decade since the last major Republican official in Idaho lost to a Democrat (that would be Superintendent of Public Instruction Anne Fox, who lost to Marilyn Howard). Republican incumbent losses just don’t happen in Idaho.

But it did this time. It’s only the slimmest tint of purple, but all of a sudden Idaho is no longer pure blue.

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Chris Gregoire
Chris Gregoire

Four years ago of Washington’s 39 counties just eight – Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Jefferson, King, Pacific, San Juan, Thurston, Whatcom – voted for Democrat Chris Gregoire for governor over Republican Dino Rossi. That race, as we all known, was a breathtaking photofinish.

This year’s contest has the same two candidates but a different roster of counties, at least according to the partial results at the secretary of state’s web site. The new rundown of Gregoire counties, as of today, is: Whatcom, Skagit, San Juan, Island, Snohomish, King, Pierce, Thurston, Kitsap, Mason, Clallam, Jefferson, Grays Harbor, Pacific, Clark and one actually on the east side of the Cascades, Spokane – 16 counties, twice as many.

The race was, and is, still fairly close at 53.5% Gregoire to 46.5% Rossi – the lead was narrower early in the evening and not easily callable until about now (and this is posted about 1 a.m. Wednesday). But it’s not as close as last time, and there really can’t be any notion that funny business in the King County elections office decided it.

Eric Ealing at Sound Politics remarked of it, “Before I even got to that one, I saw Obama over 60% in the county. That’s a very bad sign. It shows a tide to severe to swim against. Outperforming the national ticket by nearly 7% in that big batch of votes is very good. The starting point, however, is very tough to overcome.” And all that was a major factor, no doubt.

But so were other considerations. Gregoire has been a fairly effective governor. She campaigned harder and more effectively this time than last. Rossi had the advantage, last time, of being a fresh, new figure; this time, as good as he was as a campaigner (and he was good), he was still the guy who lost last time. Not his fault, but there it is.

Yet to see: Finals in the state’s other great grudge match of the year, in House District 8 . . .

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Idaho look unaffected, remarkably unaffected, by the national sweep of this year’s election. Overwhelmingly, the results – incomplete so far, we should note, with only about half of the precincts reporting – look a whole lot like they have two years ago. And four. And six, And eight. And 10 . . .

Based on results as we have them now (not likely to change enormously), the Democratic presidential candidate this year doubled his harvest of Idaho counties compared to the last two elections – from one (Blaine) to two (adding Latah). The totals in Ada County in the presidential are close, but John McCain likely will claim it, narrowly. The U.S. Senate race was a runaway for Republican Jim Risch – he drew the standard-issue Idaho Republican vote percentages.

The incomplete numbers (again, subject to change) show Democrats retaining all of their Ada County legislative gains from two years ago, and their seat in Idaho Falls but failing to win a second seat on the Ada County Commission. A holding action, no more, no less.

Except, maybe, in the 1st U.S. House district . . .

We won’t know much more for a while other than that, like the Senate race in Oregon and the governor’s race in Washington, this thing looks dang close. Democrat Walt Minnick holds a really close lead of 78,911 to Republican incumbent Bill Sali‘s 77,021 – less than 2,000 between them, with a whole lot of precincts out. Some are in Latah County, and those should help Minnick; some are in Canyon County, which should help Sali.

No predictions on this yet. Too close to call till the morningtime.

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Kurt Schrader
Kurt Schrader

There’s really no surprise in the word that Democrat Kurt Schrader is running away with the 5th district U.S. House seat – this a district that, even two years ago, had a very gentle Republican lean and four years ago voted for George W. Bush. (If our scratch math is right, Obama won it comfortably this time.)

What probably should be most immediately noted here is that Schrader didn’t just defeat rerun Republican candidate Mike Erickson decisively (59%-36% with about half the vote in), but also in every county, all seven of them. Polk County was fairly close at least; the race was runaway everywhere else. It’s a suggestion that Representative Kurt Schrader may hold this seat as effectively as Darlene Hooley has for the last decade.

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