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Ward’s emergence in the Idaho 1st

Vaughn Ward

Vaughn Ward

Campaign finance reports from the Northwest for the cycle ending September 30 showed mostly the expected. The two Democratic incumbent senators in Washington and Oregon have big mega-million warchests, and no one in their states comes close. The House incumbents are all raising substantial money, which for present purposes we’ll define as six figures or more. Only three House challengers have. We’ll return before long to two of them (Democrat Suzan DelBene in the Washington 8th, and Republican Robert Cornilles in the Oregon 1st).

The most interesting of them for now may be the third: Republican Vaughn Ward, running in the Idaho 1st congressional district. Unlike the other two, he has in-party opposition that facially should be running in front, but now clearly isn’t. The numbers run this way: Incumbent Democrat Walt Minnick has raised $885,842 (a very solid amount) and has on hand $642,322; Ward has raised $242,875 (with $178,533 on hand); and fellow Republican Ken Roberts has raised $62,020 with $41,660 on hand. Among northwest challengers, Ward has been outraised only by DelBene, who so far has self-funded 59% of her warchest.

By traditional measures, Roberts, who is in state House leadership and has endorsement from much of the House Republican caucus and a big swath of Republican leadership, ought to be top contender, or at least the lead money-raiser: He would seem to be the inside establishment candidate, if just by virtue of his statehouse linkages. But Ward seems to be on the verge of swamping him, and the dollars are only one indicator of that. A range of politically-active Idahoans (across parties) we’ve talked with recently say that Ward is pulling ahead.

That may be a national conclusion as well. In the last few days Ward was in Washington and reports picking up an endorsement from Representative Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, the House Republican whip. National endorsements like that, while a competitive primary is still going on, are not unheard of (see the Democrats and the Oregon race for the Senate in 2007) but are unusual, and could open quite a few financial doors.

I spoke with Wardthis morning, and some of the reasons for that fell into focus. They also suggest how great is the challenge Minnick will face next year – which is to say, large.

An early guess about Ward, who has never run for office before and is on the younger side (age 40 at present), might be that he’d have a steep learning curve as a candidate, in developing a clear message, self-description, presentation and so forth. But whatever curve there was, is largely past: He is clear, concise, polished, confident (just short of cocky), well aware of his audiences and how to address them, with some sophistication in shaping and framing messages. As a candidate, he reminds in some ways of former Senator Steve Symms (who had excellent campaign skills), but drawing on a broader background.

He seems to have an effective handle on telling his life story (growing up in a low-income one-parent house, moving on to military, combat in Iraq, CIA experience and staff work on Capitol Hill for then-Senator Dirk Kempthorne). His core message doesn’t stray from the Republican line (less government, lower taxes, etc.) but he has more to add to it. His take on Afghanistan, for example, essentially backs that of General Stanley McChrystal, with some detail but formulated simply: “Finish the job or get out.” It may be a message easy to convey, and possibly easier than whatever the Obama Administration comes up with.

Ward positions himself as an outsider (“I’m not a status quo candidate”), and running against Roberts of the Statehouse or Minnick from the Potomac, that may work. (Should be noted here: Ward seems not to talk a lot about either, but more about himself – a simple but effective campaigning approach that often works well for conservative Republicans in Idaho. It’s a campaigning style – Kempthrone and Senator Mike Crapo are among those who have used it – that carries a subtle non-abrasive subtext that: I am the winner.) Ward’s ties and connections in Washington and in the defense and intelligence world may be something his opposition could usefully examine. But for now, he seems able to hold a stance amenable to the tea-bagger crowd (remember that members of the Palin family have campaigned for him) without venturing out into their more extravagant and contentious turf.

A point of interest. He said that he is asked “every single time I have one of these meet and greets: How do we know you’ll do what you say and not drink the water and become part of the process and become one of them … beguiled by the power and smitten by it, and lose your way . . .” You get the sense this is a concern generic about politicians overall, not Ward in particular. (His answer circles back to his life experiences and how they have shaped him.)

The three Republican members of Idaho’s congressional delegation all would describe themselves as solidly conservative, and get that description from most external observers too. And you’d be hard pressed to describe the Republican congressional caucuses overall as anything other than highly unified along conservative lines. But Ward reports that among Idaho Republicans “they’re talking about a discontentedness with the east coast Republicans . . . who are not necessarily holding true to what they think are Republican values.” He referenced the two Maine senators as examples. Of course, the two Maine senators are almost the only examples remaining of non-strongly conservative Republicans left on Capitol Hill. But Ward’s report on what they’re thinking about rings true, and suggests a lot about what the Idaho Republican primary electorate looks like.

Ward has been, of course and of necessity, talking mainly so far to Republican activists and strong supporters – that’s where you start a campaign. But he already seems well equipped to take his efforts on broader roads. For now, he’s much better positioned for it than many people would have expected only a few months ago.

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