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The squabble


Vaughn Ward


Raul Labrador

Idaho Republicans seem to have become focused in recent days on what would seem to be a minor dustup that improbably has been gaining rather than losing force.

It grew out of this event during the candidate filing period, when former 1st District Representative Bill Sali showed up at the Idaho Statehouse not to file for election (which had been speculated in some quarters) but to endorse a candidate, fellow Republican Raul Labrador. The other major Republican contender in the 1st (which is now held by Democrat Walt Minnick, who defeated Sali in 2008) is former congressional staffer Vaughn Ward, who also served in the military in the Middle East. (The video is from

At about four minutes in, Sali says of Ward: “Vaughn has served our country with distinction and we owe him a debt of gratitude for that, as we do all of our veterans. But I have to tell you, sending Vaughn Ward to Washington D.C. is a little bit like sending a Boy Scout to Iraq. He doesn’t have any experience casting votes. He doesn’t have experience in the political arena.” He described Ward as “a fine man and I wish he was running for the Idaho Legislature.”

The point is reasonable enough, and a fair response to Ward’s own statements about gaining leadership experience in the military: It may be valuable, and demonstrate useful capabilities on Ward’s part, but working as an elected official, especially at a high level, is a different kind of experience and would involve a learning curve for someone who hasn’t done it before. In essence, Sali here was offering up a bullet point in favor of his endorsee, Labrador, who has been a state legislator. (Ward would contend, also not unreasonably, that his military background offered intensive training in decision-making and leadership, likewise not a bad point, but not entirely overriding Sali’s contention either.)

It was not really much by way of an attack of Ward, and it didn’t seem intended to be, but evidently was taken as such. The rapid response from Ward’s campaign was this: “No decision in Congress will be tougher than the decisions Vaughn made in combat. Vaughn is a proven combat leader who has spent his life in service to Idaho and our country. Bill Sali and Raul Labrador are politicians who represent a failed establishment that has given us higher unemployment, increased spending, and a record deficit. Vaughn will not stand idly by and watch our politicians in Washington continue to jeopardize the future of our children and grandchildren.”

That more or less racheted things upward, and they moved up another notch when the Ward campaign released a string of statements from veterans, including former Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa. There was this from retired Major General Ben Doty (a former Veterans for Sali chair): “Bill Sali’s comments were incredibly insensitive and inappropriate. Bill and Raul’s attempt to degrade Vaughn’s service and leadership is disrespectful to all the members of the U.S. Armed Forces and the Boys Scouts of America that have served our country for generations. I hope Bill and Raul will issue an apology and let Idahoans know how deeply they appreciate Vaughn’s and his fellow veterans’ service to our country.”

Except that there wasn’t really any degradation here; Sali praised Ward’s military service. Sali has a history of making remarks that tick off people, including some people who logically would be allies, but this one was closer to a dispassionate analysis.

The debate goes on. It has turned into the hottest discussion topic so far in this primary campaign.

Among visible but not strictly committed people in the Idaho conservative community, sympathy seems to moving generally to Labrador. The Idaho Conservative Blogger, which has been tracking the primary diligently (from a conservative perspective), concluded yesterday that “6 months ago this race was Wards to lose. Right now if Ward doesn’t turn this around he will do just that.” The post also remarked, after checking comments on other blogs:

Last time I checked they leaned in favor of Labrador, dangerously close to a backfire on the Ward Campaign for fanning the flame. This is another in what is becoming a long list of none issue gaffes from the Ward Campaign. It really makes me wonder, as I have stated before, who is advising Ward? Is he making these gaffes or is his staff running unchecked? Or even more alarming if true, is Ward approving these continued Much Ado About Nothing press releases?

ICB was talking with another blogger today about this issue and the point was made that it could be possible that the Ward campaign is in panic mode. Felling the pressure of a possible momentum shift and grasping at anything that might help but in turn hurting themselves. Or could there be some polling showing a down turn?

Dennis Mansfield, a conservative who once himself ran for the seat, blogged, “Is it just me or is there a sort of frenetic and irrationally immature reactive thing going on at the Ward for Congress Campaign? A sort of “trolling & polling” for issues perceived by them to be important?”

There does seem to be a change of some sort. Last October, a post here (suggesting that Ward’s campaign was doing well and was well-positioned) offered this as a major point: “Ward seems not to talk a lot about [his opposition], but more about himself – a simple but effective campaigning approach that often works well for conservative Republicans in Idaho. It’s a campaigning style – [former Governor and Senate Dirk] Kempthorne and Senator Mike Crapo are among those who have used it – that carries a subtle non-abrasive subtext that: I am the winner.”

At this moment, with the primary runup approaching, that style seems a little less evident. And that in turn could be highly significant.

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