Press "Enter" to skip to content

ID 1st and its ever-changing moods

Probably time here for a few perspective words on the ever-changing Idaho 1st House race, between incumbent Democrat Walt Minnick and (now) Republican Raul Labrador.

There are, after all, lots of conflicting indicators. We noted here, with minimal comment, a new poll giving a lead to Labrador. There’s been pushback from the Minnick camp, naturally; and our view is that these days, all polls should be taken with caution. Then there are other views, such as the Stu Rothenberg national column saying “Minnick’s re-election prospects have brightened” with Labrador’s nomination. Caution is needed here too; the Republican establishment had been solidly behind Labrador’s primary opponent, and a lot of what you hear may reflect disappointment of many of the usual organization people and establishment sources that their guy didn’t win.

So what to make of all this?

The overriding truth seems to be that this is not a locked contest and it genuinely could go either way. That’s not a hard conclusion to reach when you consider the assets and liabilities each side can or prospectively could draw upon, and observe that they’re not badly matched – at least for now.

Minnick has a collection of serious assets. Incumbency, for one. Idahoans in recent decades have been loathe to throw their incumbents out of office, and in the last 20 years have done so only twice in congressional or statewide elections. Minnick has given conservatives little to get angry about, leaving them mostly to the more intellectual party-in-charge argument that doesn’t have much emotional resonance. A lot of conservative Republicans say they kinda like him. He has returned regularly to the district, projects a good working relationship with the other members of the delegation (all four often sign announcement news releases), appears to have kept up with constituent work. His campaign has been organized and primed since the last one ended, and it is well-funded by any standard, and extremely well-funded by 1st district standards. And far better funded, at this point, than his opponent’s. He is not Mr. Charisma, but he seems to be liked personally – not a bad thing.

On the debit side: Minnick wears the Democratic label, he has filed as such, and that is an automatic trouble spot in Idaho. A big chunk of the electorate simply will not vote for a D; how large that is, is unclear, but surely 40%, probably higher. There’s not much margin for error: Minnick cannot afford mistakes that Republicans could manage. Then there’s the problem of the ticked-off Democrats, those who argue that Minnick has gone far beyond the need to compromise and take some conservative group, into the territory of abandoning his party and its agenda repeatedly. Anecdotally, a number of them say they will not vote for Minnick, will leave that ballot line blank. How many of them are there? Will they all actually do it in November? No one really knows. (Democrats may be a minority in Idaho, but that doesn’t mean their numbers are insignificant, and they’re essential for a Democratic candidate to win.) There is also the nature of the year 2010, a year when incumbents are not looked upon kindly, and one where (especially in conservative places like Idaho) Republicans should expect to do better than they do on average.

Much of the plus/minus picture for Labrador reflects all this.

On his plus side: The fact that winning as a Republican in Idaho is a lot easier and requires a lot less (of, well, most everything) than does winning as a Democrat. The bar is lower. And this year, 2010, likely lowers it a bit more. Labrador, as much as he has been tagged an insurgent (or some such), is no newcomer to politics. He’s won election to two terms in the Idaho House, and so has campaign experience. He worked in the Ada County Republican party structure for a long time before running for office; his connections and understanding of the internal structure of the area’s politics run fairly deep. He is an articulate candidate with solid campaigning skills, and he defeated in the primary a candidate (deeply flawed, to be sure) far better funded than himself. He has been in the race since last fall, and has been campaigning and organizing for months.

On the minus side: He defeated a primary candidate that most of the Republican establishment signed on with and broadly endorsed, and the establishment seems to be in a pout. That may fade, and if so then a lot of money and organization will come Labrador’s way. If it does last, it’s a problem. For the moment, money is a problem too: Labrador doesn’t have much, and now he has to try to get it from the people he was so recently running against. And he needs it fast. He’s hiring campaign staff (probably in part at the request of some potential funders) from out of state; how well will they plug into the specific Idaho environment? And there’s a message problem. Minnick has left only shards of daylight between his own positions and those of many conservative Idaho Republicans, and making the normal kind of incumbent-killing case against him (a change of House leadership and committee chairs isn’t likely to be it) will be tougher than usual.

These are only some of the factors in this race, of course, but they should be enough to demonstrate that neither side has any cause to feel comfortable. The outcome is likely to be fairly close, and it is yet to be decided.

You’ll note here a number of ponderables. Will left-leaning Democrats, at the end, vote for Minnick or go out and campaign for him, provide the army any candidate needs on the ground? (Don’t expect more than a handful of Republicans to go that far.) Can Labrador bring in support from across his party that runs deeper than lip service – that involves cranking in serious money and serious organizational help to match up with Minnick’s resources? to these and other relevant questions, we have no solid answers yet. We can only watch and see; but the race may turn, in at least in part, on the answers.

This remains, then, one of the most watchable races in the Northwest.

Share on Facebook