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Why the odds are with Minnick

Walt Minnick (center) gets the associated contractors endorsement on Wednesday/Minnick campaign

Walt Minnick, Idaho’s 1st district Democratic representative, must be living right. Four months ago, this space had no serious doubts that he was unlikely to win re-election. Today (and really for the last month or two), he looks to have a clear path to re-election.

That’s not a change of mind. It’s a change of circumstance. And today, as the the Associated General Contractors of Idaho deliver their endorsement for Minnick, seems as reasonable a time as any to talk about that.

Some things from four months ago have not changed, or changed a lot. Minnick’s status as an incumbent has undoubtedly helped; Idaho voters don’t lightly toss out major-office incumbents, even Democrats – ousting no major-office Democrat since 1994, while re-electing several of them in the years since. And Minnick and his campaign people have been aware since election day 2008 that the re-election campaign had to start right then, and they’ve been at it aggressively ever since. Their campaign has made hardly any slips. Also, Minnick may not be Mr. Charisma, but he makes a positive impression, and a lot of people around the district like him. That includes a lot of Republicans.

The problems have been – and if Minnick does lose, still are – larger-picture. A whole lot of Idaho Republicans and a lot of independents – who in Idaho lean strongly Republican – simply are loathe to vote for a Democrat and would hesitate to do it with a gun at their heads; our estimate is that 45% of the 1st district electorate is in this category. The political atmosphere this year, magnified somewhat in Idaho, should make that even more true. And while Minnick has taken great care to not upset Republicans, he has upset a lot of Democrats. Some of them will be less inclined to work as hard for him. Some of them – we’ve talked to a number of veteran Democratic activists – say they simply will deny him their vote in November.

That’s a formula for a Minnick loss. But since late winter, the calculus has changed in a big way on the Republican side. No election is ever won or lost for just one reason; but that change now looks to be the biggest reason Minnick probably will win this year.

Last winter, the Republicans had in Vaughn Ward a candidate well positioned for the race. Several components went into that. He appeared to have come out of nowhere, and a year ago effectively dispatched an established state legislator (Ken Roberts) months before the primary. He did that partly on the basis of sounding like the kind of Republican firebrand taking off around the country.

But two things happened.

One is that Ward turned out not to have come out of nowhere after all. He had worked for former Senator Dirk Kempthorne, and the core of the state Republican organization – not the party organization as such, but the campaign organizations and workers and its network of elected officials – swiftly fell in line behind him. He became the establishment candidate, picked up endorsements by the boatload and campaign money, state and national, by the truckload. The national and state Republican establishment invested in him, and that point became increasingly obvious. Ward’s approach eased back, became less fierce; he became the establishment candidate. The support of the Tea Party organization, and other Republicans who sought a harder line and distrusted the downtown establishment, began lining up with the other candidate in the race, Raul Labrador.

Ward, who was able to vastly out-spend and out-organize Labrador, still probably would have won the primary (and likely the general election too) except for may have been the most spectacular campaign implosion in Northwest political history – a stunning, day-after-day and week-after-week self-immolation. Speculation is out there that either some Republicans backing Labrador, or supporters of Minnick, had a hand in the way it all went public. Doesn’t matter: The screwups, however they were surfaced, were the fault of Ward and his organization, no one else.

The normal dynamic at this point, the overwhelming precedent for nearly all major races among Republicans in recent decades, would have been reconciliation: The Ward forces, along with their well-organized and heavily-funded national and state allies, would have made nice with Labrador, and ranks would have closed.

That did not happen. The hard evidence of that is in the campaign contributions, which flowed heavily into Minnick’s campaign, and trickled into Labrador’s. Minnick probably has raised well over $2 million by now – what has to be the most ever for any candidate for the U.S. House in Idaho – while Labrador trails with a tiny fraction of that. If Labrador’s fundraising hits even optimistic benchmarks, he’ll still likely be outspent four or five to one (if not more) by November. Money is not all in politics, but that sort of gap is awfully persuasive.

And not just in what the money can buy. It also tells you that a whole lot of people with money, including a lot of Republicans, have decided not to place their bets on the Republican this time. The Idaho business network, as represented in Boise by the lobbyist community and the people in and around organizations like the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry, are actively hustling for Minnick – and this includes people who never have actively backed a Democrat before. The Republican money and campaign establishment is lining up behind the Democrat.

Our speculation is that this isn’t just pique. It’s calculation. The establishment has been gradually losing control of the state Republican Party organization, and this year’s highly ideological state convention made that abundantly clear. Long-time Republican state officials were repeatedly put in the minority and on the defensive. Large portions of the state Republican Party have been turning on some of the leading Republicans in the state. For them, a Labrador win would give them a foothold in the big-time ranks of elected officials (none of the others are really, at this point, one of them), and encouragement to take on everyone else. From the standpoint of the downtown Boise establishment, a pragmatic group more interested in carrying on business than in any ideological revolution, there’s danger in that. It’s not hard to see a primary election hell for them in 2012.

They do however have a comfort level with Minnick. Better, from their point of view, that the ideological activists get slapped down this time around. And as pragmatists know, there’s always 2012 – another chance to run a more amenable candidate (maybe one that doesn’t screw up as Ward did). Who knows if Minnick will even run again in 2012? He might or he might not.

Given all this, the Republican establishment shift toward Minnick shouldn’t be seen as a major structural change in Idaho politics: It looks like a useful accommodation for this cycle.

But it also stands to be enough that Minnick probably will overcome the structural problems that ordinarily would make re-election too tough a proposition.

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