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Chipping at the brick wall

Steve Berch
Reed DeMordaunt

Legislative District 14 in Idaho is one of those places in the Northwest familiar to both both parties: An easy get for one party, seemingly impossible for the other. Think of central Portland or Seattle for Republicans; so District 14, which takes in much of northwest Ada County, has been for Idaho Democrats.

There’s just very little meaningful data to suggest that this suburban area, which includes Eagle and suburbs near and northwest of Boise, will give Republicans anything less than a big landslide. You might ordinarily figure that a Republican candidate in a general election, any Republican, will get two-thirds of the vote; less would be mediocre.

One of the legislative seats here, the one held by Republican Raul Labrador – now running for Congress – is open, and a busy primary was held. The nominee, Reed DeMordaunt, might be considered the representative-in-waiting.

What’s interesting here is DeMordaunt actually has serious opposition, in what might be the strongest Democratic legislative campaign in Idaho this year. Steve Berch, a consultant formerly of Hewlett-Packard, is running a well-worked-out contest in what looks like an impossible situation. How well he does, however well that is, is going to be studied closely. And should be.

The larger point is this: If Idaho Democrats are ever going to become even competitive with Republicans, one of the prerequisites will be winning in the Boise-area suburbs; the population center around Boise is not far from half of the state’s overall population, and if it turned Democratic the parties could be competitive in the state.

There’s ample Northwest precedent for this, of course. The switch of the Seattle and Portland suburbs from generally Republican to generally Democrats transformed Washington and Oregon politics. (Of course, we’ll see what happens this year.) Could it happen in Idaho too?

District 14 may be one of the tougher districts in the Boise area for Democrats to crack; there’s little apparent constituency for them. On the other hand, Democrat Walt Minnick won District 14, narrowly, in 2008. Does that indicate some willingness to look at a Democrat running a serious campaign?

Berch has been running hard, and outlined his campaign over coffee in Boise last week. He has been campaigning full time since May, focusing on carefully targeted door to door campaigning, and on conversing at some length with the people he sees. He’s not folksy; the technocrat in him shows through. But so does his seriousness and willingness to study what he’s doing. His decades of living in the district, and years of work on neighborhood projects, and connections at HP (its main Idaho plant is in the district), could help. This may be the most serious, well-planned and thoroughly-executed campaign by a Democrat this district has ever seen.

Berch’s message isn’t exactly Republican-lite, either; he draws a distinction between his views and those of the Republicans in the area.

The question arises: Can a Democrat running this way win in an area that Republicans have simply assumed, for good reason, is theirs?

And no doubt they do. The race has generated some interest among Democrats, but less among Republicans. This is the home district not only of Labrador but of House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, who has been a leader among the more conservative members of the chamber (which is saying something). There’s been no meaningful competition there for many years.

There’s a possibility that’s a problem for them: Getting a reputation for taking the district for granted (which they probably do). Passing on debates, for example. From a press release Berch delivered this weekend:

The League of Women Voters of Idaho, with support from the Boise League of Women voters, invited Steve Berch and Reed DeMordaunt, candidates for House Seat 14B, to participate in a public debate. The invitation was made on September 25, 2010. Dr. Jim Weatherby, professor emeritus at Boise State University, agreed to moderate the debate which would be held at the Arts West School in Eagle at 7:00pm. The League proposed five dates to conduct the debate: October 20, 21, 22, 26, 27.

Steve Berch, the Democratic Party candidate, agreed to participate on any of the dates that were proposed. Reed DeMordaunt, the Republican Party candidate refused to participate, stating that “work, family, and previously scheduled campaign events” gave him few opportunities to meet for a one hour evening debate with over four week’s advance notice.

In response, Steve Berch issued the following statement:

Voters in District 14 should be concerned and dismayed by Mr. DeMordaunt’s refusal to participate in a debate hosted by the League of Women Voters and moderated by Dr. Jim Weatherby.

Mr. DeMordaunt appears to be taking voters for granted by not taking one hour of his time to explain himself and his position on the issues in a professional, neutral setting. I appreciate and respect the need for candidates to balance personal responsibilities with campaign obligations. But it appears unreasonable to me that Mr. DeMordaunt cannot make himself available for just one hour to appear before the public after being given one month’s notice. Voters have reason to question how much time Mr. DeMordaunt will commit himself to listening, respecting and representing them if he is elected.

I pledge to spend 100% of my time doing my job as Representative of the people while the legislature is in session. I will set aside my consulting business and work full-time trying to grow jobs and adequately fund education. I will fight to protect education from the 18% budget cuts that Mr. DeMordaunt’s party is preparing voters to expect next year.

How well will all this work? The numbers will tell, soon enough.

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