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If you’re not going to win …

You will search in vain for any credible political analyst who will say that Idaho Republican Senator Mike Crapo, running for re-election this year against little-known Democrat Tom Sullivan, is in any risk. And they’re right: Crapo is as likely to win as any Senate candidate in the country this year, as close to a slam dunk as you get. (Recall our policy: Nothing is ever 100% likely until after it happens.)

Maybe that’s why Sullivan’s debate this evening was so strong – maybe the most powerful challenger’s debate by a Democratic major office candidate we’ve seen in years. If you’re not going to win, why not simply go for it – put your strongest case and your real thinking out there, even if it does anger some people? While Sullivan didn’t make every point perfectly, and he made some questionable references, he skillfully constructed an argument that sliced into important parts of Crapo’s talking points and exposed some of the problems with them.

Sullivan, a first-time candidate and small businessman from Teton County, went right after Crapo from beginning to end. He attached him to Wall Street interests, with policy and campaign finance links, contrasted the benefits under tax policy received by the wealthy and the middle class, and let up nowhere. Even on the one occasion when he offered a compliment – on Crapo’s work in developing and passing the Owyhee Canyonlands legislation – he tossed in the barb that it was about his only major accomplishment in 12 years in the Senate. Most Idaho Democrats are hesitant to go after established Republicans this way (and not many probably have this much skill). Sullivan, while keeping his cool, dominated the debate against one of Idaho’s most experienced and well-liked politicians.

Crapo wasn’t at good advantage; he seemed seriously off his game. For much of his career the usual description of the man (here as elsewhere) was as a genial, affable guy with strong opinions but who got along with, and could work with, everybody. He was like that 12 years ago when he debated Democrat Bill Mauk, in what was one of the classiest and most high-minded set of debates the state has ever seen – as noted in this space way back then, you felt uplifted just watching the two of them. That Crapo was a world away from who we saw tonight: A man who came across as deeply angry and bitter, the more so as the debate wore on. Was the unvarnished Sullivan getting to him? Had immersion in Washington’s never-ending hate-fest?

He was also reduced from the thinking-man’s debate of 1998 to, today, just another rote reciter of national GOP talking points. Crapo’s personality, or at least the Crapo many Idahoans have known over the years, seemed buried away from view.

So too his ties to Idaho. Crapo was born and raised in Idaho, returned to Idaho Falls to practice law when he easily could have had a much more lucrative career in a big city, represented eastern Idaho in the legislature, half of the state in the U.S. House and all of it for a dozen years in the Senate, undoubtedly knowing Idaho extremely well … and yet tonight displayed practically no personal connection to it. (Sullivan made many more Idaho-specific references.) In the debate he made perfunctory references, and yes, they were perfunctory, to “Idaho” governing values (which he didn’t elucidate, or offer provenance), and to the Owyhee Canyonlands, and that was it. Otherwise, this could have been a cookie-cutter Republican senator from any state in the country. He didn’t even sound like an Idahoan; he sounded programmed by Republican consultants.

None of this is likely to change the election results, of course. Crapo is as near a lock for the seat as you can get.

But the debate was absolutely remarkable. Watch it via the Idaho Public Television debate page.

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