Jan 19 2014

Lesson from the past

Published by at 3:56 pm under Idaho,Idaho column

idaho RANDY
STAPILUS
 
Idaho

An array of familiar Democratic faces turned up Tuesday at the Boise press conference where attorney Nels Mitchell announced his run for the Senate against Republican Jim Risch, but one in particular may have resonated for people familiar with recent Idaho politics.

He was Mike Burkett, a former state senator and like Mitchell an attorney. Also like him, he has run as a Democrat against Risch. What’s remarkable about Burkett is that he is one of the few people ever to beat Risch in a political contest.

That was in 1988, long before Risch was a U.S. senator, but at another time when he was powerfully positioned in the state, as Senate president pro tem. Risch then had been winning elections for 18 years (for county prosecutor, then senator) and had never lost one. He was very smart, disciplined, an excellent speaker and debater and (with his wife Vicki) a fine political strategist, and centrally positioned among Idaho Republicans in his points of view.

There was also a rap on him: That he was arrogant, loved to wield power, stepped on people. Respect was there; likability slipped over time. By 1986 Risch’s winning margin was 54 percent, not a marker of strength. In 1988 he made the mistake of backing a primary challenge to a sometimes obstreperous member of his caucus, Rachel Gilbert. Gilbert, as was her wont, shot back, describing Risch as a Statehouse power out to crush independent-minded people like her. She won her primary.

When Burkett ran against Risch that year, he played a role Gilbert could have scripted: As an outsider and an unknown with a small-town demeanor, which didn’t stop him from blasting Risch strongly, feeding the narrative of Risch as a powerful insider. Risch lost.

That of course was a quarter-century ago, and Idaho was a different place then, less Republican than now. Risch since has gone on to win more elections. (Disclaimer here: I was campaign manager for one of his opponents, in 2002.) The power-seeker rap wouldn’t work nearly as well now in the context of a U.S. Senate seat, where he’s one vote out of 100, and in the minority (at present), and working mostly outside the state.

Other variations could develop, though.

An echo came in May 2013 when he told the Idaho Statesman, “You know, I really enjoy this job. I really like this job. Governor will wear you down. You can’t do that job permanently. This you can do ad infinitum.” An accompanying news article described him as “remarkably passive about the failure of Congress to deal with the country’s problems,” and “to hear him wax eloquent about life in the Senate makes one wonder if he risks being branded as a dilettante.”

Repeated news articles about his and his staff’s regular trips abroad (he is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, so in his personal case there’s actually some call for them) and some talk that he’s not been spending a lot of time in Idaho or with his base, could be a basis for reviving some of those old critiques, on a larger scale.

Mitchell has a cool demeanor (though he’s been a federal litigator, which suggests something about what’s beneath that) and the positioning of an outsider, and he’s offered a promise to serve but one term. What appeal may that have?

There are politicians who develop a teflon surface, and those who don’t. The second kind can survive too. But put the wrong set of circumstances together, and surprises can happen.

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