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. (more…)