What's it all about, this big Idaho primary pitched battle between two neatly-lined up sides, incumbents and challengers? The most striking, original and daring take on that, the quote of the season so far, comes from Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.
Unexpectedly independent-minded, willing to act against the preferences of much of the state's Republican leadership, Wasden came on very differently after his first election from his previous role as a quiet, little-known, behind-the-scenes chief of staff in the office. But those differences mainly extended just to legal opinions, his expression of what the law was (as opposed to what some people would have preferred it to be). He certainly has been no kind of ideological flamethrower, and has been low-key in manner.
Last week he may not have been throwing flame but, speaking with the Lewiston Tribune, he was uncommonly blunt. In talking about this year's primary contests, which includes his first primary contest since 2002, Wasden cast it in large-scale terms as “a fight, really, for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.” And the terms of the fight? Simply, “Are you out there on that far edge, or are you rational? I certainly hope that the rational message comes forward.”
He just called a large portion of his party's base irrational, living in the world of fantasy rather than reality, and set the terms of the debate he proposes to have. Truly powerful stuff, and it has the potential to recast the terms of the debate, and the campaign.
That it is a stick of dynamite ready to explode is easy to see. One would expect that the cohorts on Wasden's side of the divide – Governor C.L. “Butch Otter, Representative Mike Simpson, Lt. Governor Brad Little and others, including legislative candidates – would quickly be asked about the comment. That would mean they either would have to risk infuriating much of the base, or breaking with Wasden and splitting (and making unclear) their side's messaging.
There's an upside to their seizing on it, though: It would bring some clarity to characterizing the insurgency.
State Senator Russ Fulcher, running against Otter, has seized foremost on Otter's support of a state-run health insurance exchange. Otter could point out that the opposition is simply unrealistic, that (as he has said, repeatedly) Idaho would be getting an exchange regardless, the only difference being how directly involved the state would be. He could even argue that sheer opposition to Obamacare has become beside the point; it's the law of the land, like it or not. That's reality.
Congressional candidate Bryan Smith has been describing (in his ads at least) Simpson as a “liberal.” Second-district voters have observed Simpson in Congress since 1998, and probably only a few would use the word to describe him; Simpson could use Wasden-like language in blasting back.
Retorts structured in these ways would have the advantage of cohering, working together, in coloring the opposition.
For the incumbent candidates, their messaging needs to do something like that. Simply defeating the insurgents, or most of them (a result that seems broadly expected), isn't really good enough, because the insurgent voting base still would be seething, and that could have consequences down the road. The best way to defang it would be to de-legitimize it. Wasden may have seized on one potentially effective way to do that.