One thing for certain in Idaho’s Second Congressional District, aside from death and taxes, is the fact that Congressman Mike Simpson wins elections. That’s the way it has been for the last 22 years.
But that’s not necessarily the way it always will be, especially in next year’s election cycle. Bryan Smith, an attorney and firebrand conservative from Idaho Falls, is making his second run for Simpson’s job and has reasons to be optimistic about his prospects.
First of all, we don’t yet know how the Second District will look after redistricting. There’s talk, and some support, about the Treasure Valley (Ada and Canyon counties) being in the First District and the rest of the state going to the second. Conservative candidates, such as Smith, tend to thrive in Kootenai and Bonner counties, especially.
Also problematic for Simpson is a little thing called dam breaching, aimed at saving salmon. That goes over with Republicans about as well as a speech from liberal Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Simpson would have no fun campaigning in Lewiston, where sentiments are especially high against breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River.
Simpson hasn’t put his idea about breaching in bill form, but there’s no question about where he stands. Simpson may have science on his side as far as saving salmon, but not the hearts and minds of Republicans who are openly opposed to the idea. Smith, understandably, is bleeding out everything he can about the salmon issue.
“If he (Simpson) were running the first time for Congress in this election cycle, do you think he’d ever come up with a platform to breach the dams, remove the hydroelectric power, take water away from farmers and ranchers on a plan that he doesn’t know will work? There’s no way he would do that,” Smith told me. “The only reason he has done that is because he has totally lost touch with his constituents.”
Smith says his chance of winning doesn’t hinge on bringing North Idaho into the Second District. “I’ll take whatever district we get. Idahoans are Idahoans,” Smith said.
And he doesn’t need to travel far to find Idahoans who are skeptical of longtime politicians. “He is the poster child of a Washington, D.C., insider,” Smith says.
Smith ran against Simpson in 2014, collecting more than 38 percent of the vote. It was a convincing win for Simpson, but not a devastating loss for Smith, who has never held a public office. Simpson had all the advantages of incumbency, including a fat campaign war chest, support from then-House Speaker John Boehner and an endorsement from Mitt Romney.
“I started with zero and was running against John Boehner’s best friend,” Smith says.
The landscape has changed in seven years. Boehner is out and Sen. Romney has become a pariah of the GOP, at least in the view of former President Trump and his supporters – which Smith is. “I support his policies, and if he runs again, I will vote for him.”
Smith chides Simpson for not endorsing Trump’s first run in 2016 (Simpson declared him “unfit” for the presidency) and, more recently, for siding with Democrats on the “witch-hunt” congressional investigation of the Jan. 6 insurrection of the Capitol.
“What happened that day was shameful, but to say that President Trump instigated it is just a political ploy to diminish him,” Smith said.
Although Smith says he’s looking forward to a “robust campaign,” he knows that defeating a long-time incumbent will not be easy.
“He isn’t going down without a fight. People are going to donate to him because he represents special interests in Washington. They are going to beat me up and spend a lot of money in the process,” Smith said.
But, Smith thinks that after 22 years, it’s time for a change.
“In the end, people want a voice. They don’t expect a congressman to change Congress. What they do expect is for the congressman to swing the bat, and at the moment we have a guy who swings the bat for the other team,” Smith says. “They want someone who will speak up for them in Washington, and I will do that.”
Smith’s pitch can play well in a Republican primary campaign. If he sticks with the script, the Second District Congressional race will be one to watch.
Chuck Malloy is a long-time Idaho journalist and columnist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org