In a recent interview with writer Chuck Malloy, newly-announced congressional candidate Bryan Smith makes what sounds like a faultlessly logical strategic point about the politics of running against incumbent Republican Mike Simpson:
“He is the poster child of a Washington, D.C., insider.”
His suggestion is that long-time politicians aren’t exactly in great favor among the Idaho rank and file.
Ask the opinion of Idahoans out on the street, and Smith’s point seems very hard to argue with.
Smith might have run for Congress once before (in 2014, losing to Simpson), but he is clearly running from the outside. Simpson by contrast has held the U.S. House seat from Idaho’s second district since 1998, nearly a quarter-century and second-longest in the House of any Idahoan. Fellow Republican Burton French served in the House for 26 years early in the state’s history, so Simpson is nearing the all-time record. Simpson often has been close to Republican floor leadership (sometimes more than others, as leadership teams change), but he certainly is well established in the chamber. And not only that: He previously was a state representative from the Blackfoot area for 14 years, and speaker of the Idaho House for six of those years. He has spent a long time in the upper reaches of Idaho political office.
He seems like a good exemplar of a career politician, and how many in Idaho say they like career politicians? Candidates and activists never seem to go wrong trashing them.
This is more than just speculation or anecdotal analysis.
In 1994 Idaho voters passed a term limits initiative with a hefty 59.3 percent of the vote. No votes they’ve cast since then seem to indicate a change of heart; it was even sustained in other votes.
That term limit law isn’t on the books today, however. In 2002, the Idaho Legislature voted to repeal term limits, and it was so determined that it did so overriding a veto from Governor Dirk Kempthorne, who said he thought the voters’ decision should be respected. A national leader of a term limits organization called the legislature’s action “a slap in the face to all Idaho voters. The arrogance of the Legislature to repeal an issue that has been supported by four separate votes is unconscionable.”
Maybe, in another time, a lot of Idaho legislators would have paid a price at the polls for what they did. In fact, however, they did not. Scarcely any of the anti-term limits legislators were even singed at the ballot box.
There’s more evidence to consider here, too: The longevity of Idaho’s members of Congress in recent years. Senior Senator Mike Crapo will be, at the end of next year, a member of Congress for 30 years (24 of those in the Senate), plus a substantial run in the state Senate before that. (He is up for re-election next year, and seems not to be at risk, either in the primary or general election.) Senator Jim Risch will have been in the Senate for 14 years, after a state government electoral career reaching back to the mid-70s. Nearly all of the elected members of Congress in recent decades (the main exceptions being two Democrats running in rough years) who have left those posts, departed voluntarily either to run for something else or to retire.
There’s little recent history of Idaho voters throwing out members of Congress because of length of service.
The conclusion seems to be that they don’t like long-time politicians in principle, but their own guys, people they know, are okay. Or something like that.
This isn’t Smith’s only argument against Simpson, of course; he has various policy and philosophical arguments with him as well. And beyond that: They are significant players of distinct wings of the state’s Republican party.
But to a great degree, he’s running with what many Idahoans say they want, but what in practice they haven’t been voting for: Regular turnover in their elected officials.
An update from last week: Some of the names listed in last week’s column, noting the members of a Boise coffee group, were misspelled. (No, I won’t try to excuse it by there being no formal list to check them against). Be it known that proper spellings should include Ernest A. Hoidal, Vivian Klein and John Runft.