main election preview page
The closest thing to excitable political
talk in Idaho politics at present concerns the most mid-open race
for a major office in some years - more than a decade at least.
While the Republican lock on Idaho's 1st congressional
district looks as solid as ever, there is no certainty about who
will be the next Republican nominee in the district, with that crucial
primary election little more that a year ahead. Plenty of advance
work and calculations are underway, to be sure.
"Butch: Otter, representative here since 2001 and easily
re-electable had he so chosen, seems unlikely to endorse anyone
until the Republican nomination is sewn up, so this one really is
up to the candidates themselves.
What follows is a look at some of the Republican
scenarios could allow any of the Republican candidates to wind up with
the nomination; any of them could give you a rationale that makes at
least surface sense (and doubtless have been doing that in the process
of pulling in money and support). We have, however, reached some
conclusions about the state of the race, and those will be reflected in
the order candidates are treated here. Note, however, that the rank
order has changed before and likely will again - more than half a year
remains until primary day. And note above all: This race remains very
much up for grabs.
(We'll get to the Democratic
And note this: The field of candidacies is not necessarily closed yet.
Now, let's get the shocker over with.
• Bill Sali. In first place? Are you nuts?
The objections will come in hard and fast from anyone who has worked
around Sali, regarded by many as one of the weakest Idaho state
legislators of the last couple of decades. The stories reflecting
poorly on Sali are of near-legendary quality, from his removal as a
committee chair (something that almost never happens) to his stunning
answers in a civil lawsuit, declaring that critical thinking skills
were relatively unimportant for such as legislating.
As a matter of political analysis,
shelve all of it - even assuming that much of Sali's long record in the
House gets into the conversation. Most voters in the Idaho 1st don't
know Sali, and a recitation of his bad press will sound like common
electioneering and, in a field of six, is apt to bounce off. Not that
it matters anyway: Sali has won eight terms from his southwest Ada
district - a district that, in social and political outlook, is looking
ever more like the Idaho 1st - and won overwhelmingly every time,
sometimes against genuinely energetic opposition. His electoral record
to date is solid.
And while the conventional view on
Sali in downtown Boise (among many Rs as well as others) is not
complimentary, he does have backers - emphatic ones. He has been Mr.
Anti-abortion in the Legislature, more than anyone else, for a decade
and more. He stands to become the candidate the social conservatives
will enthusiastically support. And this is likely to become especially
important to them by next spring, especially after the Supreme Court
nominees put forward in 2005 by President Bush. Sali is unquestionably,
irrevocably, out there with the most absolute of them. The media and
the moderates will diss him without surcease, and they will love him
all the more for it. You want a flat-earther (to use the critical
terminology)? Got your flat-earther right here. And he knows how to
smile and campaign, too: Honed that over most of the last two
All this assessment comes with an
asterisk. The national social conservative network will likely get on
board with one candidate soon, and if Sali doesn't pick up substantial
DC money and support, and networked support in the district - by very
early in 2006, probably not later than the end of January - this
ranking will be pulled, and he falls much further down the list. But
for the moment, there is this: The largest single bloc in the
Republican primary is apt to be very socially conservative; it is
likely (in the post-Roberts/Miers era) they will be insistent on purity
and certainty; and Sali is the one candidate in the group they will
embrace without reservation.
Okay, so let's say that Sali falls well short for some reason. Who's
the next most likely to secure a substantial, definable bloc in the
Sheila Sorensen, the former state senator from Boise will be targeted
from an early date by more conservative people in the party, most
notably over her killing in 2004 of the marriage amendment to the
state constitution; social conservatives (many of whom vote in the
primary) haven't and won't forgive her for that. And then there
are tribal gaming and other issues to contend with, too.
She has assets, including long legislative experience
(and high regard in many quarters for knowledge, expertise and ethics)
and experience both as a candidate and party worker: Her party chits
are as solid as anyone's. She also would clearly be the most appealing
candidate on this list to non-conservatives. But in this day, in
this Idaho Republican Party, is that anywhere near enough? Think
back: When has the moderate won in a seriously contested Idaho primary
for major office in recent years, or even not so recent?
And yet the overall structure of the race isn't
bad for her right now - so many
more conservative candidates to choose from, and so much will depend on
exactly how they define themselves. The endorsement from Representative
Mike Simpson has, it is true, only limited direct value, but provides
valuable issues cover. She has been working as hard as anyone, is
getting well organized rapidly and is putting substantial money of her
own into the race to prime the pump. Watch closely how much that
priming results in external fundraising - a real indication of how much
faith others have in her campaign.
Early versions of this list put the state controller on top of the
candidate roster, and the only person on it who has won a statewide
election cannot be dismissed - and won't be here. But his chances in
relation to the field aren't as strong as they were. The leading
strategic rationale for his candidacy - that he may be the go-to guy
for the party establishment in the fractured 1st - was once strong but
faded as time passed and other candidates picked up endorsements and
What's Johnson's niche now? He'll
describe himself as "conservative" - well, fine, join the crowd. What
will, or can, he say or do to make that appeal stick, or stand
out? His election as controller
in 2002 was his first win, and his first candidacy, and until 1999
he had been away from Idaho since he was graduated from Boise State
University in 1986 - in other words, until then, his whole adult
life. There's nothing charismatic about him, and nothing really
catchy. His management of the controller's office has yielded no
public criticisms, but no wild hosannas either.
That said, the blank-slate factor could work
(as it often has in Idaho politics) in Johnson's case; given the
responsibility of the office, he's at least not seemed unequal to
it. And there are three more factors. First, in his debut race ever
in 2002, he displayed himself as a capable candidate running on
a statewide platform; he would likely do a steady job running for
Congress as well. Second, Johnson spent those years outside Idaho
working in a variety of states and with national organizations,
meaning that his national connections for finance and organization
could be impressive. And third, Johnson is Mormon - a factor that
would have hurt only a generation ago, but now seems a net plus
in the first district, as it already is a near-requirement in the
second. Finally, though he has not been especially public about
it so far, Johnson apparently would really like to run.
Norm Semanko. Serious developments here, as Semanko has made
clear his candidacy, has begun issuing press releases and has been
actively campaigning around the district.
Even that is subsidiary to the key development
here: Campaign assistance from Suzanne Craig, wife of Senator Larry
Craig, for whom Semanko was once a staffer. In the last few weeks,
Semanko made hay out of a fundraiser BBQ hosted by Al Henderson,
a long-time Craig staffer. The release was inelegant to say the
least - describing the event as an indicator that Semanko had arrived
as one of the new major powers that be in Idaho - but the point
had some reality attached to it. Henderson is a legendary fundraiser
and organizer, and Semanko;s connections look stronger and stronger.
Signals are being sent here, and they're unlikely to be misread.
Semanko worked for quite a few years out of Twin
Falls, and has been professionally connected mostly to water law
- he now heads the influential Idaho Water Users Association - and
has a big network of connections in the water community, all of
which suggests a candidacy more attuned to the 2nd CD than to the
first. When you add that Semanko has never run for office before,
this thing starts to look improbable. But there are balancing factors.
Semanko originally hails from northern Idaho and has lived for some
years in Boise. He has been, for a good many years, highly active
in the Idaho Republican Party, and his in-party ties should not
be underestimated. And he appears to have started early, already
working the circuits to develop ground-level support. He's not baldy positioned.
Robert Vasquez. Canyon County Commission Vasquez, who announced
his candidacy in early June, runs an unusual and essentially one-issue
race: immigration, and especially illegal immigration from south
of the border. In warning about the dangers of Hispanic immigration
- even urging, unsuccessfully, Governor Dirk Kempthorne to declare
Canyon County a disaster area for that reason - he may generate
two reactions around the district. First, he may appeal to some
of the more nativist elements in the district, though they never
have turned on Senator Craig, among others, over the issue. He may
also raise some confusion: Wait a minute, the guy is Hispanic, right?
So what the ... And just that point may be a killer: Conservatives
who otherwise like the point Vasquez is trying to may be less comfortable
We have figured that a primary win
would probably have to amount to a perfect storm of circumstances. But
it could happen. Vasquez has gotten more publicity, national and even
international, than the rest of the field put together. Not all of it
has been negative, either; he won some editorial page support for his
plan to use the RICO federal law to go after employers who hire illegal
aliens. (He takes a lot of heat for it, too, from a number of usually
Republican supporters.) In a thinly-split field, you can't write him
off, especially if he targets his campaign skillfully.
The Vasquez candidacy got a thoughtful treatment in an October 9 of the Idaho Statesman,
noting that Vasquez has gotten a big pile of national publicity and
will get national help - this stands to be a well-funded campaign. Some
portion of the 1st's electorate will seize on the immigrant issue and
line up with Vasquez - but will it be enough? Enough, we suspect
now, for a substantial piece of the pie, but not enough to
overcome other factors, favorable to other candidates and unfavorable
[Vasquez' take on his fellow
candidates, in this column, offers some useful insight into their
relative positioning in the race: "He says Johnson's a Democrat, Brandt
is spineless, Sorensen is a carpetbagger, and former Craig aide Norm
Semanko is a secret back-room dealer. Vasquez had no comment on the
last candidate, Rep. Bill Sali, R-Kuna. But Sali's been in the race
only a month; perhaps Vasquez needs time to craft a slur." Or ... does
he see Sali as the guy with whom he'll be doing most serious battle in
their segment of the marketplace?]
Popkey closed with this: "My guess is
Vasquez will self-destruct. If he doesn't, and draws enough hotheads to
win, I predict Republicans will defect and elect a Democrat. They don't
want an embarrassment in Congress. With Vasquez as nominee, they'd
re-focus on unseating the Democrat in 2008." Our take: agree in part,
disagree in part. Odds of Vasquez self-destructing are high. But mass
Republican defection is unlikely: 1st district voters (as opposed to
Republican Party leadership) simply doesn't embarrass easily.
Skipper Brandt. He announced and toured the district; he's
definitely in (which he wasn't at the time of the last survey).
The 3rd-term state senator from Kooskia has substantial political
and family connections (his father was well-known in that country
too, as a very very conservative dude) up in the Clearwater country,
but that's about as far as it goes. And while his battle against
the Nez Perce water settlement in early 2005 made him a hero in
some of the local quarters, it seriously ticked off much of the
Boise Republican establishment.
to all this, there was some early temptation to write him off as a
realistic winner. We're not doing that now, and the biggest single
reason is: Helen Chenoweth-Hage. What had been vague rumors turned to
reality in June with Chenoweth-Hage's visible support during and after
Brandt's announcement. Our general view is that endorsements do little
for Idaho candidates, but this may be an exception. In a crowded race
where a large number of candidates are struggling to establish an
identity, the backing from the lightning-rod former U.S. representative
could be exceedingly helpful. Indications at this point are that
Chenoweth's endorsement hasn't resulted in any big swing of shock-troop
support to Brandt. Still, he is undoubtedly a serious contender.
Question marks: Is attorney
and lobbying Skip Smyser, a 1990 congressional candidate who has voiced
some interest again this year, still interested? How about Lieutenant
Governor Jim Risch - demurrals notwithstanding? Time is passing. ...
DEMOCRATS There is, finally, some forward-moving
activity on the Democratic side of the fence.
increasingly like the Democratic nominee is going to be Larry
Grant, a retired attorney for Micron Technology, apparently
with some ability to self-finance.Former Representative La Rocco
had expressed interest, but in May opted out. Grant, however, has
formed an "exploratory committee" with La Rocco at its
head, and he is thought likely to announce in another month or two.
That may be enough to give him a straight shot at the nomination.
Recent history suggests that may do him little
good. But the general election is a long time off, and not all of
the Republican prospects would be equally strong as general election