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[rev 10/08/05]

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.

Republican C.L. "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 possibilities. Credible 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 picture below.)

And note this: The field of candidacies is not necessarily closed yet.

Now, let's get the shocker over with.

Bill SaliBill 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 decades. 

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.   

Sheila SorensenSheila Sorensen. 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 primary?

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. 

Keith JohnsonKeith Johnson. 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 group support. 

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 SemankoNorm 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 VasquezRobert 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 with him.

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 column by Dan Popkey 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 to Vasquez.

[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.

Skip BrandtSkipper 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.

Owing 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.

GrantLooks 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 contenders.



- Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus
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