The race for Idaho's 1st Congressional District doesn't make much sense. Western Idaho and the Panhandle combine to form one of the most reliably conservative districts in the country, and yet a first-term-incumbent Democrat is favored over his upstart Republican challenger. It's all backwards.
If freshman Rep. Walt Minnick successfully defends his seat, he will be just the third Democrat to win a second term here since 1964. Minnick, who was the only Democrat in the country to receive the endorsement of a national Tea Party group, has a strong lead over his challenger, state Rep. Raul Labrador.
With less than six weeks till the election, this one isn't shaping up to be close. Minnick has a 10- to 30-point lead (depending on the poll) and has raked in more than $1.1 million to Labrador's roughly $70,000.
Amid such a rosy outlook for Minnick, it surprised
some pundits and angered others
when his campaign took a negative turn in a recent television ad. The moody spot, called "Illegal Immigration's Good Business for Raul Labrador," calls into question Labrador's strident tone on illegal immigration in light of his work as an immigration attorney. Labrador, who is Latino, responded to the ad ferociously, deriding not only Minnick's personal "honor," but even dragging in the congressman's adopted, "foreign-born" 13-year-old daughter.
To understand why Minnick went on the preemptive attack, it helps to understand Idaho's 1st District, where a Democratic incumbent is always a rare and endangered creature. The district
stretches roughly 650 miles from the Canadian border to the Nevada state line. It's home to Ruby Ridge and Helen Chenoweth (the late congresswoman
who famously held "endangered salmon bake" fundraisers). North Idaho is still washing out the stain of the Aryan Nations
, which was headquartered outside of Coeur d'Alene for nearly 30 years. The district has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1964, and in the last three cycles it delivered at least 60 percent for George W. Bush and John McCain.
Minnick won his unlikely seat here in 2008 by less than 5,000 votes and immediately began forging his conservative credentials. He joined the Blue Dog Coalition and voted against some of his party's marquee initiatives, including the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka The Stimulus) and the Affordable Health Care for America Act (aka Obamacare). Such votes curried favor with traditional Idaho GOP supporters; for the upcoming midterms, Minnick has pulled in plenty of corporate money from the agriculture, mining and timber outfits that Idaho Republicans usually count on.
Labrador, meanwhile, has struggled to gain traction. Ever since upsetting Vaughn Ward in the May 25 Republican primary, he has been short on funds and has at times appeared isolated from his own party.
Ward had seemed like a shoo-in. He was a veteran of the Marines and the CIA. And in a year of turmoil within the Republican Party, he had endorsements from both the establishment in Washington, D.C. (he was one of the RNC's "Young Guns") and from Sarah Palin.
But in the days before the primary, Ward's campaign imploded. Extensive sections of his website turned out to be plagiarized. A video made by a Boise-area Republican
showed how Ward's campaign kick-off speech was cribbed from none other than President Obama. Politico published the story
and the video on May 24. By Election Day, Vaughn was a national punch line. Salon.com piled on
, calling him "the most incompetent candidate in America." Labrador won
by nine points.
Prior to his upset win, Labrador had staked a claim as one of the purest conservatives in an already deeply conservative statehouse. He is a practicing Mormon, and his strong pro-life record earned him endorsements from organizations such as Idaho Chooses Life and National Right to Life. The NRA awarded him an "A" grade, besting Minnick's B-plus. And after some initial tension
with the RNCC's Young Guns, he was recently upgraded
to a "contender," the second level in the three-tier program.
In western Idaho, the candidate with the R next to his name can never be discounted, and according to recent polls
Labrador has been closing the gap. But with national trends -- anti-incumbent, anti-Democrat -- seemingly on his side, Labrador's struggles remain something of a mystery.
One theory, espoused by the Lewiston Tribune
, one of Idaho's three major dailies, is that when Labrador beat Ward, he bucked the state party's establishment hierarchy. "Few people with money and influence believe Labrador can prevail because few want him to win," the editorial said. A Labrador win "would invite chaos" into future Republican elections by encouraging Tea Party upstarts and other outsiders to run their own campaigns.
The Idaho Republican Party has enjoyed one-party rule in Boise for decades. And according to the Tribune, "the mainstream Idaho GOP has less to fear from leaving a congressional district in Democratic hands than in handing it over to a fellow Republican."
Tip O'Neil, the late speaker of the House, is credited with the saying, "All politics is local." Judging by this race, where conventional wisdom and perennial patterns have been all but shredded, that maxim may become the media's next new narrative.