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Idaho Democrat Walt Minnick Seeks to Buck GOP Tide in Re-Election Bid

4 years ago
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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.

Walt MinnickAmid 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.

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49 Comments

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George & Nancy

NAFTA (North American Free Trade Act) was signed into law by Clinton. That's why many of our jobs went south. GM is thanking the taxpayer bailout by building a plant in Mexico. Is this really what you want for this country? More democrat policies that benefit other countries?

September 26 2010 at 7:37 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
donnyboy

iweston- you are so right!!!

September 26 2010 at 4:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
donnyboy

the pledge is nothing more than the same failed policies. it's a blueprint to favor the wealthy. these policies didn't work under bush/cheney, and they didn't work under george sr. with their trickle down economics, they favor giving breaks to the wealthiest, and (maybe) it will trickle down to the rest. but, it never happens that way. the 2% of the population gets richer, while the rest have to take on the burden. if the republicans take control (that can't happen), they can turn a recession into a depression, as they did back in 1928, the great depression. keep them out. let's move forward.

September 26 2010 at 4:20 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Bruce and Sue

The Tea Party is a movement. It is not a political party that has elected officials. It is a group of Rep., Dem. and Indie conservative voters who want to see the United States going in the right direction with our leaders upholding the Constitution.

September 26 2010 at 4:16 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
Von

The Tea Party is nothing but Republicans, that's why they can say they will take over again. The ones that is running has a "R" before ther name and they will go lock step with the republicans if put in office (look at Brown).

September 26 2010 at 4:15 PM Report abuse -8 rate up rate down Reply
rbergstrom

Why shouldn't Minnick, a democrat, win in this largely Republican district?. He is acting like a Republican ?. Labels should not matter.

September 26 2010 at 4:11 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
beemerboxer

The media fuelled comments on possible GOP victories in November may well turn out to be misplaced. To demonize the Democrats and expound the claims of the Tea Party and various talking heads could be counterproductive. Many of my Republican friends are moderates who will not vote for candidates currently offered in the state. Many Independents will vote for a Democrat rather than an extremist Republican opponent. Sensible people want PROGRESS rather than retrograde policies designed to enhance the rich at the expense of everyone else. The tiny percentage of rich take 23 percent of earned income in the USA. A CEO averages 300 times more dollar power than the average worker in a year. A vote for current Republican thinking will merely stiffen that situation and present America with more of the same deformed Burkeism so beloved of the GOP.

September 26 2010 at 4:04 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
dme1224

Everyone get a grip ans stop worring about parties. We all need to worry about the politicians and what they can bring to the table. Time to remind them that they work for we the people and if they don't they wll be replaced with each election that takes place. We they are not working for us they have to go. Time to worry about us, politicians only worry about themselves and their owns interest. They make great campaign promises to get into office now it's time to make them stick to their promises y letting them know if they don't they will be out with the next election.

September 26 2010 at 4:04 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
roger56

One is not a "trend". Try again.

September 26 2010 at 3:55 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
ghump92831

I am sick and tired of hearing how the GOP got this country in to the mess we face today. The national debt at te end of 2007 was some where around 500 billion dollars. Once the democrats took control in 2008 they passed their omnibus bill putting the country in debt over one trillion dollars. Please keep in mind thaat the president can not create bills. The omnibus bill was voted in favor of than senator Obama. So Obama and the democrats gave us the out of control debt we faced baack in 08 and added more trillions to it since. Let the truth set you free and vote GOP.

September 26 2010 at 3:48 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

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