Boise, ID - Liberal was a dirty word in Boise, Idaho, Thursday night when congressional candidates Walt Minnick and Raul Labrador met at the State Capitol for the lone debate in a tightening race for Idaho's First Congressional District.
In an evening colored more by personal attacks than substantive policy proposals, each candidate painted the other in broad negative strokes.
Labrador, a socially conservative Idaho state legislator, noted that the Club for Growth had given Minnick, the freshman incumbent Democrat, the dubious distinction as "the least liberal
" member of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition.
"Being called the least liberal member of Congress is like going to a dance and being told that you are the least ugly guy at the dance," Labrador said, eliciting a wave of laughter from the mostly conservative audience.
The irony in this race of inverted norms
is that of the two men, Minnick has earned more endorsements and campaign contributions from typical GOP supporters, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Business, the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste and even the Tea Party Express (which he later rejected
). Support from the Idaho business community
has been key in Minnick's fundraising and particularly damaging to the cash-strapped Labrador. But in their only televised debate, the front-running Minnick never mentioned those endorsements and did not effectively defend against many of his opponent's quick jabs.
Partisan laugh lines punctuated Labrador's debut on statewide public television
, an animated performance that served the telegenic 42-year-old well. Minnick, 68, spent significant time defending against charges of liberal fealty to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and explaining the early negative tone of his controversial television ads
In those ads
, Labrador's extensive work as an immigration attorney is held up against his strident rhetoric on illegal immigration. Minnick's decision to run the ads has been scrutinized not only by his opponent, but also by liberal bloggers
and some in the mainstream press. When asked to explain them, the Democrat restated the ads as fair depictions of Labrador's inconsistency and even his questionable "background" and "character."
Labrador, who was born in Puerto Rico and speaks with a slight Spanish accent, questioned the motives behind Minnick's advertising.
"Some of the ugly pictures he used of me in those ads, they make me look like an illegal immigrant," he said.
The ongoing fight over the ads, where the Republican Hispanic underdog Labrador is left to defend himself against the anti-immigration sentiments of Minnick, illustrates this race's growing peculiarities.
Minnick has tirelessly promoted himself as an independent who just happens to be a Democrat. As the Times' Tim Egan noted this week
, the Minnick campaign misses no opportunity to show their man with a gun
and constantly touts his conservative credentials. Meanwhile, it is hard to find any identification with the Democratic Party in the congressman's campaign literature, press releases or on his Web site. Even his campaign slogan, "Walt Minnick -- Right For Idaho" -- could be taken as code for conservative leanings.
This party ambiguity led to the night's most pointed question and Minnick's most substantive response. Veteran Idaho reporter Betsy Russell
asked Minnick, in light of his mixed voting record, "Why are you a Democrat?"
After laying out his usual Blue Dog, fiscal conservative bona fides, Minnick called himself a social moderate who believes in funding education "even in tough times." In perhaps his first public declaration of Democratic Party values, he went on to define himself as a civil libertarian. "I think that the government has absolutely no business telling a person who they live their lives with or what they do in their bedrooms." All of it, he said, "makes me a fiscal conservative, social moderate and a sensible conservative Democrat."
When asked why he was a Republican, Labrador noted his long-time beliefs in "less spending, less government and less regulation" and a patriotism that he claimed his opponent does not share.
"The greatness of America is what makes this nation a great nation," Labrador said.
A follow-up question from a home viewer on Facebook asked how each candidate would work in Washington, D.C., with representatives of the opposing party.
The often dour Minnick perked up at the question and cited a plan hatched with a fellow freshman, Republican Rep. Charles Djou of Hawaii, to form a "centrist caucus" comprised of moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats. It was Minnick's boldest moment of the debate and one of the only instances when his voice and cadence rose for dramatic effect. The centrist caucus will "be the point of influence in a closely divided Congress," he said.
Rep. Djou, who is also running for reelection this year, confirmed the plan for the centrist caucus Friday through a spokesman.