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Republican Raul Labrador Upsets Blue Dog Walt Minnick in Idaho

4 years ago
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BOISE, Idaho -- In an upset win in one of the most unusual House races in the country, underdog Republican Raul Labrador has won Idaho's 1st congressional district over the favored incumbent, Blue Dog Democrat Rep. Walt Minnick.

At 12:55 a.m., Minnick conceded on Twitter. The Associated Press in Boise called the race for Labrador minutes later. In a statement Wednesday, Minnick said he phoned Labrador and "wished him every success... I, in particular hope he can be successful in working with the administration and his colleagues of both parties in the exceedingly important task ahead of putting our country back to work, and of balancing our nation's budget."

It was one of the most contested and publicized elections in recent Idaho history. But it will be mostly remembered for months of negative advertising and will go down as the election where a front-running incumbent gambled his legacy with a series of harsh attack ads against a less-well-funded challenger.

Minnick fired the opening shot in mid-September with a controversial ad aimed directly at Labrador's work as an immigration attorney.

The ad shocked some observers and angered liberals, including blogger Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos, who responded by calling Minnick "a bigoted ass." Labrador, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico and speaks with a slight Hispanic accent, later called Minnick's campaign "the most shameful in Idaho history."

Raul LabradorThe decision to go negative -- and to reinforce the strategy by piling on with more negative and racially tinged ads -- was not well received in Boise's liberal enclaves. But in one of the most conservative districts in the nation, an area that includes some of the fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the West, the ads were seen by some as a cynical wager.

Turning off a small segment of metropolitan liberals was a small price to pay for siphoning off conservative votes in the predominately white, conservative counties of the Idaho Panhandle and the southwest. Or so speculated some longtime political observers here.

Labrador's campaign responded in kind, running a series of ads labeling Minnick as a big-spending liberal and a pawn of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The ads hit Minnick not on his record -- as a Blue Dog Democrat, he was one of the most independent voting members of the 111th Congress -- but on his party affiliation. Two Labrador ads were quickly pulled from the airwaves, one for taking Minnick's words severely out of context and the other (paid for by Dick Morris' SuperPAC of America) for factual errors on Minnick's voting record.

The race's petty squabbling overshadowed its more unusual idiosyncrasies -- in an election year marked by overwhelming national trends against incumbents and Democrats in particular, Minnick's bid for reelection was unique. He would have been just the third Idaho Democrat to win consecutive congressional terms since 1964.

Early in the campaign, Minnick earned an eyebrow-raising endorsement from the national Tea Party Express (the only Democrat to do so), only to reject it months later amid a controversy over racist blog posts by then-Tea Party leader Mark Williams. In October, as the race neared its finish, the Tea Party Express did a complete about-face and endorsed Labrador.

Labrador is a two-term state representative and was an unexpected national candidate from the beginning. In the Republican primary, he upset establishment-favorite Vaughn Ward after the front-runner's campaign imploded in spectacular fashion. But Labrador also upset the usual protocols of Idaho's Republican Party. He had difficulty fundraising throughout the campaign and struggled gaining endorsements at the same pace as his opponent.

For months, as Minnick racked up dollars and endorsements from typical GOP supporters, most analysts predicted an unlikely but easy win for the incumbent Democrat. As recently as Nov. 1, the usually spot-on statistical analysis of the Five Thirty Eight blog gave Minnick a 61.3 percent chance of winning reelection.

Minnick was a casualty of the national anti-Democratic wave and his own conservative constituency. The incumbent's fundraising outperformed Labrador throughout the campaign, but it wasn't enough to distract voters from the "D" next to his name.

Early Wednesday morning, Labrador told KTVB why he had been elected twice to Idaho's statehouse and why voters here elected him to represent them in Washington.

"I am a proven conservative," Labrador said. "I have stood my ground on less taxes, less regulation and less spending." That record is the one Idaho voters chose on Tuesday.

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