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With two solid Republican House districts recently falling to the Democrats in special elections and a third poised to follow suit, Democratic Party officials are confident they can put Idaho’s conservative 1st district in play this November.
Threatening in Mississippi’s 1st district, which voted 62 percent for President Bush in 2004, and on the heels of victories in Illinois’ 14th district and Louisiana’s 6th — which delivered 55 percent and 59 percent of their vote to Bush, respectively — Democrats are now eyeing the Idaho district.
Bush garnered a hefty 69 percent of the vote there in 2004. But freshman Rep. Bill Sali (R) is already trailing 1996 Democratic Senate nominee and businessman Walt Minnick in money raised and cash on hand, and Democrats smell blood.
“Congressman Bill Sali is ineffective, out of touch and fiscally irresponsible,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Yoni Cohen said. “With more campaign debt than cash on hand, Sali must be desperate.”
Impressed with Minnick, the DCCC recently added him to the committee’s “Red to Blue” fundraising and infrastructure program that focuses on aiding Democratic candidates running for decidedly Republican seats. Minnick closed the first quarter fundraising period with $328,000 on hand and zero debt; Sali finished the period with $124,000 on hand and $145,000 in debt.
Minnick had raised $639,000 for the cycle as of March 31, compared with just $428,000 for the incumbent. Minnick is running unopposed in the May 27 Democratic primary; Sali is facing minimal intraparty opposition from Iraq War veteran Matt Salisbury.
Some Republicans say that plenty of GOP candidates outspent their Democratic opponents in 2006 and still lost. And Sali campaign spokesman Wayne Hoffman noted that his boss’s fundraising has been consistent with past Republican Members who represented the 1st district.
In fact, as of March 31, 2002, when then-Rep. and now Gov. Butch Otter (R) was in the midst of his first re-election bid, he reported raising $360,000 for the cycle and banking $93,000, while reporting $180,000 in debt. Financially, at least, Sali is in better shape for his first re-election bid than Otter was.
But some Republicans are concerned. They point to what happened to the GOP in Illinois’ 14th, represented for many years by former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R), and Louisiana’s 6th, held by the GOP even before former Rep. Richard Baker first won the seat in 1986, as proof that running as a Republican in a conservative district is no longer enough to guarantee victory.
“This is not the kind of environment where Republicans can be operating under the assumption that they can win in a red district simply because they have an R next to their name,” said one GOP strategist based in Washington, D.C.
Greg Smith, a former Republican operative who now runs his own independent polling firm in Boise, Idaho, predicted that Minnick would keep the race close for most of the campaign before losing narrowly to Sali on Election Day. Although the DCCC and the Minnick campaign disagree, Smith said Minnick is not the kind of conservative, or even moderate, Democrat who can appeal to 1st district voters.
“Sali will almost certainly win, although like the last time it will be a close race — certainly at least in part because of his financial disadvantage,” Smith said. “If you see polling showing the race neck and neck, bet on Sali because you will win.”