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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.”
Smith said his polling in past years has found that Republican Congressional candidates running in presidential years received anywhere from a 4-point to 9-point boost from the GOP presidential nominee. Although Smith predicts the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), will fall short of Bush’s huge 2004 victory margin, he still expects the Arizonan to win Idaho handily.
Sali has been viewed as a weak candidate since he won a crowded 2006 1st district GOP primary with just 26 percent of the vote. The Club for Growth backed him in that race and helped put him over the top via contributions from its members and independent expenditure advertising it conducted in the district.
But the Club for Growth currently has no plans to aid Sali in this year’s general election campaign, and the National Republican Congressional Committee, which spent heavily on Sali’s race in 2006, is strapped for cash this cycle and is unlikely to spend its limited resources in such a heavy Republican district. Sali won the 2006 general election by just 5 points.
The Minnick campaign plans to capitalize on its cash advantage by hitting Sali hard and early. The Democrat’s team concedes that beating Sali will be tough,but argues that a viable path to victory exists.
“We’re going to take it to [Sali] early,” Minnick campaign spokesman John Foster said. “We’re going to be very aggressive about defining Walt and defining Sali while we have momentum and energy and some things tilting in our favor. We’re not going to sit back here for the summer and wait for Labor Day.”
“There’s a reason,” Foster continued, “why the DCCC broke precedent and added Walt to ‘Red to Blue’ before the June update.”
Minnick, 65, is the former CEO of a multimillion dollar forest products company. He recently stepped down from heading a home-improvement store chain that he founded to run for Congress.
Minnick’s campaign believes its candidate’s connections to the business community and his résumé as a successful businessman will make him an appealing alternative to Sali, who had a long history of divisive politics as a member of the state Legislature even though he has been controversy-free almost two years into his first term.
Minnick plans to appeal to the 1st district’s libertarian sensibilities by playing up his opposition to excessive business regulations and the USA Patriot Act — Otter voted against it when he was in Congress — and highlighting his support for gun rights (he owns seven guns).
But Minnick is likely to run into political trouble regarding his positions on other hot-button issues, including his pro-abortion-rights stance and his opposition to making the Bush tax cuts permanent.
The Sali campaign is ready to pounce. Hoffman, Sali’s campaign spokesman, referred to Minnick as an “extreme liberal” who has more in common with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) than he does with the average Idahoan.
“Congressman Sali is very conservative and he’s consistent,” Hoffman said. “That’s what Idahoans are going to vote for.”