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Roll Call

Idaho’s Minnick Says He’s Done for Good

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Updated: Dec. 17, 7:56 a.m. 

Rep. Walt Minnick was defeated for re-election after serving just one term representing his state’s western Congressional district, and the Blue Dog tells Roll Call he’s gone for good. Looking ahead at redistricting in his deep-red state, it may be awhile before another Idaho Democrat makes it back.

“I think I’m done with elective politics,” Minnick said in an interview with Roll Call. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do, but I think it’s time for somebody else.”

The Idaho Democratic Party’s best chance at winning a House seat in the next 10 years may shift east to Republican Rep. Mike Simpson’s 2nd district. With the 1st district believed to have an edge of 100,000 people, the district line, which currently runs down Boise’s Cole Road, may shift west to push all of Boise into Simpson’s district.

Western Boise can be a swing area, according to GOP insiders in the state, and is represented by a Republican in the state Legislature. Still, shifting the boundaries would also bring in a large number of Democrats. That would begin to shift the mostly balanced districts away from each other — they voted nearly identically in the past two presidential elections, with Republican candidates winning handily.

Insiders from both parties told Roll Call that the redistricting option still would not put the popular Simpson, who is expected to become an Appropriations Cardinal in the next Congress, in danger — at least not in a general election. Should he retire or seek higher office, however, the open seat could present an opportunity for Democrats.

“Of course a Democrat can win in Idaho,” Minnick said.

On the trail this year during his unsuccessful bid for re-election, Minnick often recited the fact that he was the most independent House Member, as he voted with his party less often than the other 434 Representatives.

His independence and votes against some of the big-ticket Democratic agenda items even led to support from a national tea party organization that had otherwise endorsed Republicans. He later declined the support, and by October the Tea Party Express had switched its endorsement to his opponent, Rep.-elect Raul Labrador.

Minnick was also the sole Democrat endorsed by the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste Political Action Committee.

It mattered little, however, as Minnick was caught in a wave that even a popular centrist running against an underdog Republican could not withstand. Minnick outspent Labrador 3-to-1, but the Republican still won by 10 points, 51 percent to 41 percent.

“I might’ve fit the profile of a winner, but it was a bad year,” Minnick said just off the House floor before one of his last votes in Congress. “It was a big wave, and I was on a low island.”

On election night, the tech-savvy Minnick campaign issued a concession statement on Twitter. It was seemingly a first for political concessions, and Twitter recently named it one of the “Ten Most Powerful Tweets of 2010.”

The person responsible for that tweet was campaign manager John Foster. Like Minnick, Foster is also moving on from Democratic politics in Idaho, having signed on at Strategies 360, where he’ll shift his communication skills toward business affairs.

There is only so much work for Democrats in Boise, with Republicans holding the governor’s mansion, both Senate seats and the two House seats, and controlling 80 percent of the seats in both the state House and Senate.

Including Minnick, three Democrats have been elected to either of the state’s two House seats since 1966, serving a combined seven terms compared with the 37 terms served by Republicans in that time.

The state hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1974 or voted for a Democrat for president since 1964.

Minnick’s defeat of Rep. Bill Sali in 2008 seemed to offer a road map for Democratic candidates in the state. Sali was unpopular, but he represented one of the most conservative districts in the country. Minnick won nearly 50,000 more votes than President Barack Obama, who lost the district by 26 points. Obama had won a tiny Democratic primary caucus on Super Tuesday in 2008.

Minnick’s votes against cap-and-trade, health care reform and the stimulus upset some of the more liberal members of the state’s Democratic Party. Others hailed his independence from the national party as exactly what the local party needs to overcome the state’s tendency to vote Republican.

“Frankly, that’s the direction we need to go — we need someone like Walt to introduce those Democratic ideas to Idahoans and say that it’s OK to vote for a D,” said Ada County Democratic Party Chairwoman Chryssa Rich. “The more liberal you are, the less likely you are to be elected in Idaho. It has to be a transition, and we have to get people used to the idea of voting for a Democrat and not let the other party brand us.”

Minnick says things would have been different had this not been a cycle when Democrats lost a net of 63 House seats, six Senate seats and nearly 700 state legislative seats nationwide.

“There’s clearly an opportunity for a Democrat to win in a year where the election really is based on local issues and the profile of one candidate versus another,” Minnick said. “In that kind of an environment, I think I would’ve won.”

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