They Hope to Swim in Otter’s Wake

Posted January 14, 2005 at 5:47pm

The bulk of the excitement in the race to succeed Rep. Butch Otter (R-Idaho) in 2006 will likely be in the Republican primary, as not a single Democrat has publicly expressed an interest in running since Otter filed papers to run for governor.

Otter, who has held the 1st district seat since 2000, put his 2006 gubernatorial bid into motion last month by naming former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt (R) as his campaign committee chairman in papers filed with the secretary of state.

The heavily Republican 1st district rambles from the Nevada border to Canada and includes the fast-growing northern city of Coeur d’Alene and the Boise suburbs.

Otter, who will face a tough GOP primary himself in the governor’s race, is not expected to anoint a successor.

Otter served three and a half terms as lieutenant governor before running for Congress in 2000. He ran unsuccessfully for the governorship in 1978.

The state’s current lieutenant governor is also expected to seek the governorship, as Gov. — and former Sen. — Dirk Kempthorne (R) is barred from seeking another term, setting up an expensive GOP primary.

Several Republicans have already been mentioned as likely Congressional candidates, though not one has won a “Mr. Tight Jeans” contest like Otter did in 1992 at a Boise tavern.

Idaho Comptroller Keith Johnson and state Sen. Skip Brandt are perhaps the most likely Republicans to enter the fray.

Johnson has worked to retire his 2002 campaign debt and told the Idaho Statesman that the race could be attractive to him.

“If the opportunity is right, presents itself, we’ll make that run,” he told the newspaper. “There’s still a lot of real estate to cover between now and Election Day.”

Johnson is considered a rising star in the party, so perhaps it will come down to a question of whether he wants to pursue higher office locally or at the federal level.

State Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has also been mentioned at this early stage, but some Idaho Republicans doubt he will enter the mix.

Perhaps more likely is Norm Semanko, who heads up the influential Idaho Water Users Association. The association is an umbrella organization for more than 300 organizations and quasi-government agencies that manage water use and water rights in the state.

He is known statewide and is plugged in with all the major groups that have interest in water issues.

Water is the third rail of politics in arid Idaho, perhaps more so in the dryer 2nd district than in Otter’s 1st district. The state Legislature will tackle two particularly controversial water-related problems this session. How major players, such as Semanko, fare there may very well determine their viability in a Congressional race.

Another oft-mentioned potential Republican candidate is Sandra Patano, state director to Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho).

She has been political watchers’ choice for numerous posts in the past and so far has not run for anything.

A lot of Republicans are likely watching to see what she does first before deciding whether to run for Otter’s seat.

Patano did not immediately return a call seeking comment for this story, nor did officials for the state’s Republican Party.

While the district has become more Republican in recent years, Democrats have not abandoned all hope.

They did hold the seat prior to 1994.

Former Rep. Larry LaRocco (D), who is now president of public relations giant Fleishman Hillard’s government relations practice in Washington, D.C., served two terms in Congress and could be a strong Democratic candidate, if he is willing to run.

Attorney and former gubernatorial aide Dan Williams (D), who twice lost to former Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R) after she defeated LaRocco in the 1994 Republican sweep, is said to be mulling another run.

Other Democrats who are looking at the race include Larry Grant, the former general counsel to Micron Technology and LaRocco’s one-time finance chairman who flirted with the idea of challenging Otter last year, and Jim Grossman, who headed up the Kerry/Edwards campaign in Idaho.

Democrats will try to rally around one candidate early to avoid a bruising primary, Idaho Democratic Party Chairwoman Carolyn Boyce said. However, that might not be an option, as open seats generally attract more candidates.

Boyce was upbeat about her party’s chances of recapturing the seat, despite the GOP’s huge advantage.

“Our best bet is an open seat,” Boyce said. “You never know who the Republicans are going to come forward with, and they are going to have a primary.”