Across the Great Divide

In Crowded Idaho Republican House Primary, Moderate Could Win

Posted September 21, 2005 at 5:50pm

Conventional wisdom suggests the candidate who most effectively courts the right will win the Republican primary in Idaho’s 1st district open-seat race.

But with six candidates vying for the GOP nomination, it’s former state Sen. Sheila Sorensen, the one moderate, who might ultimately emerge victorious.

“When a lot of candidates have similar philosophies, it creates an opportunity for a moderate,” said Garry Lough, executive director of the Idaho Republican Party.

Rep. Butch Otter’s (R-Idaho) decision to run for governor next year was followed by a flood of Republicans eager to capture a House seat — one of two in this solidly GOP state — that Otter won last year with a whopping 69 percent of the vote.

The deep field includes Sorensen; state Sen. Skip Brandt; state Controller Keith Johnson; state Rep. Bill Sali; Idaho Water Users Association Executive Director Norm Semanko and Canyon County Commissioner Robert Vasquez.

There is no clear frontrunner, though Sorensen has been endorsed by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho). GOP insider Larry Eastland called Sorensen the “liberal” Republican of the field who could win, but only if the other five candidates split the conservative vote and she attracts the support of Democrats, who can vote for her courtesy of Idaho’s open primary.

“Sheila’s crossover vote in a crowded primary could get her the nomination,” said Eastland, a Boise businessman and former gubernatorial candidate. “In a one-on-one, she might as well” drop out.

Sorensen refers to herself as “the business Republican” in the race, but has been slapped with labels such as “moderate” and “liberal” because of some votes she cast and positions she took while serving in the Idaho Legislature.

She voted against bills to outlaw partial-birth abortion and require that minors receive parental consent before undergoing the procedure. However, she is opposed to abortion and voted against those bills because she believes they were poorly written laws, as proven by the fact that the state has spent around $1 million defending the laws in court, according to her spokesman, Chuck Malloy.

On the fundraising front, Sorensen plans to raise money from outside sources, but already has loaned her campaign money, and has plans to make additional loans if necessary, Malloy said.

The primary isn’t until late May, and Eastland gives the edge to Johnson, the state controller. Eastland expects the field to shrink, and said Johnson’s institutional support and success running statewide will be an asset.

Idaho is among the most Republican states in America, and turning more so if there’s any trend at all. President Bush won the state with 68 percent of the vote last year, and Republicans hold all statewide offices except for one, while controlling well over two-thirds of the state Legislature.

Greg Smith, a Republican pollster based in Boise who also hosts a weekly radio show on public affairs and politics, described the primary as a hard race to handicap.

Unlike Eastland, he believes Semanko belongs with Johnson and Sorensen in the top tier of candidates, and is much less convinced the field will thin out before the May 23 primary.

“My signals so far say they are all going to stay in,” Smith said.

Smith does agree with other observers on Sorensen, saying her chances rely largely on her five opponents splitting the conservative vote, which he views as a real possibility.

Aside from political positioning, the race is likely to center around issues such as the economic climate, illegal immigration and gay marriage.

One Republican insider cautioned that any candidate who discounts the appeal of Vasquez’s message of getting tough on illegal immigration does so at his own peril, saying voters might choose the Canyon County commissioner if the other candidates fail to adequately address the issue.

“It resonates with our base,” this Idaho-based Republican said. Observers say at this point, Vasquez’s entire campaign centers around illegal immigration, with some calling him a “one-trick pony.”

The fact that a candidate of Hispanic descent is taking a hardline position on immigration restrictions is particularly noteworthy.

Smith said there is a general unease among Idahoans about the economy, with people feeling insecure that the jobs they have today will still exist tomorrow.

And Eastland noted that social and religious values issues are of larger concern to Idaho Republicans than they are to like-minded GOP voters in other regions of the country.

Where the candidates stand on natural resources — much of the land in Idaho is owned by the federal government — also is expected to play a role in the election, as it does in most state contests.

The two Democrats running for their party’s nomination include retired Boise attorney Larry Grant and Coeur d’Alene small businessman Cecil Kelly. Neither is expected to present a serious challenge to the winner of the Republican primary.