Seats Lean Right, Results in Doubt

Posted September 23, 2008 at 6:38pm

Maybe Rep. Bill Sali (R-Idaho) enjoys the suspense.

The freshman hails from one of the most conservative states in the country and is running for re-election in a presidential year in a district that President Bush won in 2004 with 69 percent. But his victory against wealthy businessman Walt Minnick (D) in the 1st district, while likely, is hardly guaranteed.

According to the Minnick campaign, Sali’s problem is Sali. The Democrat is attempting to position himself as an ideologically acceptable alternative to Sali, while moving to turn the race into a referendum on an incumbent who has always had a contentious relationship with his fellow Republicans back home.

“We have no lofty pie-in-the-sky expectations for what’s going to happen. A landslide for us is 51 percent,” Minnick campaign spokesman John Foster said on Tuesday. “We are focused on spreading the message not only that Walt is a strong and qualified candidate, but that Bill Sali is one of the most ineffective Members of Congress.”

Minnick, a 1996 Democratic candidate for Senate and multimillionaire former forest products company CEO, served early in his career in an appointed position in President Richard Nixon’s administration, working inside the White House. In this contest, Minnick has moved to portray himself as a libertarian-leaning Democrat.

He supports abortion rights on the grounds that government should stay out of people’s bedrooms, opposes Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) plan to raise capital gains taxes, and opposes all forms of gun control.

Greg Smith, a onetime Republican operative who is based in Boise, Idaho, and polls for political and corporate clients, said Minnick is falling short in his quest to prove philosophically acceptable to 1st district voters. Many of the district’s voters fall into the conservative camp of the Republican Party, including a key bloc of social conservatives.

Smith said the partisan nature of the 1st district and the GOP’s generic advantage there would lift Sali, particularly in the wake of Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) to be his running mate. Palin was born in Idaho and attended college there, and her positive affect on the Republican base in the Gem State has been as pronounced there as anywhere.

Still, Smith said Sali’s road to re-election would be rocky.

Over the years, Sali has picked fights with high-profile Republicans, including Idaho’s Speaker and Idaho Gov. and former Rep. Butch Otter (R). Most recently, Sali was criticized in a newspaper report by fellow Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho).

Sali is popular among many conservative grass-roots Republicans in the 1st district. But his high-profile squabble with members of own party has done little to endear the Congressman to Idaho Republicans generally and many of his constituents, despite the fact that his House voting record is squarely in line with the politics of the district.

Minnick boasts a hefty list of Republican supporters that includes some who are active this cycle on behalf of Lt. Gov. Jim Risch’s (R) Senate candidacy and McCain’s White House bid.

Smith predicted Sali would beat Minnick 52 percent to 48 percent.

“Is that close? Yes. But it’s a win,” Smith said. “He’ll always have close races. There will always be a core group of independent voters who don’t like him — moderate to liberal Republicans that think he’s too conservative.”

The Sali campaign did not respond to a phone call or an e-mail Tuesday requesting comment for this story. But the National Republican Congressional Committee expressed confidence he would win a second term on Nov. 4, although some Republicans in Washington, D.C., have conceded privately that his race will be tougher than it should be.

“Only one candidate in this race has the conservative credentials needed to win in Idaho and his name is not Walt Minnick,” NRCC spokesman Brendan Buck said. “Especially during this presidential year, Democrat hopes of picking up this seat are nothing more than fantasy.”

Though publicly very supportive of Minnick, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is privately cautious regarding his prospects given the partisan nature of the 1st district.

This week, Minnick moved to undercut the findings of a poll that showed Sali leading Minnick 46 percent to 35 percent. That poll was conducted by independent pollster Research 2000 Sept. 17-18 and sponsored by Daily Kos, a liberal Web site. It had an error margin of 5 points.

On Monday, three days after the Daily Kos poll was released, the Minnick campaign revealed an internal survey conducted Sept. 9-11 that found Minnick leading Sali by 5 points, 43 percent to 38 percent, with 19 percent undecided. The percentages for each candidate included undecided voters who were leaning one way or the other.

Minnick’s poll had an error margin of 4.9 points. It was conducted by the Democratic firm Harstad Strategic Research.

Minnick’s poll showed McCain beating Obama in the 1st district 54 percent to 35 percent. The Daily Kos poll had McCain leading Obama in the district 59 percent to 32 percent.

Foster, Minnick’s campaign spokesman, conceded that Minnick must win an overwhelming majority of crossover voters who will be voting for McCain for president and for Risch over former Rep. Larry LaRocco (D) in the Senate race.

But he insisted that what Minnick views as Sali’s ineffectiveness during his first term has led voters to consider voting Democratic when they otherwise never would. That is why — at least when it came to the House race — the Minnick campaign called the Daily Kos poll’s findings inaccurate.

“We think the methodology is flawed,” Foster said. “The numbers they have just don’t jibe with reality.”