Minnick in the Cross Hairs

Freshman Expected to Be Top Target

Posted February 4, 2009 at 6:16pm

When asked recently which loss of the 2008 cycle continues to cause the most pain, one House Republican operative pointed squarely at Idaho’s 1st district.

“It’s not that it hurts,” the operative said. “It just makes me sick to my stomach.”

It is a district that Republicans never should have had to worry about, even in a banner year for Democrats.

Former President George W. Bush won the 1st district with 68 percent of the vote in 2000 and 69 percent in 2004. And even in the Democratic wave of 2008, GOP Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) won the 1st district with 62 percent, according to analysis compiled by Swing State Project, a Democratic blog.

The problem for Republicans last cycle in western Idaho was then-freshman Rep. Bill Sali (R), a controversial figure during his time in Congress and the Idaho state legislature who proved to be his own worst enemy on the campaign trail.

Sali was outraised, outspent and, Republicans admit, outworked during his re-election fight. But three months removed from Sali’s loss, GOP operatives are already looking to correct what they believe is an aberration and return the district to GOP hands in 2010.

Standing in their way is freshman Rep. Walt Minnick, a wealthy Blue Dog Democrat who raised nearly $2.7 million for his Congressional bid (including about $1 million from his own pocket). Since being sworn in just a month ago, Minnick has already shown an independent streak. So far in his Congressional career, Minnick has voted with his party less than 60 percent of the time and was one of 11 Democrats last week to join Republicans in voting against the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“The nice thing for us is that getting re-elected dovetails almost perfectly with what Walt has to do as a Congressmen, which is being bipartisan, reaching out to people and being effective,” Minnick spokesman John Foster said.

Despite Minnick’s early voting record, Republicans aren’t impressed.

“Walt Minnick can try to disguise his party affiliation as much as he wants, but at the end of the day he is a Democrat in solid Republican territory,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Paul Lindsay said.

In 2010, when Gov. Butch Otter’s (R) name will be at the top of the ballot, Minnick is sure to have several Republicans gunning for him. A few potential candidates already being discussed are state Sen. John McGee, state Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and former state Controller Keith Johnson.

“Lots of people have approached me about running,” including individuals in Washington, D.C., McGee said on Wednesday.

McGee, who serves as chairman of the state Senate Transportation Committee and is one of the youngest members of the panel, said talk of a Congressional bid is “flattering, but I’ve not made any decision.”

Another intriguing possibility being tossed around in GOP circles is Iraq War veteran Vaughn Ward, who served as a major in the Marine Corps. Though not well-known in the state, the Bronze Star recipient does have a political résumé. Ward served as a legislative aide to former Sen. Dirk Kempthorne (R-Idaho) and also worked on the McCain presidential campaign.

Then there’s Sali.

When Sali filed a statement of candidacy last week with the Federal Election Commission, Democrats could hardly hide their excitement.

However, the former Congressman told members of the Idaho press late last week that he was still months away from making any decision on a 2010 race. He said his filing with the FEC was merely a technical requirement because he was continuing to spend money from his old campaign account.

If he does run, Sali is well-known and in a multi-candidate primary, he could earn just enough support to win the GOP nomination — after all that’s what he did in 2006 when he won just 26 percent to become his party’s nominee.

The 2010 GOP primary could also be influenced by an effort under way to close the primary and allow only registered Republicans to participate. Over the weekend, the party’s central committee voted to move forward with a lawsuit against the state to keep non-Republicans from participating in the primary. It’s conceivable that a Sali primary campaign could be boosted by keeping a large number of self-identified independents from participating.

Even without Sali, Democrats say Republicans are making a mistake if they assume the 1st district will simply revert back to their control in 2010. Foster said Idaho voters will see through GOP efforts to try to tie Minnick to the more liberal leaders of the Democratic Party.

“God bless [the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] for all the help they’ve given us, but they understand, just like all the Republican supporters who supported Walt understand, this isn’t about party, this is about effectiveness,” Foster said.

Foster pointed out that Minnick has already forged a strong working relationship with fellow Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson (R).

“Mike Simpson and Walt Minnick get along extremely well. They are good friends. They share a similar outlook on the world. … They differ on some things and they happen to be in different political parties,” he said.

Foster said that partnership between members of the majority and minority parties could be “devastatingly effective” for Idaho.

But Idaho Republican Party Executive Director Jonathan Parker said Minnick is deceiving himself if he thinks that the partnership would continue all the way to the ballot box.

He said Simpson and Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo (R) and James Risch (R) “are class acts” who will work with Minnick for the betterment of Idaho.

“But when it comes election time I have no doubt they are going to throw their full weight behind our Republican candidate,” Parker said.