In Idaho, Another GOP Favorite Gets Tested

Posted May 24, 2010 at 6:20pm

Republican officials in Washington will be nervously watching the results of today’s primary in Idaho’s 1st district, where their highly touted candidate is struggling to secure the GOP nomination to challenge Rep. Walt Minnick (D).

Vaughn Ward, a Marine Corps veteran and former CIA official and Senate aide, has long been promoted by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which made him one of its vaunted first 10 “Young Guns.”

But a string of stumbles by Ward’s campaign has turned what should have been an easy primary win into an uncomfortably close race with state Rep. Raul Labrador, a staunch conservative who is running as a political outsider unafraid to take on his party’s establishment.

Suddenly, there is the potential for another GOP establishment candidate to fall to an insurgent, as happened in last week’s Kentucky Senate primary.

Comparisons to Rand Paul’s defeat of Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson only go so far, but the story of a Republican Party having trouble getting its preferred candidate through primaries could endure.

The most recent independent poll suggests there is no clear favorite in Idaho. A Mason-Dixon poll taken May 17-19 had Ward ahead of Labrador just 31 percent to 28 percent, with 37 percent undecided.

That margin is much narrower than in a poll conducted in early May by the Idaho-based firm Greg Smith & Associates, which had Ward ahead 34 percent to 16 percent with half of the electorate undecided.

“The trend line certainly is going toward Raul,” Smith said.

A Ward loss would be an embarrassing setback to the NRCC, which has placed a high priority on unseating Minnick, a first-term Democrat from a district that gave Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) 62 percent of its votes in 2008. Even a narrow win by Ward might raise questions about how carefully GOP officials vetted his candidacy.

Until a few weeks ago it was unthinkable that Ward might lose. He initiated his campaign more than 14 months ago and raised $576,000 through early May — more than three times as much as the $174,000 raised by Labrador, who has loaned his campaign more than half of its funds.

But the past few weeks have been rocky for Ward, whose gaffes have accumulated to cast doubt on his strength and authenticity as a candidate.

He’s been on the defensive after revelations that he was delinquent in paying some property taxes, submitted an incomplete financial disclosure form and failed to vote in the 2008 general election. His campaign had to remove some issue statements from his Web site that were shown to be too similar to those of other Republicans.

And just in the past couple of days, Ward’s opponents have circulated a video excerpt of a campaign speech Ward delivered this year that closely resembles President Barack Obama’s keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention.

This has brought a barrage of negative press. A Sunday editorial in the Idaho Statesman declared Ward “unendorseable” and said he “has proven himself untrustworthy.” The other two major papers in the district also endorsed Labrador over Ward.

Mike Tracy, a former aide to ex-Sen. Larry Craig (R) who has served as Ward’s spokesman since he revamped his campaign two weeks ago, described the attacks as “politics as usual” and said Ward “has taken the high road” in the campaign.

“Every single thing we’ve done has focused on the positive. We haven’t done a negative piece in 14 months,” Tracy said. “Our opponents — and there are many because Vaughn is the frontrunner and we expect that and we expect the scrutiny — have been negative, tremendously negative.”

Ward has tried to stanch the bleeding in part by promoting his backing from some GOP luminaries.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee and an Idaho native, came to the state last Friday to headline a campaign event for Ward. He headed the McCain/Palin presidential campaign in adjacent Nevada.

Former Govs. Dirk Kempthorne and Phil Batt also are backing Ward.

Labrador didn’t raise enough money to air television ads, though he has put out some radio spots and mail. His aides liken Labrador’s campaign to the 1994 campaign of former Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R), a vigorous conservative who represented the 1st for three terms, and say they’ve benefited from a robust social media campaign.

Labrador has the backing of the Boise tea party and former Rep. Bill Sali (R), a combative conservative who lost his seat to Minnick in 2008.

There are scarce differences between Ward and Labrador on policy. Both emphasize tax cuts, spending reductions and social-issue conservatism and their opposition to the recently passed health care law.

Labrador’s campaign says that he is more electable than Ward.

If Ward wins, “I believe he’s going to be so damaged that Walt Minnick could effectively regain the seat,” said Dennis Mansfield, Labrador’s volunteer campaign spokesman and a Republican candidate for the 1st district seat a decade ago. “You don’t walk away from 10,000 paper cuts or 10,000 saber cuts and think you’re not going to be scarred. And so I think that’s another reason Republicans are realizing, ‘Let’s go with Labrador.'”

But Tracy said that “Vaughn Ward is the man that can beat Walt Minnick and unseat” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Asked to elaborate, Tracy said Ward “has got more breadth and depth of knowledge of the issues. He’s an incredible leader who has proven his leadership skills in combat during the Iraq War.”

Minnick, meanwhile, has been preparing for a competitive general election. Though his conservative Democratic voting record has given some liberal activists heartburn — he voted against cap-and-trade and the health care overhaul — Minnick avoided a primary challenge, so there won’t be any measurable anti-Minnick vote in the balloting.

The Congressman plans to kick off his re-election campaign Wednesday and will unveil a re-election committee of more than 100 people, including some elected Republican officials. His fundraising has been strong, and the Congressman recently passed the $1 million mark in campaign cash on hand.