Idaho: How a Democrat wins in the Northern Rockies

 

When the votes are counted election night, it might surprise some national pundits if Idaho's 1st Congressional District goes blue. But Democrat Walt Minnick was a pretty good bet when he wrested the seat from 14 years of Republican ownership in 2008. And since then, Minnick has positioned himself to appeal even more to Idaho's generally conservative voters.

Minnick, an Army veteran, earned an MBA and a law degree from Harvard, worked in a Republican White House pushing President Nixon's war on drugs, and has run two large companies (wood products and garden centers). In the House of Representatives, he's voted with Democrats about 70 percent of the time, but he crossed party lines on fiscal matters and voted against health-care reform and the cap-and-trade-emissions bill, which sought to address climate change. That's earned him praise from conservative groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business and Citizens Against Government Waste. The Sacramento-based Tea Party Express even endorsed Minnick, though he rejected its support.

Minnick is semi-green, voting for environmentalists' positions 43 percent of the time in 2009, according to the League of Conservation Voters. He's trying to retain his seat in a four-way race that includes right-wing Republican legislator Raul Labrador -- who wants the U.S. to drop out of the United Nations and go back to gold-based currency -- and Libertarian Mike Washburn. Minnick remains the best fit for his district -- a slice of western Idaho that includes the University of Idaho, logging towns and Boise suburbs -- and polls say he'll probably win again.

Republican incumbents, including Gov. Butch Otter, will likely prevail in other high-profile races. Idaho hasn't had a Democratic governor since Cecil Andrus finished his fourth term in January 1995; the latest sacrificial Democratic candidate for the job is Keith Allred, a fifth-generation Idahoan and former Harvard professor who ran a respected nonpartisan public-policy group called The Common Interest.

Best jack Mormon Idaho's real political struggle is within the state's Republican Party. Tea Partiers have taken over the Republican Party leadership, demanding that candidates swear allegiance to their platform: calling for Idaho to take over federal land, return to gold-based money and choose U.S. senators by a vote in the Republican Legislature instead of statewide popular votes. Yet some prominent Republicans have rejected the extreme platform, including Rep. Mike Simpson. He's a jack Mormon (he rejects his church's prohibition of booze, for instance) who's sponsoring the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill, which he negotiated with the Idaho Conservation League.