Craig: Betting on Idaho's enduring conservatism

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to a feature story.

For Sen. Larry Craig, who has been in politics since 1974, the recipe for success is simple: Be a Republican. After all, Idaho has boasted the most conservative state legislature in the country four years running.

"He's not popular like (Wyoming Sen.) Alan Simpson was. People vote for him not so much because of himself, but because of the "R" after his name," says Idaho conservationist Pat Ford.

In fact, Craig is not merely a Republican. He is an ƒberRepublican. Just finishing his first term in the Senate, Craig, 51, is already starring as the fourth-ranking Republican since he was elected Policy Committee Chairman.

Named the most conservative senator in the country in 1994 by National Journal (he tied for first place with Idaho's other senator, Dirk Kempthorne), Craig sits on the board of directors for the National Rifle Association and chairs two key subcommittees on forestry. He wields power - not a bad thing for lightly populated Idaho to have in Washington, D.C.

Born on the ranch his grandfather homesteaded in 1899, Craig was student body president at the University of Idaho and state president of Future Farmers of America. Craig then spent six years in the state legislature and 10 years in the U.S. House of Representatives before he beat Democrat Richard Stallings for Senate in 1990.

With these qualifications securely in place, Craig doesn't need to rely on personality, says David Proctor, who works for the anti-nuclear waste initiative campaign. "His whole style is to be above the fray. You don't see much of Larry Craig. He's like the CEO of a company: invisible."

Behind the scenes, Craig keeps the commodity groups happy. "We're very pleased with our senator on all of the issues that a farmer is concerned about - rangeland reform, endangered species, wetlands," says Greg Nelson of the Idaho Farm Bureau.

Craig supported legislation to weaken the Endangered Species Act and championed a "takings" bill. Even union timber workers in the traditionally more Democratic north support Craig for writing a "forest health" bill that would expedite logging.

Craig has also carried the torch of the mining industry. He led the fight against reforming the 1872 Mining Law, and split from other Republicans by voting to end a moratorium on patenting mining claims.

The industries, in turn, have been kind to Larry Craig. His list of Political Action Committee contributions reads like a directory of natural resource industries. For his first Senate race in 1990, $819,306 of PAC money flowed to his coffers from groups like ASARCO Employees PAC and the Chevron Employees PAC.

PACs advocating a rewrite of the Endangered Species Act gave him $212,017 and mining PACs alone gave him $65,858. By 1995, the mining PACs had already matched that amount to aid his re-election bid.

Craig maintains that PAC contributions don't buy his politics; he is merely trying to help his state's economy. "When you're supporting the industries of the state and the jobs of the state, therefore you're supporting the people of the state," he told the Associated Press.

Environmentalists are skeptical of this reasoning: Mining provided only 2,700 jobs in Idaho in 1995, according to the Idaho Department of Labor, about half of 1 percent of the state's jobs. Agricultural employment accounts for approximately 6 percent of the state's jobs. And two of Craig's biggest contributors are companies that want to mine exclusively in Colorado and Nevada.

Could Idaho's changing demographics bring an end to Craig's success?

Most democrats say the jury is still out, but Mike Tracy, a spokesman for Craig's campaign, says, "Exactly the opposite is true. Conventional wisdom was that with people moving here we would become a more democratic state. People underestimated the value of the conservative climate here."

Tracy points to Dawn Berheim and her husband, Greg. Young, newly married, middle-class, they recently moved from New Mexico to Meridian, a bedroom town ten miles west of Boise. The Berheims are just the sort of voters Walt Minnick is counting on. But they are voting for Craig.

"We're starting our family and he has a commitment to family issues. He pretty much opposes abortion ... supports school prayer," says Berheim from the pharmacy where she works. "The environment is not real important to me. I think he's pro-environment, but not radically so."