Republican favorite losing ground in Idaho primary

A GOP candidate favored by national Republicans has seen his bid for a conservative-leaning House seat implode a week before the primary, threatening the party’s chances in a key congressional race.

Republican front-runner Vaughn Ward is campaigning to challenge Minnick, a freshman Democrat who holds the distinction of being the only member of his party endorsed by the national Tea Party.

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Ward, a decorated Iraq war veteran, has been endorsed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) and promoted as a member of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s (NRCC) “Young Guns” program. But his campaign has been rocked by a series of negative articles in recent weeks, prompting the resignation of his campaign manager and boosting the chances of his GOP rival, state Rep. Raul Labrador. The primary will take place May 25.

Among Ward’s recent problems is a reprimand from the Marines for wearing his military uniform during a campaign ad, along with a report that the “Issues” section of his campaign website contained passages lifted verbatim from other Republicans. His opponent has also criticized him for not voting in the 2008 presidential election despite working as the Nevada state director for Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) campaign.

“The wheels have pretty well come off the campaign,” said Gary Moncrief, a political scientist at Boise State University. “Any advantage that [Ward] had would have dissipated.”

Ward held a double-digit lead over Labrador in the most recent public poll, but that was taken before his campaign troubles began to snowball. And while the national Tea Party Express gave a surprise endorsement to the incumbent Minnick, Labrador last week won the backing of the local Boise-based Tea Party group.

In an interview, Ward said he took “decisive action” to shake up his campaign staff, bringing in two veterans of Idaho politics to serve as his campaign manager and spokesman. 

“It’s a scrutiny a front-running candidate goes under,” he said of the negative reports in recent weeks. “I invite the scrutiny, and it’s part of the process.

“A campaign is kind of akin to being in combat,” Ward said, suggesting that the recent challenges would be a test of his leadership skills. He said he remained confident he would win the primary, but he added: “I also take nothing for granted.”

Democrats have salivated at the suddenly competitive Republican primary, sensing a possible November reprieve in a district that had seemed among the most promising GOP pick-up opportunities. Idaho’s 1st district, covering the northern and western sections of the state, is one of the most heavily Republican seats currently held by a Democrat. Minnick won his 2008 race by just more than 4,000 votes, and the district supported McCain over President Barack Obama by a 62-to-36 percent margin.

Recognizing the political climate of his district, Minnick has amassed a conservative record in the House. He has voted against virtually every major Democratic initiative, including the economic stimulus package, the cap-and-trade energy bill and each version of the healthcare overhaul. He’s also come out strongly against earmarks, supporting an outright ban on the practice.

That record won the notice of the Tea Party Express, which made Minnick the only Democrat the group endorsed when it rolled out its first round of candidates. The move caused consternation in Idaho, where local “tea party” groups complained they had not been consulted.

A chief strategist for the Sacramento-based Tea Party Express, Sal Russo, all but acknowledged the organization was looking for a Democrat to get behind, saying he did not want the group to be “an exclusive Republican club.”

“We want [Minnick] to be an example of someone who can get bipartisan support,” Russo told The Hill. He praised the Democrat’s fiscal record and said Minnick had “stood up and bucked” some of the party’s more liberal leaders.

Russo predicted there would be a few more Democratic endorsements from the national Tea Party, but noted the pool of lawmakers whose record could qualify for support was small. “It’s a lot easier to find Republicans” who meet the criteria, he said.

The Minnick campaign has embraced the Tea Party endorsement while not aligning itself directly with the movement. 

“The endorsement is a reflection of Walt’s strong record of fiscal accountability in Congress,” campaign manager John Foster said. “We’re not in the habit of turning down support.”

The local Tea Party of Boise went with Labrador. Its president, Brendan Smythe, said the group had strong relations with Minnick, who was the only member of the state congressional delegation to appear at the organization’s town-hall meeting last August. But Minnick declined to take specific stands on many of the Boise group’s key issues, such as a return to the gold standard and a repeal of the 17th Amendment, which would end direct election of senators. The national organization, by contrast, bases its endorsements in part on the voting record in Congress, rather than solely on a questionnaire.

Minnick avoided a primary challenge of his own, and Democrats have instead tried to draw attention to the brewing battle between Ward and Labrador.

Labrador has touted “a proven record of conservative leadership” from his time in the state legislature, and has criticized the national GOP for favoring Ward. 

“I knew they bet on the wrong horse a long time ago,” he told The Hill. The Labrador campaign has accused the NRCC and GOP leaders like House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) of shunning his bid while promoting Ward up the ladder of the “Young Guns” program. Labrador refused to commit to endorsing Ward if he won the Republican primary next week.

Although the NRCC notes it has not officially endorsed Ward, House Republican leader John Boehner (Ohio), Cantor and NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) appeared at a fundraiser for him.