The six-way race to win the Republican nomination in Idaho’s 1st Congressional District has turned into a full-fledged family feud, fraught with intraparty tensions and resentments.
The six GOP candidates in pursuit of victory in the May 23 primary include a centrist woman, a social conservative who has a propensity to throw political firebombs, a Hispanic county commissioner who opposes illegal immigration and three traditional conservatives. The district, which runs up to Canada in the north down to Nevada in the south, covers the western half of the state.
Some Republicans are concerned that a win by either state Rep. Bill Sali (R-Idaho), whom some Idaho GOP leaders consider a lightning rod, or Canyon County Commissioner Robert Vasquez, a single-issue anti-illegal-immigration candidate, could significantly boost Democrats’ chances in November because they appeal to a small part of the GOP base.
The candidates and strategists say that so far there has been little voter interest and that no single issue, except perhaps for immigration, has defined the race.
“They’re all clumped up. It’s a cluster,” said a D.C.-based lobbyist familiar with the race. “No one has really reached out and grabbed voters’ attention. No candidate has broken away from the pack.”
The seat opened up when Rep. Butch Otter (R-Idaho) decided to run for governor in the GOP-dominated state, where President Bush won 68.4 percent of the vote in 2004 and all four members of the state’s congressional delegation and its governor are Republicans.
While operatives in both parties agree chances are slim that Democrats could win the seat, former Rep. Larry LaRocco (D) served from 1991 to 1995 until he lost to conservative former Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho).
A 16-year veteran of the Idaho House, Sali has won endorsements from some prominent conservative pressure groups, including the American Conservative Union (ACU), the National Pro-Life Alliance and the Club for Growth. While visiting Washington this week, Sali met yesterday with Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, and plans to meet today with Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.).
But Idaho political operatives note that two factors, local endorsements and money raised in Idaho, can separate a front-runner from the pack.
The state’s two senators, Republicans Larry Craig and Mike Crapo, have stayed on the sidelines, but Craig’s wife, Suzanne, is the chairman of Norm Semanko’s campaign. Semanko, an attorney for Idaho Water Users, had worked for Craig as an aide in Washington and Idaho.
Still, Craig’s former aides are divided among Semanko, state Controller Keith Johnson and former state Sen. Sheila Sorensen, Republicans say. The political leg up that Semanko expected from his ties to Craig never materialized.
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) has endorsed his longtime friend Sorensen, but several Idaho Republicans said Simpson’s bigger goal is to stop Sali. The two men had a strained relationship in the state House.
“They were often on opposing sides of issues,” an Idaho Republican candidate said. “Sali was considered a grandstander. He just had to get on television.”
Sali’s critics pointed to an incident earlier this month in which he insisted on discussing studies linking abortion to breast cancer during a debate on a bill to require doctors to inform women about abortion-related risks. The Idaho House Democratic leader, a survivor of breast cancer, walked out in tears, and her Democratic colleagues followed her.
The Idaho GOP leaders postponed the day’s business. The Speaker, Bruce Newcomb, told The Idaho Statesman, “That idiot is just an absolute idiot. He doesn’t have one ounce of empathy in his whole fricking body. And you can put that in the paper.”
Sali said that he and Newcomb have deep philosophical differences and that Newcomb does not like him because he has outmaneuvered Newcomb on different pieces of legislation.
With Sali attacking Vasquez on immigration and Sorensen on abortion, and Semanko unable to move beyond his agricultural base of support, Johnson could be the best-positioned candidate.
He has won endorsements from Jack Riggs, Idaho’s lieutenant governor; Phil Batt, a former GOP governor; and the D.C.-based Business Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC). Otter’s top campaign aide is working for Johnson in northern Idaho.
BIPAC endorsed Johnson in an attempt to stop Sali or Vasquez from winning the primary.
“What we in the business community were concerned about is that the winner would appeal to a small group of voters and that you get someone from outside the mainstream,” the lobbyist familiar with the race said.
Sali said, “They’ve said that about me for years. … If you want a go-along, get-along guy, I’m not your guy. The establishment won’t like Bill Sali.”
In the money chase, Johnson, the only candidate who has won a statewide race, has raised 86 percent of his money in Idaho, according to PoliticalMoneyLine. Analysts said that reflects his level of support within the district.
Sali and Vasquez have raised more than 70 percent of their money from outside of Idaho. Sorensen lent her campaign $100,000 of her own money. Semanko has raised 69 percent of his money from Idahoans, while state Sen. Skip Brandt has raised nearly all of his money within the state but has only $4,000 on hand.
“The critical point is that we’re raising money from people of like mind,” Sali said, referring to contributions from out-of-state supporters.
A spokesman for the NRCC said it would continue to remain neutral in the race even if it appeared that Sali or Vasquez gained momentum.
Larry Grant, a former executive with Idaho’s largest employer, Micron Technology, is the best-funded Democratic candidate.