Red faces under bluer skies

When Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) imploded with his semi-resignation from the Senate after his Minnesota men’s room bust, most political pundits predicted Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter (R) would simply pick a Republican to inherit his “safe” seat. Only Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), whose job it is to proclaim silver linings for Democrats, declared the seat winnable.

Schumer now seems prescient, since Craig has put ego above party loyalty and is determined to serve out his term. Even Idaho political observers have declared the state is no longer a lock for the GOP. Some suggest, in fact, that it may be a key to Democrats achieving a 60-vote majority in 2008. Oh, what a sweet victory that would be for a generation of Democrats who engineered victories in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s — before Republicans established their dominance of the state.
Idaho is changing. Lifestyle residents ranging from Sun Valley movie stars to dot-com millionaires are changing the political landscape. Tens of thousands who chosen a smaller paycheck for a better lifestyle joined the migration. By and large they have gone with the political flow and not become activists in statewide political campaigns, although they have often championed local environmental issues.

But Larry Craig pissed them off. The senator’s inept attempt to hide his initial arrest in a Minnesota airport men’s room, his cleverly parsed resignation statement and finally his decision to serve out his term to “clear his name” have both frustrated and angered many Idahoans.

Expanding the cultural divide is the arrogant attitude of long-time conservative Republican stalwarts and their chosen heir apparent to the Craig seat. Lt. Gov. Jim Risch is the inevitable Republican nominee. He served as a brief, lackluster interim replacement when Gov. Dirk Kempthorne was appointed secretary of the Interior by President Bush in 2006. Risch decided to run for lieutenant governor again, rather than for the job he inherited  from Kempthorne. He beat the challenger, Larry LaRocco, by 20 points to be reelected to that post. Now the two are facing off for the Senate seat, and it is not at all clear Risch maintains the advantage he had over LaRocco in the lieutenant governor’s race.

LaRocco launched a “working for Idaho” campaign months ago in which he has taken blue-collar jobs ranging from logger to male nurse to demonstrate he understands the problems faced by working Idahoans. (Not a new idea. Lawton Chiles used it to win a U.S. Senate seat from Florida over 20 years ago.)

But the big difference is that LaRocco is building his campaign around the Web. He launched with an online announcement. He sends regular e-mail updates to Idaho residents and potential contributors around the country. He does webcasts of both his blue-collar jobs and his serious policy announcements. He has recruited an impressive team of consultants, including Celinda Lake, one of the pollsters who best understands Western states; Peter Fenn, who knows Idaho nearly as well as I do (sorry, Peter, just couldn’t resist that); Jessica Vanden Berg, who managed Sen. Jim Webb’s (D-Va.) campaign; and Steve Jarding, an experienced veteran of U.S. Senate and presidential campaigns. I know most of these folks personally, and they know how to win. Contrast that team approach with that of Jim Risch, whom the state’s leading newspaper says “is a dinosaur who writes by hand and uses dictation, doesn’t use e-mail, and pays no mind to blogs or online news.” LaRocco, on the other hand, plans to emulate Democratic Sens. Webb and Jon Tester of Montana. Both won upsets in 2006 with substantial aid from Web fundraising and online news.”

“Larry Craig has put the Idaho race on the Web map,” says LaRocco, So he’s using ActBlue.com to raise money, posting campaign videos on YouTube.com and courting bloggers from across the political spectrum. Risch has no plans to blog, post to YouTube or even start using personal e-mail. “It’s generational, I suppose,” said Risch, 64. “When I want to talk to somebody, I pick up the phone.” Land line, I suppose.

When I first entered politics, the Risch model was how we ran campaigns — street-level retail and back-room deals. Idaho has changed. The state is networked. Larry LaRocco understands how to reach voters and with what messages. Larry Craig and Jim Risch just don’t get it. National Democrats make a big mistake if they consign Idaho to the old paradigm. There is a new world out West. Idaho is the Democrats’ to win if they just use the right message and the right tools.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.
E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com