On Nov. 4, Idahoans elected their first Democratic congressman in decades—Walt Minnick, who narrowly unseated Bill Sali in the First Congressional District.
No one doubts that Republicans will fight tooth and nail to take Minnick's seat back two years from now. But what about the interim? Can the Republicans in Idaho's congressional delegation work across the aisle with Minnick to accomplish important things for Idaho?
The answer from Sen. Mike Crapo, Rep. Mike Simpson and Sen.-elect Jim Risch is a resounding, "Yes, we can."
"Once the election is over, you kind of put the 'Democrat' and 'Republican' behind your name behind you and work together in the best interests of the state," Simpson said. "I'll work with him like a member of my own party."
Crapo said he's had occasion to work with Minnick in the past on issues like the environment and tax policy, and they've always had a good working relationship.
"I look forward to working with him as closely as we can," he said. "I think our delegation will work well together. We have always had a unified delegation."
Minnick feels he and his Republican counterparts can find common ground.
"We're going to do everything we can to try to meet in the middle and forge a common mission with issues important to Idaho, so we can work both sides of the street," he said. "We'll take advantage of the fact that Congressman Simpson and Sen. Crapo are experienced and hold leadership positions on the Republican side, and we'll take advantage of the fact that I'm a member of the Democratic Party and can work with leadership and the administration. Our chances of success are a lot greater than if I've got my solution and they've got their solution ... People are sick of the gridlock and the partisanship," Minnick said. "They want to see their representatives be effective."
There's historic precedent for Republicans and Democrats being able to work together in Idaho's delegation. Democrat Frank Church served in the U.S. Senate for 24 years. Richard Stallings was a member of the House for eight years, and Larry LaRocco served in the House for four years.
"This is not an unusual situation," Risch said.
Though there are weighty national issues on the table now, including the economy, the war, energy issues and health care, what really matters is that all Idaho members of Congress agree how to represent Idaho interests, Risch said.
"The only thing is that on Idaho issues, that the delegation be of one mind," Risch said. Idaho's newly minted congressional delegation should be of similar mind on Simpson's Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill, Crapo's Owyhee Canyonlands Initiative and any issues that could affect the Idaho National Laboratory, he said.
Minnick pledged to do everything he could to help the wilderness bills pass.
"I am strongly supportive of both the Boulder-White Clouds and the Owyhee Initiative and have told Crapo and Simpson that if I can give them any help on these issues in the Democratic caucus, even before I take office, I will," he said. "Those are consensus issues that Sen. Crapo and Congressman Simpson spent a lot of time putting together. I think they're to be commended."
The importance of that offer isn't lost on Simpson. "It won't hurt to have someone in the majority party working on those issues," he said.
If the federal government is going to spend money, Minnick said, he wants to see Idaho get its share, including alternative fuel research dollars for the INL and University of Idaho, a chunk of new energy programs for Idaho wind farms and biofuel producers, any highway funding Gov. Otter requests and money for a mass transit right-of-way, he said.
Crapo, too, thinks Minnick will work in a bipartisan way on national issues such as regulatory policy, tax policy and health care. "We will work together across the board in Idaho's interest," he said.
On some issues, Minnick might even be a better partner for his Republican counterparts than Bill Sali was. Sali never supported his colleagues' efforts to preserve the Owyhees and Boulder-White Clouds.
Sali also canceled out Simpson's vote on numerous occasions in the U.S. House on issues ranging from children's health insurance, college tuition, loans to small rural businesses and unemployment benefits.
Sali isn't saying yet whether he'll have another run at the congressional seat he held for two years, or whether he'll shoot for something at the state level. But he will remain in politics, said his spokesman Wayne Hoffman. "Stay tuned," he said.
Sali doesn't intend to soften his positions on anything, Hoffman said. "All the principles that Bill Sali held prior to the election, he still holds today. He believes we need to embrace the values of the Constitution in order to secure a prosperous future for our kids and grandkids."
It will be vital for Idaho's delegation, and for all members of Congress and the Obama administration, to work across the aisle, said Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League. "They have to do it. It's both a personal style and it's a mandate of the election. And it's a requirement of the hole we're in now."
Johnson knows all four members of the delegation and thinks they can work well together because they all have a style of working together with disparate groups.
He has worked with Crapo, Simpson and Risch on the Owyhee Initiative, the Boulder-White Cloud plan, and the Idaho roadless plan Risch crafted, all of which required a great deal of coalition-building and balancing the needs of various constituencies. And, knowing Minnick from his time on the Conservation League's board, he feels that working across the aisle with different groups could be a hallmark of Minnick's term in office.
There are several good signs that bipartisan cooperation will take place, Johnson said. One good sign is the speed with which Simpson, Crapo and Risch called Minnick to congratulate him, Johnson said. "They were talking to each other before Sali conceded," said Johnson.
Minnick is relatively conservative for a Democrat, Johnson said.
But it could be to Crapo, Simpson and Risch's advantage to work with a Democrat, he said. "Republicans are in the minority [in Congress]. If they can be in sync with Minnick going in, they're going to do better."