In recent elections, some races have become less a battle of ideas than a battle of ideologies, as candidates fight for voters by tapping their deepest-held beliefs.
This election season, no race better illustrates that than the battle for the state's First Congressional District seat, pitting incumbent Republican Rep. Bill Sali against Democratic challenger Walt Minnick.
In recent weeks the two candidates have barraged voters with ads of decidedly different tones. While Sali seeks to paint Minnick as a raging liberal whose ideas don't fall in line with mainstream Idahoans, Minnick counters by showing Sali as out-of-touch and appealing only to the far-right wing.
Though recent independent polls give Minnick a slight lead over Sali, Minnick said he knows he still faces a battle to woo Republicans—the party to which he belonged for years—as well as independents and Democrats. It's this group of independent voters and moderate Republicans who may feel disenfranchised by more hard-line party members that Minnick is focusing on.
"I'm focused less on the traditional Democratic base and focused more on the traditional Republican voter who is voting Republican for more than social issues. The kind of Republican I was," Minnick said in an interview with BW.
Minnick said Sali's voting base is social Republicans—people who feel the party aligns with their social and religious views. But it's this shift from fiscal conservatism to social conservatism that Minnick said is alienating some longtime Republicans.
"They're being driven out of the party," Minnick said. "They're finding themselves as independents or Democrats or who the rest of the Republicans call RINOs [Republican in name only]. These are people who are Republicans because they are fiscally conservative and they are troubled by the religious right social conservatives, but they are still Republican," Minnick said.
For his part, Sali feels he has broader support. While Sali declined to speak to BW, his campaign spokesman Wayne Hoffman replied to a series of written questions e-mailed to the campaign.
When asked who Sali's core voting base is, Hoffman wrote, "Idahoans appreciate the work Congressman Sali has done for them. They support his efforts to lower taxes, cut government spending, support a strong national defense, end illegal immigration and support of the U.S. Constitution."
Hoffman wrote that Minnick's charges that Sali only appeals to the far right are untrue and that Sali's efforts have earned him wide support. He added that Sali isn't worried about alienating potential supporters by labeling Minnick "too liberal for Idaho."
But Boise State political science professor John Freemuth believes the differences between the Republican and Democratic platforms are not the key to this race.
"What's most interesting to me is the battle in the middle," he said. "Can Minnick peel off a certain amount of independents who do, theoretically, go back and forth, and some of the business Republicans, compared to the lifestyle Republicans?"
Freemuth said this is Minnick's challenge, while Sali's is to keep the voters who supported him in the last election.
Sali's campaign has tried to make Minnick look like the definition of a liberal Democrat in an effort to attract Republicans who fear that a Democrat means bigger government and higher taxes. But Freemuth said the approach isn't the most effective.
"Anybody [who's done research on Minnick] knows he's not a classic 'L' liberal," he said. "[Sali's camp] is trying, but it's not really working."
Freemuth added that Minnick's claim that Sali only has support from the far right isn't correct, since it took more than that segment to elect Sali in the first place.
He also pointed out that not only do the two candidates' messages differ, but so, too, do their campaigning styles.
Freemuth said Minnick is effective in sharing his message and portraying himself as a middle-ground candidate, but added "he is not the most dynamic campaigner."
Minnick's strength comes with one-on-one interactions, where his intelligence and ideas come across, Freemuth said.
While Freemuth said Sali is more at ease in front of an audience, Sali's is a tightly controlled campaign. "They don't want him going off the reservation," he said.
"They don't want him talking too freely," Freemuth said of Sali, adding that Minnick often speaks off the cuff about any issue.
Minnick is banking on the belief that Sali's sometimes showy antics have frustrated some Republicans enough that they will support a Democrat. For his part, Minnick is portraying himself as a candidate who supports individual freedoms while working to build consensus between the parties.
Minnick's campaign has even rolled out a commercial touting the spectrum of Republicans who have pledged their support.
Freemuth believes Minnick is effectively showing a middle stance, but said it remains to be seen if enough Republicans will go against what he calls, "the 11th commandment of Ronald Reagan, 'Thou shalt not speak badly of any other Republican.'"
While Minnick is openly courting the middle, he said he's also seen good support from fundamental Democrats.
"That group of the party [tends to be] tolerant and understanding," he said. "They are understanding of what I'm trying to do in [this] district ... I've found they have been not only welcoming, but encouraging me. [They're saying] 'We're with you any way. If you can capture this middle ground, and show that a Democrat can represent that socially moderate and fiscally conservative [voter] better than Bill Sali's extreme right-wing [views].'"
Minnick said this is a chance for the Democratic Party to broaden its base to be more inclusive, while the Republican Party seems to be narrowing itself.
"People, regardless of their party affiliation, are sick to death of the partisan bickering," Minnick said. "Too many politicians are willing to sit back and ignore the problems facing the nation ... These shouldn't be partisan issues, but [they've been] so politicized by the ineffectual extremes of both parties. People perceive Washington [D.C.] as being unable to come up with sensible middle-ground solutions."
Both candidates agree that the anticipated high voter turnout is a good thing, but each feels it will be in his favor.
"There has been a conventional wisdom that high turnout numbers favor Republicans," Minnick said. "I think high turnout numbers this time reflect the concern that the country is not solving problems."
But Freemuth said the effect of the youth vote is still unknown. "People are pretty galvanized by this election," he said. "It's possible on this race, we may be up late at night watching the returns."