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Finding The One

Author David Sirota on why Idaho Democrats need a star

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Idaho's minority Democrats are going to need nothing short of a superstar to get over the hump of the state's Republican-leaning voters, according to a political consultant who ought to know.

David Sirota, a consultant, author and syndicated columnist, was in town to speak to the Ada County Democrats at a fundraiser last week. In an interview before his talk, Sirota, who helped Democrat Brian Schweitzer become Montana's governor in 2004, said star power is what's needed in red states like Idaho.

"You need an iconic candidate," Sirota, 32, said. "You need candidates who can brand a party. You're going to lose states like this if you just have generic [Republican] vs. generic [Democrat.]"

That, of course, is not the only solution for Democrats he was quick to note. But the success of Schweitzer in conservative Montana was a good illustration of his point. Schweitzer, the larger-than-life wealthy rancher, has been adept at providing a camera-ready persona for voters and reporters, and he capitalized on a weak incumbent governor, Judy Martz.

But a star or a brand isn't the only silver bullet, he said.

"You can't really plan for stars," Sirota said. "All you can do as a party is build as much of a foundation as possible so there's something there to help them."

He did not say whether any such stars were in Idaho Democratic Party's firmament just now. The party is fielding an almost-unheard-of three candidates for the First Congressional District seat held by Republican Bill Sali. In the last six months Larry Grant, who ran unsuccessfully against Sali for an open seat in 2006, has been joined by two others in a quest for the nomination this next year. Rand Lewis, a security and terrorism consultant and real estate professional from Moscow, and Walt Minnick, a Boise-area businessman who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1996. It is unclear whether any of the three have statewide name recognition, but that's something a Democrat in Idaho is likely to need, Sirota said.

A common political organizing truism is that good turnout from a party's dedicated voters can yield three to six points on election day. A star candidate, Sirota said, can net five points. Luckily, he said, they had that in Schweitzer. But Schweitzer also wisely sat back and let an image of himself as a wealthy cattle baron with lots of party support build in the pre-primary days, thus ensuring the nomination would be his, Sirota said. The rest is in the intangible.

"That is, every person could say, 'I may not agree with him on everything, but I know that he's telling the truth,'" Sirota said. "That's a really hard place to get to. That's the dream."