Jockeying For Attention

Sorensen, Sali and Vasquez scrap for the May 23 primary


Sheila Sorensen and State Rep. Bill Sali agree on one thing: They are each other's most formidable opponent in this month's six-way Republican primary.

The two led earlier campaign finance reports, and now each quote polling information showing leads held, alternately, by Sorensen and Sali. The closest third, others say, is Canyon County Commissioner Robert Vasquez.

"The race is clearly between Rep. Sali and Sheila Sorensen," said Jesseca Sali, Rep. Sali's daughter-in-law and campaign manager.

Likewise Chuck Malloy, the spokesman for Sorensen, said automated polls of their own are showing Sorensen and Sali taking the lead, with Vasquez trailing. Perhaps it's because Sorensen has peppered the First Congressional District with billboards, but her polls show her with higher name recognition than her headline-grabbing opponents.

Others in the race, but trailing in the money and name I.D. heats, are State Controller Keith Johnson, water lobbyist Norm Semanko and State Sen. Skip Brandt.

For political opportunists, nothing matches the allure of the open seat.

So it is no surprise that the vacancy of U.S. Rep. Butch Otter's position has attracted a bevy of Republican wannabes. Nor is it a surprise that Sorensen's campaign has turned once-private polling numbers traditionally used for strategy into public information.

But when two of the top challengers are hard-core conservatives, as Sali and Vasquez are, they have a good chance of splitting their intended target audience.

"It looks like it's Sali and Vasquez splitting the conservative vote and Sorensen taking the lead," said Boise State political science professor Jim Weatherby.

Primaries, of course, are the habitat of committed party activists. With turnouts that typically trend into the low 30 percent range, Sorensen might have to work hard to draw her party's moderates, Weatherby said. Instead, the May 23 event could end up as a slugfest between those who favor the religious activism of Sali, who has made clumsy but determined attempts to shore up Idaho's abortion restrictions while earning the disdain of powerful Republican colleagues in the Legislature, and Vasquez, who continues to work the fringe of the immigration issue. Case in point is a recent news release from Vasquez railing against the Idaho Congressional delegation, a group he hopes to join, for failing to help an Idaho doctor who struggled with medical issues while on a recent vacation to Acapulco, Mexico.

"Where is the outrage at the treatment of Americans in Mexico?" Vasquez wailed.

Not exactly Congressional material, the Sorensen campaign insists.

"Either one would be basically stuffed in a closet in Washington," Malloy scoffed.

Waiting for the dust to settle is Democrat Larry Grant, a former Micron executive from Fruitland. Either Sali or Vasquez, Weatherby said, "would provide a lot of room for a moderate like Larry Grant to come in and win."

Grant, of course, is a political unknown in Idaho. Campaign reports from the end of March show he'd only raised $117,970, not exactly a heaping war chest for a long campaign. Even Semanko had raised that much just for the primary, and Sali has spent double that already.