Purple Dreams

A crowded Democratic field hopes to challenge Republicans for dominance


Idaho Democrats have a lot of expectations for 2008.

After the national party regained control of Congress last year, state party leaders are hoping for a boost locally. But with the state Republican Party already throwing its considerable weight behind some big-name candidates, including Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, Reps. Mike Simpson and Bill Sali, some wonder if the various Democratic challengers have enough clout to make a serious run.

Walt Minnick is the most recent Democrat to express his interest in a possible run for Idaho's First Congressional District. Minnick's last political campaign was in 1996, when he unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Larry Craig, losing by 16 percentage points.

Minnick would only confirm that he is seriously considering entering the political fray. Still, he has already hired political consultant Tara Wolfson, and some in his party view his candidacy as a foregone conclusion.

If Minnick officially enters the race, it would mean a three-way Democratic primary, pitting Minnick, the former CEO of Trus-Joist, against Larry Grant and North Idaho resident Rand Lewis.

Lewis, an academic, businessman and former military officer, isn't well known in the Treasure Valley, but he's working to change that, routinely traveling the more than 500-mile length of the district. Idaho House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet said voters' unfamiliarity with Lewis could be a detriment, but that he's moving in the right direction.

"He's been working with the base, and that's really what you have to do," she said.

Lewis has already hired a campaign manager, Gary Dest, and a fundraiser, Ken Christensen of Christensen and Associates, and has opened an office in Coeur d'Alene.

Grant is still working on those details. Unlike his last go-round, when he acted as his own campaign manager, Grant has this year hired former Canyon County Democratic activist Maria Gonzalez Mabbutt and Kristy Johnson in north Idaho. Grant said he'll wait until spring before hiring a fundraiser or establishing a campaign office.

Having multiple candidates is something new for Idaho Democrats. "I have heard within the party itself, people musing, 'Gosh, we've got a lot of talent running in one race for one seat,'" said party spokesman Chuck Oxley.

No Democratic candidates have declared themselves for the Second District race, although Oxley said the party is talking to several would-be contenders. He admits this could be a hard race for Democrats to win considering Simpson's popularity.

So far, the only Democratic candidate for Craig's seat is Larry LaRocco, who began his campaign six months ago.

While no other names are being put forward so far, Lewis said he was asked by party leadership and private supporters to consider running for the Senate rather than the House of Representatives early in his campaign. While he said his 30-year military career and work at the University of Idaho make him an appealing Senate candidate, he also knew Risch would be the Republican nominee, and a run against him would be difficult.

While some would like to see more candidates, others are pleased with those who have come forward.

"Some are very experienced, very savvy and very connected," said Minority Caucus Chair Sen. Kate Kelly. "It's a good thing in this day and age, when money talks so much. You have to be able to get those financial resources."

She said she loves to see a contested primary, but admitted that having several qualified candidates in the primary can split the financial pool.

"As a Democrat in Idaho, not only do you need a quality candidate, but you have to be a candidate willing to work 10 times harder than your Republican challenger," said state Sen. Elliot Werk.

Regardless of who ends up as the party nominee, many feel the time is coming for Democrats in Idaho, thanks to the public distaste for politics as usual.

Oxley said he sees the First Congressional District as vulnerable due to Sali's polarizing nature. He points to statements by Sali saying the country was created as a Christian nation, and a Muslim Congressman and Hindu prayers are an odd fit in the House.

"[He's been] an ineffective and, in some ways, silly congressman," Oxley said.

John Foster, executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party, called Sali "low-hanging fruit.

"If I were to personally ask [Sali] to do things to help our campaign, he couldn't do any better," Foster said.

While Republican Party leadership has already endorsed Risch—well before the primary—don't expect the Democrats to follow suit.

"It's not going to be a public mug-fest like you saw on the Republican side," Oxley said. The party has already met with Grant, Lewis and Minnick to discuss how the three will be treated through the primary.

Werk echoed Oxley's idea that the GOP crowns its candidates. "What you saw was the closing ranks of the good-old-boys club," Werk said, referring to the array of longtime Republican Party leaders who surrounded Risch as he announced his candidacy.

"I don't think the term 'anointed' is the appropriate term," said Jason Risch, son of the lieutenant governor. "My father was endorsed by the Idaho Republican Party based on his long-standing record and support on Republican issues, and it's an endorsement my father is honored to have."

Democrats say their party's possible three-way primary is a sign of momentum, not confusion, even though they constantly referred to Sali's crowded 2006 primary as exactly that. When Sali eked out a majority among five challengers, Democrats assailed him as a weak general election candidate. He beat Grant by five points.

"Primaries are positive for any party and especially for the Democratic Party," Jaquet said. "It gets more energy around the candidate."

With both parties rallying the troops, many feel independent voters will determine the outcome.

"More people in the state have moved to the independent category, so they're considering Democratic candidates—that's the difference," Jaquet said. "They're beginning to see the alternatives."

Kelly is in the process of collecting results from 19,000 household surveys she sent across her district. "I'm getting the vibe from it that people are just getting discouraged," she said. "That translates into more people wanting to run for office."

"Independent voters have voted very strongly Republican in the last 20 years, but in the last four years, the Republican Party has done a lot to damage itself," Werk said. "[Independents] may have been voting strongly Republican for a long time, but they call themselves independents for a reason."

But the burden of proof sits upon the Democrats, Lewis said. "We have to go in and show these people we can offer something in the arena of leadership and the arena of problem solving."

"I feel it's a watershed year [for Democrats]," Lewis said. "We're at least going to have a purple delegation.