Team Craig?

Is Craig's support base standing behind the embattled senator?


Sen. Larry Craig has spent the last month grasping at every lifeline in a desperate fight to save his political life. Yet through it all, some of his most ardent supports have been keeping mum.

Republican Party leaders were quick to distance themselves from Craig after they learned the specifics of his arrest in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on charges of disorderly conduct during a bathroom sex sting. Craig pleaded guilty to the charges two months after his initial arrest, only coming forward about the incident after a Washington, D.C.-based paper published reports of the arrest. He is now awaiting a judge's ruling as to whether he will be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea.

Party leaders stripped Craig of his leadership positions on several influential Senate committees, including the Appropriations Committee, and many senators publicly said he should resign.

Craig has been an ardent supporter of agriculture and ranching throughout his political career, yet few of his core constituents have spoken publicly about the issue. While many applaud that history of service, other groups that have traditionally supported Craig are simply keeping quiet.

Repeated calls to the Idaho Cattle Association, the Intermountain Forest Association and Idaho Water Users were not returned. Neither were calls to the National Rifle Association, for which Craig serves on the board of directors.

One group willing to speak was the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, which when asked if the group was still supporting Craig, said they were "not issuing any statement to the contrary."

John Thompson, director of public relations, said the Farm Bureau has always appreciated the strong stance Craig has taken on immigration and agriculture jobs issues, and now worries what will happen if he steps down.

"One thing that's really in the back of my mind, as well as a lot of our members with agriculture jobs, Larry [Craig] was out there," Thompson said. "He showed a lot of political courage. He knows there's a lot of people in the round-them-up-and-kick-them-out camp.

"He was beat up over that stand he took," Thompson said. "You just don't see that from senators and congressmen anymore. They're there to get re-elected."

Thompson is also concerned about what Craig's loss of power could mean, whether he stays in office or is replaced, especially by the apparent front-runner, Lt. Gov. Jim Risch.

As the Farm Bureau carefully watches the farm bill and the issue of immigration get kicked around Congress, Thompson is trying to be realistic.

"Those two issues [Craig] may or may not have had influence over, regardless of what may have happened in that restroom," he said.

The fact that not many organizations are willing to share their opinions on the Craig issue comes as no surprise to John Freemuth, professor of public policy at Boise State.

"His waffling on resigning has probably caused some grumbling in the Republican Party in the state, but nobody's going to say anything," Freemuth said.

"His constituents would love to have Sen. Craig back at the height of his power," he said. "But they're smart folks, and they realize that is probably not going to happen."

Freemuth believes it's the state of perpetual political limbo that has most people frustrated.

"If he has a chance to come back with his power, they'll stick by him. If not, they'd like him to move along," he said.

Freemuth points to some of Idaho's other congressional leaders, including Sen. Mike Crapo and Rep. Mike Simpson, who may not have Craig's seniority but are effective leaders.

"We'd like to get our delegation back, rather than have everything in limbo," Freemuth said.

There's no wavering of support by the American Land Rights Association, though.

"My job is to protect land owners, private property rights, access to federal land, people who are the foundation of this country—ranchers, miners, forestry interests. Larry Craig has been a real stand-up guy when it comes to the U.S. Senate as far as continuing to fight for those kinds of things and gun rights," said Chuck Cushman, executive director of the Battle Ground, Wash.-based group. "He's our kind of guy."

Cushman has been a vocal critic of Craig's arrest, calling it illegal, and pointing to a passage in the Constitution stating that a senator cannot be arrested on his way to or from Congress.

In response, he organized a boycott of the Minneapolis-St.Paul airport and Northwest Airlines, whose main hub is at the airport.

"We're coming for those guys in a perfectly legal, economic way," he said.

The national campaign has one goal, Cushman said. "We're trying to let Larry Craig know that there were a lot of people out here who believe in him and will continue to support him," he said. "I hope it made a difference in how he felt about himself."

Cushman said he's been working to make sure Craig does not resign, and adds that he's had no direct contact with the senator.

"That's not how we treat people in our organization," he said. "We stand by our colleagues."

In addition to the airport boycott, Cushman said he is considering some sort of action against the Idaho Statesman, which Craig has blamed for his guilty plea because of stress from a newspaper investigation.

For Cushman, the effort to support Craig may be his greatest battle. "[It] may be the best thing that we've ever done," he said. "We've stood up for a guy who stood up for us."

On the other side of the coin, Bryan Fischer, executive director of the Idaho Values Alliance, who has supported Craig in the past, began calling for Craig's resignation almost immediately after the scandal broke.

"If the senator did indeed engage in the behavior to which he pled guilty, then the appropriate thing for him to do is to resign from office," Fischer said in a written statement. "Character is an essential qualification for public service, and the essence of character is what you do when you do not think anyone is looking."

Fischer's stance against anything he perceives as the "agenda of homosexual activists" is well known, and he's made no exceptions in Craig's case.

"Even setting Sen. Craig's situation aside, the Party should regard participation in the self-destructive homosexual lifestyle as incompatible with public service on behalf of the GOP," he said.

Even if Craig is allowed to withdraw his plea in Minnesota, he faces the possibility of a Senate ethics hearing if he stays in office. If he manages to hold on to his seat, Freemuth said it will be difficult for him to regain his power.

"Clearly, he wants to clear his name, and one [could say] he can then leave honorably," Freemuth said. "If he does it to say, 'I cleared my name and I'm staying,' then we have other issues."