The debate was lively, and the exchange of issues was spirited. But last week's Idaho Public Television debate between Democrat Jim Hansen and incumbent Congressman Mike Simpson may be about as close as Hansen gets to the four-term congressman.
"I'm glad Jim's in the race," Simpson said, more than once. "Every member of Congress should face competition. I think the people of Idaho deserve to have competition."
Spoken like someone who is unconcerned about his opposition.
As campaign season 2006 winds into its final weeks, most of the heat and light of the Idaho election scene has been focused on Idaho's First Congressional District. The reasons for that attention are elemental; the seat is open, now that Republican Butch Otter is running for governor of Idaho. Also, because the Idaho GOP this year nominated Bill Sali, a candidate widely seen as controversial and maybe even alienating those within his own party, a Democrat like Larry Grant is seen as having more than the usual gnat's whisker-sized chance of winning in red-state Idaho.
But while the money and the attention ramp up in the First District, an entirely different scenario is playing out in the Hansen-Simpson race. It came to a head in the public television station's studios. But otherwise Hansen's campaign has been an anachronistic push to reach people in small towns. His campaign, critics and fans alike say, resembles more of a movement than an actual bid for a Congressional seat.
Just don't tell Hansen that. As he spoke with BW in a coffee shop this month, Hansen seemed comfortable without the usual accoutrements of a modern campaign. Hansen won't take big campaign contributions; individual donations are limited to $100.
"If you're looking for the indicators based on media, or based on cash, you're not going to see it," Hansen said.
He's not kidding. As of the end of September, Simpson had raised $467,776, according to Political MoneyLine, a group that tracks Federal Election Commission reports. During the same period, Hansen had raised just $110,888, but almost all of it came from individual donations. Simpson had him there as well, though, raising $126,755 from individuals.
Hansen, the founder of the progressive group United Vision for Idaho, first saw the U.S. Capitol building, he said, when he was 9 years old. He was with his father, former Idaho Congressman Orval Hansen, who served three terms after getting elected in 1968. Distill the elder Hansen's advice to his son, and it boils down to this: You gotta talk to people if you want them to vote for you.
Although he was recruited by his party to run against Simpson, Hansen's fellow Democrats knew right away--because he told them so--that Hansen would not be going after big campaign cash, running a slew of television ads, or making the sort of showy run at Simpson that Idaho Democrats seem to need in order to win in their home state.
"It's too bad you can't do that kind of retail politics in a Congressional district, but he's giving it a good try," said Betty Richardson, the former U.S. Attorney for Idaho and a party activist who recruited Hansen for his first legislative race.
But the campaign consultants who believe in such things, Hansen said, are misleading themselves.
"They don't understand that you have to convince voters with relationships," Hansen said. "That takes more time. But, it doesn't take more money."
His destination of choice, in the small towns around the vast Second Congressional District, is the local pharmacy or a senior center. Both, Hansen says, are places to connect with people who feel that the current system, and its Congressman, are out of touch.
"That's how politics used to be run," Hansen said.
One of the places he's visited is American Falls, where Mayor Amy Wynn is a supporter, in an area that has historically leaned Democratic in state-level races. Wynn admires Hansen for not making "fly-by" campaign trips that typify Congressional campaigns. Although she respects Hansen for trying to buck the system, she says his style of campaigning "scares me."
Retired Boise State political science professor Jim Weatherby notes that this isn't Hansen's first long-shot campaign. He blew away pundits in his first race, for a state House seat in 1988, beating Republican Majority Leader Jack Kennevick.
"He does know about long odds," Weatherby said.
While Hansen has been on the road, Simpson has been immersed in Congress. His chief accomplishment this year has presented a significan hurdle for Hansen. Simpson's marquee legislation is the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, or CIEDRA. The measure, which would preserve some 300,000 acres of wilderness in the Boulder White-Cloud Mountains, has been controversial with some, but is widely supported by a diverse array of conservationists and local governments in the Sawtooth Basin area.
And CIEDRA is the reason Rick Johnson, director of the Idaho Conservation League, will be supporting Simpson. The support of Johnson--and others like him--illustrates the difficulty that Hansen has in trying to portray Simpson as out of touch. In fact, Simpson has gained accolades from across the political spectrum for the six years of shuttle diplomacy it took to get support for CIEDRA. When the measure passed the House in a voice vote this summer, Hansen could only criticize the way in which the measure passed while Simpson garnered headlines, and the adoration of Idahoans who have long hoped for a permanent solution for the Boulder White-Clouds.
"I know a lot of average voters who are with us, who will be voting for Mike Simpson," Johnson said.
Simpson has also declined any money from Johnson or his group, though Johnson has offered. Simpson's response, Johnson said, is to say that he won't let anybody accuse him of working on CIEDRA for money. His efforts haven't helped him with political allies, either. Earlier this year Simpson had to fight back misleading statements made about CIEDRA by Otter, who skipped out on the House vote on the measure and has since come out against the bill.
"[Simpson is] doing a dance that hasn't been done for a long time," said Johnson, who describes him as a "big-time Republican dude."
"He is a wilderness advocate. He is an advocate for these rural counties," Johnson said. "He's playing to win."
John Freemuth, a political science professor at Boise State, said CIEDRA is a good illustration of how Simpson works. His effort to make CIEDRA palatable for all sides of the wilderness and community debate, Freemuth said, gained him a lot of respect from both sides of the aisle. It's also why Hansens's accusations that Simpson is "out of touch" don't resonate. That reputation, Freemuth said, makes Hansen's shoe-leather campaign strategy a tough sell.
"It's a great style, but it tends to work when the incumbent is imperial, out of touch, or vulnerable," Freemuth said. "Mike Simpson is none of those things."
If this phases Hansen, he doesn't show it.
"You don't see the cracks in the foundation until the house collapses," he said.