by DANIEL WALTERS & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & raditionally, the Gem State glows a deep ruby red. Idaho hasn't elected a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives for 16 long years. In 2004, 69 percent of the state voted for George W. Bush.
So classically, when generic Republican meets generic Democrat, the GOP wins in a generic landslide.
But this year, at least in Idaho's 1st Congressional District, the longstanding logic faces a serious challenge in the form of Democrat Walt Minnick. In mid-September, when the Sarah Palin pick and convention bounce boosted John McCain nationally, one of Minnick's polls put him at 43 percent to Republican Bill Sali's 38 percent. (Other polls, however, have Sali leading by a substantial margin.) In July, Minnick also had a substantial fundraising lead.
Why's he doing so well? For one thing, the Democrat's running as a conservative. Photos on his campaign Website -- Walt with tractor, Walt with a pickup truck, Walt by a campfire, Walt firing a shotgun -- give off a small-town America vibe rather than slick politician. It's a blue-jeans look, not a suit-jacket aesthetic. Minnick used a similar strategy in his failed 1996 campaign against Larry Craig in which he touted himself as an "Independent running on a Democratic ticket."
After all, Minnick has some pretty conservative credentials on his resume: Former Young Republican, former aide to Richard Nixon, former Army Lieutenant and former CEO of lumber manufacturer TJ International.
So while Minnick is a Democrat, his campaign claims that he's one who transcends easy party labels -- conservative on financial issues and moderate on social ones. "Walt's as conservative as Idaho," says John Foster, Minnick's communication director. He points to republicansforminnick.com, a Website listing all the Republican supporters Minnick has gathered.
Either way, it's clear Minnick is trying to walk a fine line. Foster says after being endorsed by the "Blue Dog Democrats," a group for fiscally conservative deficit-hawk Democrats, Minnick felt heat from the left for being too conservative. And due to his background in the timber industry -- and support for limited logging -- Minnick has been criticized by environmentalists.
Bob Bolinder, former vice-chairman of Albertsons, is a longtime Republican. He listens to conservative Glenn Beck on talk radio; in 1980, he donated $500 to Larry Craig's congressional campaign. And when Minnick ran against Craig in '96, Bolinder voted for Craig. But this November, it's different.
"I'm sorry that he's a Democrat," Bolinder says of Minnick. "But I don't think the Republicans have done any better than the Democrats."
From working with Minnick in the business community, Bolinder was impressed with Minnick's financial instincts -- a vital asset in today's economic climate. "We need more level heads in Congress," he says. "Minnick is a fairly level-headed guy."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & ali, on the other hand, is often accused of lacking such "level-headedness," and critics call him a reckless ideologue. Sali supporters, of course, see it differently: Sali speaks his mind and sticks to his guns. They praise him for his no-nonsense, shoot-from-the-hip, sometimes-stubborn style.
"This isn't about political party. It's about which candidate is mostly in line with the values of Idaho's 1st Congressional District," Sali's spokesman, Wayne Hoffman, says. "[Voters] know Bill's a nice guy, they know he's a real deal, and his popularity has increased exponentially since he was elected."
Hoffman says that Sali promised to go to Washington, D.C., to fight for lower taxes and less government spending and made good on those promises.
Sali detractors, however, lambaste him for prickly behavior, which, critics say, has alienated peers in Congress. "He's such a strict ideologue that I think he no longer lives in reality," Joan McCarter, blogger for the liberal Daily Kos, says in an e-mail.
In their interviews, Foster tried to turn the discussion to which candidate had the better demeanor for leadership, while Hoffman tried to change the topic to who had the more authentic conservative record.
There's no question that Sali is conservative. According to National Journal, his voting record puts him to the right of 81 percent of the House. That number is even more drastic when it comes to social issues -- where Sali is more conservative than 97 percent of his colleagues. Sali is strongly anti-abortion -- in 2006 he made waves for claiming a link between abortion and breast cancer -- while Minnick supports abortion rights.
Sali told the Idaho Statesman he's running to shrink government, lower taxes, protect freedom and secure the border, while Minnick says he's focused on fixing deficit spending, a "failed" energy policy and a "lack of support" for veterans.
Where Minnick supporters try to undermine Sali's conservatism by claiming he's ineffectual, Hoffman accuses Minnick of trawling for Republican votes by playing dress-up conservative. "He'll say to people that he's a conservative. Then he'll say he's a libertarian. Then he'll say he's a socially moderate," Hoffman says. In reality, he says, Minnick's pretty darn liberal.
Last Wednesday, Sali released a flurry of attacks against Minnick at www.thetruthaboutwalt.com, calling him a "radical environmentalist who's directly responsible for the high energy prices we're facing." He points to Minnick's involvement in the Wilderness Society, a conservationist organization that has sought regulation of drilling, logging and mining.
True, Minnick was part of the Wilderness Society, Foster says, but he was one of its most conservative members. Part of leadership, Foster says, is working with sides as different as the timber industry and environmentalists to find a suitable compromise.
The areas where Sali and Minnick supposedly agree -- say, gun rights and opposition to earmarks -- have, interestingly enough, caused some of the biggest King-of-the-Hill battles over conservative ground.
"His TV ads and brochures show pictures of Walt Minnick with his shotgun," Hoffman says. "What do you suppose the NRA thinks of Minnick's record on the Second Amendment? They gave him a D plus."
That NRA rating, Foster says, was specifically made by the former director of the Idaho Republican Party to target Minnick. He says Minnick is against requiring registration, and he's been endorsed by the pro-gun American Hunters and Sportsman Organization. He even owns seven guns, Foster says, while many NRA-endorsed Republicans own not a one.
But just take a look at Minnick's Project Vote Smart survey in 1996, Hoffman says. Minnick could have marked that he supported repealing all firearm bans, but he didn't. Yet when the recent Supreme Court decision struck down the Washington, D.C., gun ban, Minnick said, "It's about damn time."
In particular, Minnick has made his stand on the issue of getting rid of earmarks -- the longstanding but suddenly unpopular strategy of slipping pet projects (such as an indoor rainforest for Iowa) into spending bills. While Sali has -- true to his word -- been more than happy to hack spending, Foster faults Sali for voting against a rule that would have required more earmark transparency. Hoffman defends the vote by pointing out that the same rule change also had a PayGo provision, a rule that he says would have required raising taxes to pay for any increased spending.
Both Sali and Minnick say they hate earmarks, but while the system's still "broken," both are willing to request them for Idaho. In fact, Sali has requested earmarks, and then turned around and voted down the final earmark-heavy bill they appeared in.
Conservative Idaho blogger Adam Graham thinks Minnick's play for fiscal conservatives is transparent and futile. "Fiscal conservative? If that's true, what on earth would cause him to back somebody like Barack Obama in January?" Graham says. "Obama's spending plan for the country is massive. Half a million dollar deficit as far as the eye can see."
Graham thinks a Democrat could win in Idaho, but one would need to be a conservative leader like Brian Schweitzer of Montana, not like Minnick. But it's not like there's many good Democrats in Idaho to choose from, Graham says.
"Once you get past Walt Minnick... you don't have much left. The party is not generating any leaders," Graham says. "If Walt Minnick loses, it's going to be very hard for the Democrats to compete for a while."