Raul Labrador, a state legislator and Boise-based immigration attorney, might be the second-best Republican running for Idaho’s 1st Congressional District seat.
The better Republican? Democratic incumbent Walt Minnick. Minnick is the former forest industry executive who unseated the GOP’s Bill Sali — marginalized even in his own party as a crazy man — by a sliver of a percentage point in 2008 to become the rarest of rare things: a Democratic Congressman from Idaho.
In the overwhelmingly Republican Idaho 1st, the conventional wisdom held that Sali was a weak candidate. Run a good candidate against Minnick in 2010 and the seat was certain to return to the red column.
Well, here we are a month away from a midterm election that couldn’t be any worse for a Democrat in a conservative district. There is overwhelming backlash on both sides of the spectrum to President Barack Obama’s “blue wave” victory in 2008.
Liberals are frustrated that Obama is too centrist and appear to be soured on defending gains in the midterm.
Independents (crucial to Minnick’s win in 2008) and conservatives see Obama as being on the far side of the Left Pole and are slavering to recapture the House and Senate.
So why is it that Minnick is filling his coffers with treasure that went to Sali last time around, is endorsed by groups that never endorse Democrats, and is leading by anywhere from 10 to 30 points in the polls?
The answer, as outlined in a recent Lewiston Tribune editorial: Republicans like Minnick. Minnick votes like a Republican.
Labrador, on the other hand, is seen as an insurgent far-right candidate who doesn’t have the blessing of mainline Republicans.
The splintering of the Republican right wing was certainly unforeseen in 2008 — but it may keep the party from regaining a seat that it felt sure it owned outright. It’s shocking, really, that this once reliably red district might not be among the 40 that the GOP needs to pick up to regain the House.
Ever since stunning the GOP’s Chosen One — the Sarah Palin-endorsed Iraq War combat veteran Vaughn Ward — in the May primary, Labrador has been painting Blue Dog Minnick as a mad-dog liberal in an attempt to gain ground.
In a recent campaign website posting, Labrador decries the “Minn ick/Pelosi/Obama administration” for talking about “yet another stimulus package.” This broad-brush approach ignores the fact that Minnick was among the rare Democrats to vote against the stimulus package.
Minnick, in fact, has voted with his party least among current congressmen, and he has cast votes against such cornerstones of the Obama agenda as health care reform.
It matters not to some Republicans. Minnick “is someone who has voted with his party 70 percent of the time,” says Phil Hardy, communications director for Labrador.
On his Facebook page, Labrador runs posters with positively frightening close-ups of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and text that reads.
“Minnick Voted Pelosi.” There is also one saying that “Comucrat” Minnick voted for Pelosi and Obama. Labrador also sells “Fire Pelosi” T-shirts with his logo on the back.
It’s a standard ploy this election for the GOP to attack Democrats simply for being in the same political party as Pelosi and Obama. But it’s effective, and Democrats in tough districts — such as Minnick — are doing gymnastics to avoid any such linkage.
Minnick, in one television ad, says that he is “right for Idaho” without ever mentioning that he’s a Democrat. Just this week, Minnick is quoted in Congressional Quarterly saying he would not necessarily vote for Pelosi as speaker should the Democrats retain control of the House.
“It’s pragmatic politics. It’s something that is sorely missing and sorely needed in our state government and our federal government,” says Thom George, chair of the Kootenai County Democrats. “In the Idaho Democratic Party, we have come to realize we live in a conservative state and what flies in the rest of the nation does not fly in Idaho.”
George has had to ride herd on party members who have reacted with groans when, for instance, Minnick is the only Democrat in the nation to be endorsed by the Tea Party Express. Minnick later rejected the group’s support after the group’s spokesman wrote a letter portraying blacks as lazy welfare addicts.
The Tea Party endorsement is an extreme example, but Minnick proudly cites his endorsements by groups normally chilly to Democrats, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Taxpayer’s Union. He is the lone Democrat to get an approving nod from Citizens Against Government Waste for his tight-fisted spending habits.
“Walt looks at it as he represents all the people of the 1st Congressional District. He’s not coming at it from a partisan angle,” George says.
If you are Raul Labrador, this inconvenient conservatism by a Democrat pulls the rug out from under your right-wing shoes.
The Labrador campaign puts on a brave face and touts his unexpected victory in the primary, upending the favored Ward despite being down 6-to-1 in campaign funding.
However, the Ward campaign quite spectacularly imploded in the days before the election with an astonishing stream of revelations about plagiarism in speeches and in his website’s policy briefs. The dagger was news that Ward’s campaign kickoff speech had swiped entire passages from Obama’s 2004 address to the Democratic National Convention.
Oopsie, comrade! It is unlikely that Minnick will make any such stumble in this last month of the campaign. And the uphill climb for Labrador is steep indeed.
The closest poll — a Mason-Dixon poll sponsored by seven daily newspapers that circulate in Idaho, including the Spokesman-Review — shows Minnick with a 10-point lead this month.
The Idaho Statesman in June reported that nine major Idaho companies that supported Sali financially in 2008 are now siding with Minnick. They are Coeur d’Alene Mines, Hecla Mining, Idaho Power, Micron, Qwest, Regence Blue Shield, J.R. Simplot, Snake River Sugar and Union Pacific.
In July, the paper reported that after the primary, three major Ward backers — timber exec Frank Bennett, Keith Stein of Stein Distributing and developer Ron Van Auker — all switched to Minnick instead of Labrador.
Today is the end of third-quarter fundraising, and new totals should be posted by the Federal Election Commission in a couple of weeks.
The tallies from the second quarter, ending June 30, showed Minnick with $1.1 million available to Labrador’s $69,000.
“His inability to raise funds … that’s a real concern,” says Duane Rasmussen, president of the local Pachyderm Club, which invited Labrador to speak to about 30 North Idaho Republicans in a Coeur d’Alene breakfast joint a couple of weeks ago.
Labrador spent two days in the Panhandle, hustling around to fundraisers and public appearances from the Silver Valley to Sandpoint.
North Idaho is one bright spot for Labrador. In this month’s Mason-Dixon poll, Minnick’s lead in the north is only 43-40 (which is within the poll’s margin of error). Also, in the Panhandle, GOP moderates have been replaced in leadership posts by people more aligned with the Constitution Party or Ron Paul’s libertarians. Such party officials are more in sync with Labrador, who backs the repeal of the 17th Amendment (a move which would authorize state legislatures to select U.S. senators instead of putting them to a direct vote of citizens). In addition, Labrador told the Pachyderm Club that, if elected, he would advocate abolishing the U.S. Department of Education.
Belatedly, the national GOP seems to be taking an interest in Labrador. In recent weeks, he was elevated to the second-tier of the three-tiered “Young Guns” fundraising machine. Two staffers paid for by the national GOP who had previously split work between Labrador’s campaign and state campaigns are now both working full-time for Labrador, Hardy says.
Still, things are dire enough that Labrador is spending this week in Puerto Rico, where he still has family, on a fundraising trip.
Meanwhile, Minnick is airing a controversial TV spot claiming, “illegal immigration is good business for Labrador” and bashing his work as an immigration attorney.
Labrador was in Coeur d’Alene the next morning and appeared hurt and angry. “Every statement in the ad is false,” he said.
Illegal immigrants do come to him for help, but he advises them to return home and apply to enter the U.S. legally, Labrador said. It’s true he joked to a different Pachyderm Club audience that he makes good money, but his fuller remarks plainly show Labrador saying it is unfair that immigrants must spend thousands of dollars to plead their cases.
Minnick was excoriated not only from the right, but also from the liberal political blog, Daily Kos, and the Washington Post politics blog for the negative ad.