Walt Minnick is an outlier: a Democratic member of Congress who might avoid being kicked out of his seat by angry, recession-weary voters. A new poll shows Minnick in the lead — even though he’s an incumbent Democrat in a solidly red state during an election year when that’s a formula for defeat.
People from both parties say his voting record is about as unassailable as it gets for an Idaho Democrat, and his campaign is flush with money from supporters who want him to keep voting that way.
Still, the race tightened last week. His Tea Party-backed opponent, Raul Labrador, has increased his sway with voters; another recent poll showed the candidates in a statistical tie. Election experts are calling the race a toss-up. Money is flowing into the campaigns from surprising sources. And both sides are jockeying for undecided votes by running attack ads — Minnick implying nefarious deeds by Labrador and Labrador linking Minnick to Pelosi and Obama.
“Walt Minnick is flying against a tremendous head wind,” one Republican observed. “It may just have to do with people in the middle not knowing what they want, but they’re not happy.”
What happens Tuesday will decide not only Idaho’s representation — and its power — in Congress. It also could be a bellwether for the country’s Western politicians who straddle the line between liberal and conservative.
Minnick and Labrador are both Idaho transplants who rooted themselves in the state as a businessman and a lawyer, respectively, and both are lauded by people from opposing parties.
Minnick grew up on a wheat farm near Walla Walla, Wash., went on to Harvard’s law and business schools, then served in the U.S. Army. He also worked in the Nixon White House before starting a long business career. He was elected in 2008 as the only Democrat in Idaho’s congressional delegation.
Labrador was born in Puerto Rico and raised by a single mother who, he told the Puerto Rico Daily Sun, “was a Democrat, until she voted for Ronald Reagan.” He attended Brigham Young University and University of Washington’s law school. He runs a law firm and, like many Idahoans, is a Mormon. He was elected in 2006 to the state legislature where he developed a reputation as a fiscal conservative.
Labrador was a surprise victory for Tea Party-esque conservatives. He won the Republican primary in the spring, beating Vaughn Ward, a Marine who had backing from the national GOP. As Minnick has, Ward out-raised and out-spent Labrador.
But a few serious errors — such as ripping off a well-known Obama speech and seeming not to know that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory — marred Ward’s campaign.
Labrador won by 48 percent to Ward’s 39 percent, a difference of more than 7,000 votes.
WHO’S BEHIND THEM?
The Republican establishment has, at times, seemed content to let Idaho do whatever Idaho feels like doing in this election.
House GOP leaders skimped on donations to Labrador’s war chest, which never approached Minnick’s $2.4 million. The National Republican Congressional Committee gave Labrador a nod in its campaign to cultivate “a new generation of conservative leaders” — but it stopped short of naming him a “Young Gun” as it had with GOP candidates in 37 other states.
“The national parties make decisions on supporting candidates purely on empirical data,” said Phil Hardy, spokesman for Labrador’s campaign. The empirical data weren’t looking so hot for Labrador early in the race.
“Idaho being such a red state, they have never put a huge amount of investment in,” he continued, but added that “the RNC has been very, very supportive of this campaign from the beginning” and helped make more than 156,000 contacts with voters in the district.
According to Bryan McQuide, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Idaho, “The pullout of the national party really hurt Labrador.”
For the past month, though, the national GOP has ramped up its donations to Labrador through political action committees and House members.
Minnick has the advantage of a sitting Congressman. He still had about $370,000 just a few days before polls opened — compared to Labrador’s $83,000. He has spent more than $2 million, about four times the amount spent by Labrador. And his campaign got a simple head-start: It had more time to draw up battle plans.
“We have put together one of the best, if not the best overall, campaigns in the history of the state, going back to Jan. 1 when we hired our first full-time employee,” said John Foster, Minnick’s campaign manager.
Both campaigns are pulling in eleventh-hour donations from out of state, and from surprising people.
The PACs for fraternities and sororities, poker players and frozen foods gave the Minnick campaign large donations this month, along with Planned Parenthood and Supervalu. Even Teddy Roosevelt’s great-grandson, identified as a banker for Barclays Capital in federal contribution records, pitched in $1,000 to help Minnick at the last minute.
Labrador’s campaign is getting help from GOP leaders as the election draws near. He also took donations from four of Ross Perot’s family members and from Rep. Mike Simpson, the Republican Congressman from the other part of Idaho. One donor really stood out: Vaughn Ward, whom Labrador trounced in the primary, gave $2,000 to the campaign.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN ON ELECTION DAY
Idaho voters aren’t the big question mark they are in other states, like Ohio or Pennsylvania. The state is a conservative stronghold. What’s more, as in some other Western states, the same ideas appeal to Idaho’s Republicans as to many of its Democrats: limited government, clean and accessible wilderness, gun rights and policies that are pro-agriculture and pro-business.
“Minnick has done a very good job of being a Democrat in a Republican district,” said Graham Paterson, who has worked for well-known Idaho Republicans Helen Chenoweth and Dirk Kempthorne.
Minnick voted against two billboard laws that Republicans have condemned: the stimulus package and the health care overhaul. He also frequently voted against his party, although the huge Democratic majority made it so he could vote that way without killing the legislation.
But the economy is still in the dumps, and that could be toxic for an incumbent whose party was in charge of fixing the economy.
The NRCC seized on this idea in an ad that equates voting against Minnick with voting against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Which is true, kind of: If enough House Democrats like Minnick are ousted, as is expected, Pelosi will lose control of the House. But the Minnick-Labrador race won’t likely be the one to tip the scales.
Some observers wondered if Idaho Democrats who voted for Minnick in 2008 will be disillusioned by his record in Congress and stay home.
“I think it’s absolutely certain that a large group of liberal, left-leaning Democrats won’t vote for Walt in 2010. They can’t; they don’t live in the district,” said Foster. “The district has Democrats who are Reagan Democrats, old-school Democrats.”
Meanwhile, Raul Labrador can point to a voting record that strikes a chord with Tea Partiers and others who feel over-taxed. As part of the majority in the state legislature, he was among those who opposed a tax hike by the Republican governor, said Hardy. “Minnick, as a member of the majority in Congress, was wholly ineffective at making changes to Pelosi’s agenda,” he said.
TEA PARTY EFFECT
This election could put a score on how influential the Tea Party movement can be in a state like Idaho.
Research suggests an overlap between the Tea Party and conservative Republicans. And Idaho has been a Republican stronghold, with Minnick being the first Democrat elected to national office in about two decades. The “taxed enough already” sentiment is nothing new to Idahoans, many of whom have a Western libertarian streak.
Both Democrats and Republicans said the Tea Party wave isn’t going to decide this district’s election.
Yet, the Tea Party endorsement has been fodder for headlines in the Idaho race. When the Tea Party Express endorsed Walt Minnick earlier this year, it gave him a conservative stamp of approval that no other House Democrat could claim. Despite the weight of that title, he rejected the Tea Party when its spokesman wrote a racially charged letter. But last week, the Tea Party Express came back to Idaho with a new endorsement, this time for Minnick’s opponent. The group blamed the switch on Minnick — in what sounded like a “he didn’t dump me; I dumped him” kind of thing — because he wasn’t pushing hard enough against Pelosi and Obama.
“It’s important to understand that Idaho is also ground zero for the different kinds of Tea Party,” Foster said, listing a range of Tea Partiers from “fiscal conservative or social libertarian” to fringe groups.
“It’s going to be a bellwether, I think, for the country,” Foster went on. “Can a guy who has said no to the extremes of both sides still win?” If he can, Foster said, that will send a message to leaders of both parties.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER THE ELECTION
Minnick has a seat on the House Agriculture Committee. So, as a Democrat, he could help guide laws for Idaho’s many fish farmers, dairies and cattle ranchers, as well as for forest and water issues. He also is on the House Financial Services Committee.
However, the Idahoan Congressman is at the bottom of the totem pole in both committees, which have about 50 and 70 members. As a member of a minority party, he might be even less influential in policymaking. But Labrador, if elected, would have the ears of committee leaders in a Republican-controlled House.
Or, maybe the opposite could happen, and Minnick as a Blue Dog Democrat would have a powerful hand to play with Republicans: “He can play an important role in the House if the margin of victory [for Republicans] is small,” said McQuide. “It could give Minnick a very influential position in the House” as a centrist willing to cross the party line. And that could translate into power for Idaho and other Western states.
As Tuesday morning approaches, Labrador’s task isn’t just to convince voters his platform is better than Minnick’s. It’s to convince them that Minnick’s ties to unpopular Democratic leaders, and the slow-to-recover economy, make him worth replacing. Anti-tax and anti-spending Idahoans who feel betrayed by Congress and the president will be more motivated to vote on Tuesday, and to vote with those two things in mind.
If the anti-Democrat wave takes Minnick with it on Tuesday, “it’s not that his staff has done something wrong, or he didn’t have a strong enough presence,” said Paterson. “It’s not his voting record, and it’s not his style. Sometimes, as a candidate, you just find yourself at the wrong election, at the wrong time.”