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Spin Control

Sun., July 12, 2009, 6 a.m.

Idaho 1st in the spotlight in 2010?

Most years, Idaho’s congressional races inspire yawns among the nation’s political cognoscenti. It’s likely 2010 will not be one of those years.

Idaho’s sprawling 1st District House race is at or near the top of several lists of races to watch in the mid-term election. Washington, D.C., publications like Congress Daily and the Hill both flagged it last month, as did the Rothenburg Report, and it’s on top of the “Swing State Prospect” list of races featuring a Democrat – Walt Minnick – in a Republican-leaning district.

This comes as no surprise, considering The Hill put Minnick at the top of its “most vulnerable” list the day he was sworn in. No points, apparently, for beating freshman Republican Bill Sali in 2008 and becoming the first Democrat to hold the seat in bright red Idaho since 1994.

In the six months since, Minnick has attempted to put as much distance as possible between himself and House Democratic leadership. He voted against the stimulus package in February, the AIG package in March and cap and trade last month. As of last week, he was at the top of another list, the Washington Post’s tabulation of Democrats who don’t vote with their party leadership.

His earliest and best-organized Republican challenger is Vaughn Ward, a candidate with so much going for him one might think the National Republican Congressional Committee ordered him from central casting. He’s a photogenic 40, with an attractive wife and two cute kids; grew up in Twin Falls, worked on the family farm in Shoshone, is a Marine Corps Reserves major, worked for the CIA in the Middle East and Africa, and as a legislative aide for Dirk Kempthorne and Nevada state campaign official for John McCain’s presidential run. He’s already snagged McCain’s endorsement as well as some other GOP notables.
   Ward is understandably happy to find Minnick on the lists of most vulnerable... he is ardently unimpressed by the lack of Democratic party-line votes. As he campaigns around Idaho, expect Ward to make much of a specific party-line vote, which he contends is the most important he cast all year.

That would be the vote at the start of the current session to elect Nancy Pelosi as speaker. Minnick voted for her, and he should not have, Ward said in a recent interview.

While this may sound like an interesting idea to toss out, and might even make for an interesting diatribe on talk radio, it sounds a bit naïve or facetious for anyone with any familiarity with Congress. And Ward does have some familiarity, having worked in D.C. for Kempthorne.

Members of a political party cast their votes for their party’s leader at the outset of the session. It has nothing to do with whether one likes his candidate or dislikes the opposition party’s candidate; it’s just part of the process.

 Or so it was explained to Central Washington voters some 20 years ago by Washington Republican Sid Morrison, after he voted for Bob Michel of Illinois rather than Tom Foley for speaker. It didn’t matter that he and Foley were personal friends and allies on many pieces of legislation that touched both their districts, or that Foley clearly was going to win, Morrison said. It’s just part of the process.

Ward conceded it would be unusual, but not historically unprecedented, and Minnick should have done it. He should also do more than vote no on Democratic bills he doesn’t like; he should offer amendments, use tactics to block or derail them and make floor speeches against the president.

This line of argument comes straight from the National Republican Congressional Committee, whose job it is to turn as many seats from blue to red as possible next year. It may play well with the pundits who come to Idaho to cover a top race, and get in a little skiing, rafting or hunting on the company dime. But it’s a process argument that might not impress more than just the Republican base in the district.

The first big test of a possible Ward-Minnick matchup comes this week, when campaign finance reports for the second quarter of the year should be posted with the Federal Elections Commission. When the first quarter filing period closed, Minnick had raised about $266,000, about two-thirds of it from political action committees. Ward, who’d only just begun the campaign, had $50,000, most of it from individuals, but relatively few of them from Idaho.

Campaigns are about more than raising money – spending it well is actually more important. But the upcoming reports of contributions could be the best early barometer of how strong this race will be.

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The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.