Idaho’s major congressional candidates face only token challenges in today’s primary election, and less than a fifth of November’s ballot spots for the state Legislature are being contested.
That has translated into a lackluster primary campaign that has political leaders predicting an extremely low voter turnout today at the polls.
“There’s going to be pockets with some intensity,” state Republican Chairman Ron McMurray says. “But you don’t see the enthusiasm built up out there.”
The only thing that might keep voter turnout from slipping below 30 percent for only the third time in two decades is history.
Today marks the fourth time when the primary has fallen on the day after the Memorial Day holiday, and the other three have produced the highest three May primary turnouts on record - 41.3 percent in 1980, 36.9 percent in 1992 and 34.2 percent in 1986.
State election officials are predicting turnout of between 30 percent and 33 percent today.
Among the pockets of intensity is the 25th Legislative District in the Magic Valley, where Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Denton Darrington of Declo, a seven-term lawmaker, is being challenged in the GOP primary by Idaho Citizens Alliance founder Kelly Walton of Heyburn. It is Darrington’s first serious challenge in years.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Gary Schroeder of Moscow is being challenged by a conservative, Daniel Whiting, who graduated this month from the University of Idaho.
And renegade conservative Stan Hawkins of Ucon, often at odds with mainline Republicans, is fighting for re-election against conservative state Rep. Lynn Loosli of Ashton. Loosli says he was Idaho recruited by a prominent state senator who promised him support and cash.
Overall, however, only eight senators and 11 House members face primary challenges - all but one of them Republicans. Out of a possible 210 legislative primaries, there are only 39, and all but six of them involve the GOP.
“It’s very healthy for the party,” McMurray said. “Plus, whoever comes out of the primary has a feel for the campaign. It really gives you some momentum and some real strength.”
Once today’s votes are counted, Republicans will be guaranteed nine of the 35 Senate seats and 25 of the 70 House seats because Democrats failed to field challengers in those districts, mostly in eastern and southern Idaho.
Both parties already know their presidential nominees - Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. But today’s vote will decide whether any of Idaho’s 24 GOP national convention delegates will go to Pat Buchanan or talk show host Alan Keyes.
The Democratic ballot names only President Clinton, who captured all 23 national convention delegates during county caucuses in March.
Dole already is counting on the four electoral votes Idaho will cast in November. Clinton barely beat independent billionaire H. Ross Perot for second place in 1992 in Idaho, which has not voted for a Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
Conservative Republican U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth is being challenged by Nampa anesthesiologist William Levinger, whose first foray into politics was interrupted during the month he was hospitalized following a nervous breakdown.
Meanwhile, Boise attorney Dan Williams faces self-employed window-washer Matt Alan Lambert of Murray in the Democratic primary in the 1st Congressional District which covers southwestern and North Idaho.
A recent poll showed Chenoweth’s unfavorable rating has nearly doubled to 37 percent since she was elected in 1994 and also showed she has the support of just 43 percent of those polled. Williams, with just 53 percent name recognition, was supported by 36 percent.
While McMurray agreed Levinger would poll minimally, he disagreed with the assessment that the Chenoweth campaign would face serious problems if the political novice gets more than 30 percent of the primary vote. Some Chenoweth critics have suggested that would indicate extensive dissatisfaction with her performance, as well as give Williams a road map to the location of that dissatisfaction - areas where he logically would campaign harder.
“People are not taking him (Levinger) seriously or the votes he gets, and if he did get a few more, in fact, I think it would spur people on,” the GOP chairman said. “I think you’d see people really get together for her.”
In the more conservative 2nd Congressional District of southern and eastern Idaho, popular two-term Republican incumbent Michael Crapo is being challenged by anti-nuclear waste activist Peter Rickards, a Twin Falls podiatrist, and will take on political newcomer John Seidl, a contractor who founded Seidl Home Co. in Boise three years ago.