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Democratic Candidates Play Waiting Game

Mon., June 23, 1997

Idaho’s hard-pressed Democrats have been forced to take a stealth approach to next year’s election.

State Party Chairman A.K. Lienhart-Minnick says the party has a number of good candidates who are considering running, but she won’t identify them. They have their own reasons for keeping quiet for now, she says.

“There are people out there, but they are running under deep cover,” she said. “Some of them are still in the making-up-their-mind phase. Others don’t want to give up too much of their private lives or their jobs.”

When they are ready to announce, they will do it themselves. Lienhart-Minnick won’t do it for them.

That tactic means there are no visible legitimate Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate seat of Republican Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, GOP congressional incumbents Helen Chenoweth and Mike Crapo or for governor.

In modern politics, it takes a great deal of cash to mount a credible campaign. Lienhart-Minnick should know. Her husband, Walt, was the Democratic nominee against Republican Sen. Larry Craig last year.

Despite spending more than $2 million, almost half of it out of his own pocket, Minnick got only 40 percent of the vote as Craig won his second Senate term.

The candidate complained often about how much time he had to spend raising money instead of campaigning.

There’s also the personal side. Once again speaking from personal experience, Lienhart-Minnick says that if a candidate gets his or her name out early, with no time to build an organization, “the other side starts bombarding you with negatives.”

She said the opposition’s tactics in the last campaign were “patently absurd.” She compared all the negative campaigning to “junior high name-calling.”

Usually, if candidates are serious, knowing how much money it will take for a tough Senate or congressional race, they are out there early looking for support.

Idaho political tradition questions the seriousness of any campaign if the candidate isn’t raising money by July of the year before an election.

There’s also the name identification factor. If a candidate isn’t well-known to voters, it’s a long, uphill battle to gain that recognition.

That’s why the lack of visible candidates isn’t a good sign for the downtrodden Democrats, at a historic low ebb after disasters in the last two elections.

Kempthorne, going after his second Senate term, doesn’t appear to have any GOP opposition. His staff says he just recently started raising money for the campaign and expects to have “a substantial amount” on the books by the time next month’s campaign finance reports are filed.

Lienhart-Minnick, perhaps optimistically, says hard work can overcome the lack of cash.

“In Idaho … we still are a cheap seat” in contrast to what it takes to run for the Senate in other states, she said. “There’s a lot of debate whether you spend a lot time raising money or spend a lot of time campaigning.”

She says at least five people have talked about running against Helen Chenoweth in the 1st Congressional District. At least one Democrat wants to run for governor.

“There’s several open seats. We’re looking at all of them,” she said, mentioning secretary of state and treasurer.

Republicans also are vulnerable in other areas, she contends.

“When Democrats and independents begin to look at a record that doesn’t promote education and good jobs, they may decide they want to run against Republicans,” she said.

The Democratic leader, a former Boise television news anchor, thinks the news media is to blame for the high cost of campaigning. She contends that campaigns aren’t covered closely, forcing candidates to buy advertising to get out their messages.

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