Saying the state Capitol is where he can make the most difference, Dirk Kempthorne announced Wednesday that he’ll leave a promising career in the U.S. Senate to run for governor of Idaho.
“I absolutely believe that the nation’s problems have to be resolved at the state level,” Kempthorne said.
The popular Republican senator’s announcement caused several candidates to withdraw immediately from the race for governor.
Lt. Gov. Butch Otter said he’ll run for a fourth term in his part-time office rather than seek the top job. “I want to be on the ‘98 Republican team,” an enthusiastic Otter said shortly after greeting Kempthorne on the phone with a hearty, “Hello, partner!”
State Senate Majority Leader Jim Risch, who also was considering a bid for the governor’s seat, said, “I’ll be one of Dirk’s strongest supporters.”
A.K. Lienhart-Minnick, state Democratic Party chairman, said of Kempthorne, “We have some candidates who consider themselves personal friends of his and won’t run against him.” But, she said, “we’ve got a lot of people who will take him on. He hasn’t proved himself in the North at all.”
Lienhart-Minnick said she was shocked that Kempthorne wouldn’t answer a reporter’s question about the top issues in the gubernatorial race.
Kempthorne said he’ll announce his vision for the state in January when he formally launches his gubernatorial campaign. Wednesday’s announcement, he said, was just to let people know his intentions.
“Dirk Kempthorne is sweetnatured and intelligent. He is a nice guy,” Lienhart-Minnick said. “But does he have a vision of how to do the job?”
Kempthorne’s decision also had immediate reverberations in the 2nd Congressional District, where U.S. Rep. Mike Crapo is likely to leave his congressional seat to run for Kempthorne’s Senate seat.
“I’ve made no secret about the fact that I’m very interested in that seat, if in fact this developed,” Crapo said Wednesday. He said he’ll announce his plans shortly.
Crapo’s departure from the 2nd District seat would open the possibility of a return by former 2nd District Rep. Richard Stallings, a Democrat.
Stallings left that seat after four terms to run against Kempthorne for the Senate in 1992.
Stallings said Wednesday he’s considering a run, along with the possibility of running for the Senate or even governor.
Although he called Kempthorne a “formidable opponent,” Stallings said, “The conventional wisdom is that the party elders have anointed Kempthorne to be our governor, and that we really don’t have to go through an election. I hope that we have a strong enough two-party system that there’s at least a few bumps in his road to coronation.”
Stallings said he will make his decision by late fall.
House Speaker Mike Simpson also has expressed interest in the 2nd District seat. He withdrew from the governor’s race earlier, saying he thought Republican Gov. Phil Batt would seek a second term.
Batt’s decision to retire surprised many in his party, prompting a flurry of speculation over who would run.
Kempthorne, a protege of Batt’s, visited with Batt Tuesday evening.
On Wednesday, Batt said, “I said I’d be neutral in the race to succeed me, and I will be. But, I’m having a tough time hiding my smile.”
Kempthorne, 45, a one-time Batt campaign manager, made his first political mark as mayor of Boise. At a time when the city was bitterly divided over how to redevelop its downtown, he is credited with bringing the sides together.
Kempthorne was so successful that he was unopposed for re-election as mayor, which is almost unheard-of in Boise politics.
After defeating Stallings to win the Senate seat, Kempthorne pushed through legislation forbidding the federal government from imposing unfunded mandates on state and local government, a favorite issue of mayors and other local officials.
He also wrote an update of the Safe Drinking Water Act that won bipartisan praise, and has developed a compromise bill reforming the Endangered Species Act that has not only drawn Republican support but has been endorsed by the Clinton Administration and the Idaho Conservation League.
Kempthorne said Wednesday that he believes he can push the species bill through the Senate this year, and shepherd it through the House next year even while he’s running for governor.
“I’m not going to take my eye off that one,” he said.
Kempthorne said he arrived at his decision this week after visiting with Idahoans across the state. He and wife Pat, both University of Idaho alumni, attended Homecoming at UI last weekend and then drove down U.S. Highway 95 to Boise, making stops along the way.
That “absolutely gorgeous drive” through the fall Idaho scenery gave the couple a chance to talk about the decision, Kempthorne said.
Kempthorne said the past five years in Washington have been tough on his wife and teenage children, Heather and Jeff. “I guess it’s fair to say we never caught Potomac fever,” he said.
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