Phil Batt’s decision not to seek another term as Idaho’s governor could turn at least one 1998 election race into a nailbiter.
Question is: Which one?
Already, Republicans are confidently prepping for a bout of musical chairs as U.S. Sen. Dirk Kempthorne and Rep. Mike Crapo consider runs for governor.
Even some Democrats say both men are almost unbeatable.
But a move by either would leave an open congressional job that could give Democrats a real shot at regaining a federal seat.
“Some Democrats are seeing a ray of hope, some silver lining in Batt’s decision,” said Boise State University political science professor Jim Weatherby. “They’ve been kind of shellshocked since 1994.”
But Democrats also admit they must make a strong showing in at least one race or risk demoralizing a party in its worst position in 70 years.
“If they get swept again, it’s the worst of all possible worlds,” said Conley Ward, a Boise attorney and Democrat. “It’s certainly going to be a watershed election.”
In seven years, Democrats have lost two federal seats and the governor’s office. They make up only about 15 percent of the Legislature - now the most Republican in the country.
Democrats are jockeying behind the scenes, trying to determine where best to field their top contenders.
But some of those contenders have offered a blanket “no.”
Ward and former U.S. Senate candidate Walt Minnick said they would not run for any office. Boise attorney Dan Williams, who lost a 1996 congressional bid to U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth, isn’t interested in a run for governor. Neither is Controller J.D. Williams.
“When I got home after Batt’s announcement, the first question from my wife was ‘so, what are you doing?”’ said Williams. “I said, ‘I’m going to stay where I’m at.”’
Among other Democrats, the players appear to be waiting and watching for Republicans to pick their slots.
Former legislator Ron Beitelspacher is considering a run for governor. Former party chairman Bill Mauk has been named as a possible U.S. Senate candidate.
Former U.S. Rep. Richard Stallings admits he’s considering a bid, but hasn’t made a decision. The Democrat’s name often comes up as a possible contender to take on Anne Fox, the embattled Republican superintendent of public instruction.
“Talk about a guy with some wonderfully strong ethics,” said A.K. Lienhart-Minnick, Idaho’s Democratic chairman. “I’d love to pull him back into the game if I could.”
But if Crapo runs for governor, or for a Senate seat if Kempthorne runs for governor, Stallings could try to retake Crapo’s 2nd District congressional seat.
“For the Democrats, that’s the best hope they’ve got,” said Florence Heffron, director of public affairs research at the University of Idaho.
Democrats also are expected to throw resources at the race against Chenoweth, who defeated Williams by fewer than 6,000 votes. Chenoweth has a primary contender in Hayden Lake entrepreneur Tony Paquin, and Williams is expected to take another run.
But while Democrats see 1998 as a chance to rebuild, Republicans say they will only be beaten by overconfidence.
“No matter what the race, they (the Democrats) will have to put up a candidate with less name recognition, or one who has already lost an election or been defeated by a Republican,” said Andrew Arulanandam, executive director of the Republican Party. “I don’t think we’re going to take that for granted.”
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