March 1, 1998 in Idaho

Anti-Abortion Issue Key To May 26 Primary Even Helen Chenoweth Gets Into Act With State Legislature

Quane Kenyon Associated Press

Want a preview of the debate for Idaho’s May 26 primary election? Come to the Idaho Legislature.

The candidates in key races, particularly the congressional campaigns, all are involved in the Legislature’s hottest issues.

That includes 1st District U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth, who isn’t even in the Legislature.

In an extremely unusual move, Chenoweth joined an effort to pressure the Idaho Senate into approving two House-passed anti-abortion measures.

It’s rare for a member of Congress to get so directly involved in the Legislature’s affairs.

Not so for Chenoweth, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone who has followed her career. She counted on strong support from the zealously anti-abortion religious right to win her first primary election in 1994 and every election since.

House Speaker Michael Simpson of Blackfoot and Rep. Mark Stubbs of Twin Falls are among the five people who say they will run for the GOP nomination in the 2nd Congressional District. Both associated themselves with anti-abortion bills this session, prodded to the right on an issue they might have preferred to avoid if they weren’t seeking higher office.

It may not be clear until the primary election whether either man gained ground with voters, but Stubbs appears to have come away with less baggage that might hurt him in May.

Simpson, who has been the House’s chief officer for the past three sessions, was considered the favorite when the campaign started. For the past couple of years he has been traveling the state to Republican gatherings, preparing for a possible bid for governor.

He decided instead to try for the seat that GOP U.S. Rep. Michael Crapo is vacating to run for fellow Republican Dirk Kempthorne’s U.S. Senate seat as Kempthorne runs for governor.

Simpson was known as rather moderate in the Legislature, and he had a hand in blocking anti-abortion bills since the divisive 1990 debate in the Legislature that led to big Republican losses at the polls. So it seemed to be a case of personal political expediency when he announced he would let the religious right raise the issue this session.

Simpson, like Chenoweth, knows that the party’s most socially conservative voters have turned out in force for recent Idaho elections. But his bid for their support by cosponsoring a bill with the Idaho Christian Coalition may turn out to have been a mistake.

A measure that Simpson described as simply adding abortion to the list of medical procedures on minors requiring parental consent became much more. In fact, it was the most controversial of the three anti-abortion bills in the House.

After weathering a storm of criticism over a provision that would have deprived Idaho of federal money for family planning, Simpson decided the bill needed major changes.

But the Christian Coalition resisted his proposed amendments and the bill was returned to the State Affairs Committee to die.

Before the legislation’s fate was sealed, however, the Christian Coalition had become so unhappy with Simpson that it approached Stubbs about replacing him as sponsor.

That makes it seem unlikely the Christian Coalition will be behind Simpson in the upcoming congressional campaign. In fact, spokeswoman Nancy Bloomer said Stubbs - not Simpson - will be the group’s standard-bearer when it tries again next year.

Assuming he is not in Congress by then.

But even Stubbs won’t fight to revive this year’s withdrawn bill.

“It’s not my bill; it’s their bill,” he said. “I will follow their lead on it.”

With three other eastern Idaho conservatives in the primary race, Simpson’s already tenuous support from the religious right may be eroded.

Stubbs isn’t the most conservative horse in the race, but at least he hasn’t made the Christian Coalition mad at him.

But the biggest winner of all might be Democrat Richard Stallings.

The former congressman seeking to return to the seat he gave up for a failed U.S. Senate bid in 1992 is such a stalwart against abortion that it once earned him a couple of delegate votes for his party’s presidential nomination.

No Republican hopeful can say as much.

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