BOISE – It’s more than a year until the primary election, but two candidates already are campaigning for North Idaho’s congressional seat.
Former state Sen. Sheila Sorensen and Idaho Water Users Association Executive Director Norm Semanko have filed offi-cial declarations of candidacy and started campaigning around the state.
More candidates – both Republicans and Democrats – are expected to jump in.
The race is wide open because three-term GOP Rep. Butch Otter has announced he’ll forgo a re-election bid to run for governor. Otter made that announcement unusually early – before he even had taken the oath of office in January for his third term.
“Butch announced so darn early,” Sorensen said. “I had no intention of starting so early. I made the decision to run based on the fact that the seat was open.”
Once Otter stepped aside, the longtime Republican senator said, “I thought it was best to get in there.”
Semanko also was prompted by Otter’s early announcement.
“People started approaching me, asking me if I’d be interested in running,” Semanko said.
He said those people included Suzanne Craig, wife of Idaho’s current senior senator, Larry Craig. “She’s been a big supporter from day one,” Semanko said. “She encouraged me to run.”
Last week, Semanko named Suzanne Craig and Jim Goller, former chief of staff to Idaho Sen. Jim McClure, as his campaign co-chairs.
Both Sorensen and Semanko are Republicans. Idaho Democrats said they have several candidates looking at the race but no announcements yet. However, former U.S. Rep. Larry LaRocco, who held the seat for two terms in the early 1990s, said last week that he’s looking “seriously” at making a run.
LaRocco, 58, is the only Democrat to hold the seat in the past 30 years, and he said he thinks the wide-open race gives his party a good shot at retaking it.
“I’m looking at the race, I’m serious about it, and I’m giving myself until the end of May to make up my mind,” he said.
State Controller Keith Johnson, a Republican, said he also is planning to join the race, though he doesn’t plan to make a formal announcement for several weeks.
“I feel like I’ve been successful in the controller’s office and certainly enjoy doing what I’m doing, but at the same time, these opportunities don’t come around but once in a while,” said Johnson, 42.
The last time Idaho’s 1st Congressional District had an open seat was when former Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage retired in 2000, keeping to a self-imposed three-term limit. Otter, who then was the state’s longtime lieutenant governor and one of Idaho’s best-known politicians, ran and won, also winning re-election in 2002 and 2004.
Boise State University political scientist Jim Weatherby said the open seat and early start to campaigning likely will draw more candidates.
“I would expect that more people would get in,” he said. “It’s unusual for the incumbent to formally withdraw over two years before his term expires. That’s pretty rare for a congressional seat and, in fact, may be a first in Idaho history.”
Sorensen, 57, a pediatric nurse practitioner, served four terms in the state House of Representatives and six terms in the Senate, retiring in 2004 to spend some time in Hawaii where her husband, a doctor, had started a practice.
“It was great; it was just what I needed,” she said.
But Sorensen, who has served as chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare and Senate State Affairs committees and in Senate leadership, said she never intended to leave Idaho, where she’s lived since 1971 and where the Sorensens have kept their home.
“I think with my 17 years of experience in the Legislature, it has given me the opportunity to have invaluable insights into not only the legislative process but also into Idaho in general,” she said. “I’m ready to do the job. I know how to do it.”
She listed her top aim as “less government intrusion in our lives and in the state, promoting states’ rights and greater personal responsibility.”
Semanko, 38, grew up in North Idaho, graduated from Lakeland High School in Rathdrum and the University of Idaho, and earned a law degree from Georgetown University in 1993. He worked as an aide to Craig from 1988 to 1993 and then moved to Twin Falls, where he worked as an attorney and then became executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association.
In that capacity, Semanko was a prominent advocate this year for the Nez Perce water rights agreement, which settled the Nez Perce Tribe’s claims to virtually all the water in the Snake River.
“I think I bring a unique perspective growing up in North Idaho, having gone to school there, and then a whole bunch of my professional career being down in south Idaho, working with the agricultural community and the water users there,” Semanko said. “I think I understand both ends of the district pretty well.”
He described himself as “a conservative Republican by all accounts.”
Idaho’s 1st District stretches from the southwest corner of the state, south of Boise, all the way north to the Canadian border. The primary election is May 23, 2006, and the general election follows on Nov. 7, 2006.