BOISE – Idaho’s congressional delegation will go from 100 percent to 75 percent Republican when Walt Minnick, a Democrat, takes office in January as North Idaho’s new congressman.
But Minnick, who downplayed his Democratic ties and campaigned as a conservative, pro-gun, centrist from the business world, said his goal is to work with everyone, regardless of party.
“What I hope to do is work with my colleagues from Idaho to come up with common-sense solutions,” Minnick said. “My election, I think, signifies more than anything else that Idahoans want problems solved in a nonpartisan, practical way.”
Minnick’s defeat of controversial freshman GOP Rep. Bill Sali may have been more a rejection of Sali than an embrace of Democrats in Idaho’s heavily Republican 1st Congressional District.
Sali repeatedly clashed with his own party leaders during his 16 years in the state Legislature, and since going to Congress has struggled with campaign finances and drawn attention for controversial comments about everything from a Muslim congressman to Sali’s mock bill to suspend the law of gravity, a debating device he used to decry legislation to raise the minimum wage.
The combative Sali refused to concede at a GOP press conference midday Wednesday, though 99 percent of the vote had been counted and Minnick had won, 51 percent to 49 percent. “There’s still a couple of precincts out there,” he said. An hour later, 100 percent had been counted and the margin remained the same.
“We were heavily outspent, and unfortunately that’s part of what accounts for a very, very tight race,” Sali told supporters before pushing past reporters and leaving without taking questions.
Meanwhile, the mood for change that swept the country didn’t reach the Idaho Legislature, where every seat was up for election but only one incumbent was defeated, a freshman Democrat from Idaho Falls, Jerry Shively, who lost narrowly to Republican Jeff Thompson.
A dozen other legislative seats changed hands, for reasons ranging from death to primary defeat, but all but Shively’s were filled with candidates of the same party as the previous occupants.
In North Idaho, Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, defeated Democratic challenger Ken Howard, a prominent local attorney, 51 percent to 43 percent. Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, held off Republican challenger Jim Hollingsworth, 53 percent to 47 percent.
Idaho GOP Lt. Gov. Jim Risch easily won a five-way race for the Senate seat vacated by the retiring Sen. Larry Craig, with 58 percent of the vote to Democrat Larry LaRocco’s 34 percent, with the other candidates in single digits.
But Democrats were energized by their national success, and Minnick said his win reflected that of Democratic President-elect Barack Obama. “It was a vote that expressed dissatisfaction at both the national level and here in Idaho with the extreme partisanship that has been characteristic in Washington the last few years,” Minnick said. Obama, he said, “proposed to be nonpartisan and reach across the aisle, and I did as well.”
Idaho GOP Sen. Mike Crapo called Sali’s loss “disheartening,” but he also reached out to Minnick; both he and 2nd District Rep. Mike Simpson were in touch with Minnick by phone Wednesday morning.
“As Walt and I talked … we can work across party lines,” Crapo said. “I believe that we are going to have a very strong team working for Idaho.”
Minnick’s win made history, picking up a congressional seat held by Republicans for 36 of the last 40 years. The last Democrat to represent Idaho’s 1st District in Congress was LaRocco, who lost to Helen Chenoweth in 1994 after serving two terms. Before him, it was Compton White, who served from 1962 to 1966.
Sali edged Minnick in the Panhandle’s largest and most vote-rich county, Kootenai, where he had a 744-vote margin. Boundary County favored Sali by a 389-vote margin, while Benewah County went for Minnick by a 139-vote margin.