BOISE – When an outspoken conservative goes up against a centrist Republican-turned-Democrat, the result is what Idaho is seeing now: a hot race for North Idaho’s seat in Congress.
Freshman GOP Rep. Bill Sali is an attorney who likes to say he’s just “an average guy. I live in an average house; I drive an average car.” But he’s also the conservative underdog who defeated five other Republicans in a crowded primary two years ago to get his shot at federal office.
He’s the architect of stringent anti-abortion legislation in the Idaho Legislature that cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars when the laws were overturned in court. And he’s the congressman who’s gained notoriety for such foibles as late and repeatedly amended campaign finance reports, a tongue-in-cheek bill to suspend the law of gravity and a still-mounting campaign debt.
Democratic challenger Walt Minnick is the former CEO of an Idaho timber products firm who once worked in the Nixon White House and was the president of the College Republicans at Whitman College in Walla Walla. His journey from Republican to Democrat went public in 1996 when he unsuccessfully challenged GOP Sen. Larry Craig, dipping into his personal wealth to finance a hard-fought race.
This year, Minnick came late to what had been a three-way race on the Democratic side. That didn’t stop him from piling up a fundraising lead over Sali. He launched TV spots seven weeks before Sali and played down his party label in favor of a conservative-leaning pitch that included commercials showing him armed and hunting.
Both candidates have said party labels don’t matter, with Sali touting his support from conservative Democratic Benewah County Commissioner Jack Buell, and Minnick forming a “Republicans for Minnick” group including prominent moderate GOPers from around the state.
“When I disagree with my party, I’ll vote with the other,” Minnick said. “You won’t find me lining up 100 percent on anybody’s political scorecard.”
As a congressman, Sali has received a rating of 0 from the League of Conservation Voters, an A rating from the National Rifle Association, a 100 percent rating from “English First,” an A rating from the National Taxpayers Union and a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union. He says his Christian conservative approach fits his district.
“I don’t claim to be necessarily the most conservative guy in the world, but I think what we need to do is look at what is popular, what do the people want,” Sali said.
Minnick countered, “I believe in limited government, lower taxes and balanced budgets – I just disagree with Congressman Sali as to where our priorities should be and how we should get to that objective.”
That hasn’t stopped Sali from trying to portray Minnick as a “radical environmentalist” and “too liberal for Idaho.” Among Sali’s focuses: Minnick’s recent “D-plus” rating from the National Rifle Association.
Minnick dismisses the NRA rating as political and notes that he’s long been a gun owner and avid hunter. When the U.S. Supreme Court issued a key pro-gun rights ruling earlier this year, Minnick released a statement saying it was “about damn time.”
Minnick, for his part, has sought to paint Sali as ineffective, pointing to his many “no” votes as part of a minority in Congress; his many departures in voting from fellow Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, a moderate Republican; and Sali’s problems with campaign finances.
Sali countered, “We set out to do a particular job representing the people of the state of Idaho – we believe we’ve fulfilled an awful lot of that in the first term, done a lot of things we said we would do. There’s much more work to be done. At the end of the day this is about handing off an America to my children and my grandchildren that is secure and free and prosperous. It’s going to take more than one term to get that done.”Both Sali and Minnick opposed the recent financial bailout legislation passed by Congress, though Minnick said he thought the second version, which passed, was “a bit better.”
Sali is a graduate of Boise State University and the University of Idaho law school who represented Kuna in the state House of Representatives for 16 years. He and his wife, Terry, have six children and six grandchildren, plus another on the way.
Minnick is a graduate of Whitman College and holds both an MBA and a law degree from Harvard. His 35-year business career followed a stint in the U.S. Army and service in the Nixon White House; he served 16 years as CEO of Trus Joist International before founding his own chain of garden centers, of which he’s currently CEO. He and wife A.K. have four children and two grandchildren.
Idaho’s 1st Congressional District takes in a slice of Boise, all of western Idaho, and all of North Idaho to the Canadian border.