BOISE – Both candidates for North Idaho’s seat in Congress are now saying party labels don’t really matter, after Democrat Walt Minnick released a list of 60 “Republicans for Minnick” and GOP incumbent Bill Sali named a Democratic county commissioner as one of his campaign co-chairmen.
“We hear from people all the time who are loyal Democrats, don’t like Walt Minnick, don’t like his position on issues and find they have more support on the things they care about from Bill,” said Sali’s campaign spokesman, Wayne Hoffman.
The Sali campaign has named only Benewah County Commissioner Jack Buell; Hoffman said other Democratic supporters didn’t want to be named.
Minnick’s cross-party supporter list includes prominent business leaders, former GOP elected officials and longtime party loyalists.
The 60 signed on to a letter that Minnick’s campaign sent to about 2,000 potential Republican backers across the 1st District, urging them to support a “bipartisan problem solver.” They’re also listed on a Web site, www.republicansforminnick.com.
“It’s an honest effort to reach out to Republican voters with the message that Walt Minnick wants to be their representative and do what’s right for Idaho,” said John Foster, Minnick’s campaign spokesman. “Our campaign is not based on letters after a name, but based on Idaho’s need for good representation, for competence in Washington. … There are many issues in this race that are not really Republican or Democrat, they’re just important to Idaho.”
Sali, an outspoken conservative freshman congressman, won a six-way Republican primary two years ago and then defeated Democrat Larry Grant, taking 49.9 percent of the vote to Grant’s 44.8 percent. As he seeks a second term, Sali’s fundraising has lagged well behind that of Minnick, a former timber products firm CEO and former Republican.
“I’ve known Walt for quite some time,” said Jerry Evans, a Republican who was elected four times as Idaho’s state superintendent of schools. “As I listen to him talk about children’s health issues and public school issues and balancing the federal budget and doing some things for the middle class with regard to tax cuts, he just kind of lines up with what I think we ought to be doing.”
Betty Cheeley, of Coeur d’Alene, a retired first-grade teacher, said she and her husband, Herb, have always voted Republican. “I haven’t liked some of the things Bill Sali did, and so when someone asked me to come to a meeting that Minnick was going to be at, I listened to what he had to say and I agreed with his stands on things,” Cheeley said.
Gary Michael, former CEO of Albertsons and former interim president of the University of Idaho, has been a donor to GOP political causes for many years, including campaign contributions to the Idaho Republican Party, Helen Chenoweth, Larry Craig and John McCain. “I know Walt well, and I’ve given him some money,” said Michael, who’s among the 60 on Minnick’s list. “He’s been a terrific businessman and I think he’d be a good advocate for Idaho, and so I’m supporting him.”
Michael said he lives in Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District, and doesn’t have anything to say about Sali. “I don’t know him, don’t live in his district, don’t have to vote for him,” he said.
Don Soltman, a prominent Coeur d’Alene resident who works as the vice president of Kootenai Medical Center, said he’s been a lifelong Republican, but he doesn’t care for Sali. “I think he’s just too far to the right, and that type of posture doesn’t serve us well when you’re trying to work in more of a bipartisan way,” he said. “I don’t think you can get stuff done in Washington without compromise and reaching across the aisle.”
Hoffman called the “Republicans for Minnick” a mere “gimmick,” and said, “It’s the same old gimmick he pulled 12 years ago, the same that Larry Grant pulled two years ago.”
According to the Associated Press, Minnick released a list of 22 GOP supporters when he ran against Republican Sen. Larry Craig in 1996, and Grant, the Democrat who lost to Sali two years ago, released a list of 11 GOP supporters.
Jim Weatherby, political scientist emeritus at Boise State University, noted that Minnick has been pitching his campaign to more than just Democrats, who are such a small minority in Idaho that they now hold none of the statewide elected offices or congressional seats.
“I think he’s trying to run a centrist campaign,” Weatherby said, “underplaying if using the Democratic label at all and using some language that would indicate that he might even be running more of a conservative campaign.”
He added, “I’m not aware of the bipartisan support for Sali, other than Jack Buell, but it’s certainly possible. There are very conservative Democrats, some who might like his social stands in particular.”
Hoffman said, “I think it’s irrelevant. Bill has got a lot of support throughout the district from Republicans, Democrats and independents. His support has only grown over the last two years, and it has grown exponentially.”