BOISE - Idaho elected its first Hispanic to represent the state in Congress on Tuesday, as Raul Labrador upset freshman Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick with a decisive 51 percent to 41.3 percent victory.
Labrador, a conservative Republican state lawmaker and immigration attorney who charged during the race that Minnick’s attack ads against him had racial overtones, said he thought the “first” was significant because it sent a message to the nation about Idahoans.
“People have such a bad connotation of what Idaho represents,” Labrador said, “a bad place, a racist place. I can’t think of a better message for Idaho to send than to send a young man who was born in Puerto Rico, was raised in Las Vegas and was adopted by this state.”
Tony Stewart, a founding board member of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, said the election result is one of a long string of firsts in Idaho’s history that belie the state’s image, which was tarnished by the presence in the 1990s of a small but violent group of white supremacists.
Idaho elected the nation’s first Jewish governor, Moses Alexander, in 1914, and the nation’s first Native American attorney general, Larry EchoHawk, in 1990. It’s also elected Native Americans to the state Legislature and at one time elected a high percentage of women to the Legislature compared to other states.
“So there’s a track record there of looking at the merits of how people are seen as candidates, and they’re not basing it on race, but on the issues,” Stewart said.
Minnick has called Labrador’s allegations about racist overtones in his ads “baloney,” and said the ads merely highlighted differences between Labrador the candidate’s tough stand against illegal immigration and his record as an attorney representing immigrants.
Still, Labrador maintained that the ads backfired.
“I’m so proud of the people of Idaho today - they rejected the politics of negative attacks,” Labrador said at a GOP rally on the state Capitol steps on Wednesday. “They rejected the politics of personal attacks. And they accepted a strong, principled message about … less government, less taxes and more personal responsibility.”
Minnick, in an election night interview, expressed some regret that the campaign didn’t focus more on the most-important issues, because he said both candidates agreed on the need to cut government spending.
“You basically focus on issues that research tells you are important to undecided voters,” he said. “Most people in Idaho think the government spends too much and think we’ve got to reduce the deficit and to get the country back on a fiscally sound policy. … If everyone agrees about something - smaller government, less intrusive spending - it tends to be a lower profile in the back-and-forth of a campaign,” in which both sides are pitching to undecided voters that “you’re different in some way from your opponents.”
The freshman congressman, who opposed many of the big initiatives of his own party, from the health care reform bill to cap-and-trade to the economic stimulus, could not have compiled a better voting record to appeal to conservatives, said David Adler, director of the James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy Research at the University of Idaho.
But like so many of his Democratic colleagues in the U.S. House, Minnick fell victim to intense voter frustration with President Barack Obama and his party as he made a bid for a second term in one of the nation’s most Republican districts.
“That may be the grim reality for Minnick, there might not have been anything he could have done,” Adler said.
Labrador sought throughout his campaign to tie Minnick to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. On Wednesday, he took off a bright-red “Fire Pelosi” pin he’d worn on his lapel for several weeks, and said, “We have done the job and I can take it off, because the mission has been finished.”
But Labrador also cautioned that voters didn’t choose him and other GOP candidates just because they were Republicans. “They have hired us to do the right thing … to actually do something about the budget, to do something about spending and to encourage more jobs,” he said. “If we don’t keep the promises that we made to the American people, they’ll fire us.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.