U.S. Rep. Michael Crapo has a good chance to be the first Mormon ever elected to the U.S. Senate from Idaho.
Surprisingly, a state where every fourth person belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - the highest per capita Mormon population outside Utah - never has sent a Mormon to the Senate.
Searches by the Idaho State Historical Society and the U.S. Capitol Historical Society turned up not a single case of a Mormon senator being elected in Idaho in 107 years of statehood.
Utah, of course, elected its first Mormon to the Senate more than a century ago, and members of the faith have been elected from other states - but not from Idaho.
One reason is the state’s disjointed geography. While Mormon politicians flourish in eastern and southern Idaho, they rarely have done well in North Idaho.
Voters in the congressional district Republican Crapo represents haven’t sent a non-Mormon to Congress for 50 years. His predecessor, Democrat Richard Stallings, enjoyed that fact for four terms before losing a 1992 Senate bid to non-Mormon Dirk Kempthorne.
Even in the Panhandle, which had been a Democratic bastion, Stallings lost half the counties to Republican Kempthorne.
Still, Crapo said religion hasn’t been a factor in his past campaigns, and as far as he’s concerned, it won’t come into play next year.
“I will not campaign any differently this time,” he said.
In an interview with the Ricks College student newspaper, Crapo said he always has tried to separate religious issues from political issues and believes everyone has a right to be represented, regardless of his or her faith.
Crapo was president of the Idaho Senate five years ago when he handily won the first of three terms in Congress. The Idaho Falls attorney quickly moved into a leadership role under House Speaker Newt Gingrich and hasn’t been seriously challenged in the past two elections.
He would be a prohibitive favorite to win again next year, but he decided instead to go for the Senate seat Kempthorne will give up to run for governor.
At 46, Crapo is young enough to have had a shot at a committee chairmanship if the GOP maintains a House majority. However, he will have to give up any leadership role if he is elected to the Senate.
But Crapo has no regrets about the decision.
“Certainly there are things that I will be leaving in the House that have been tremendously rewarding,” he said. “But I am really excited about the Senate opportunity.”
From the outset, Crapo has been considered a heavy favorite. For one thing, he’s got money.
He started with a hefty war chest from previous House campaigns, and staffers say cash has been pouring in since he announced his candidacy for the Senate. Anybody who runs against Crapo will start with an immediate disadvantage of several hundred thousand dollars.
Idaho is known as a relatively inexpensive state in which to run for the Senate. That might tempt national Democratic Party leaders to pump in millions of dollars in pursuit of an open seat - but only if they can find a strong candidate.
Former Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Bill Mauk might decide to run, but he would be a long shot at best. And other leading Democrats are hard-pressed even to come up with a name of a possible candidate.
With that kind of edge, Idaho Republican Party Chairman Ron McMurray says he doesn’t think Crapo’s religion will be a factor.
“He has proved himself; he’s not just a brand new kid on the block,” McMurray said. “He has proved himself as a leader and he is very popular.”
Crapo also is conservative by national standards. But he is fairly moderate for an Idaho Republican, and McMurray said Crapo always has been well-received in North Idaho.