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How Sen. Jim Risch and his Idaho ethos became an unlikely leader on foreign policy as global conflicts rage and his party splits

WASHINGTON – By his own account, Jim Risch arrived in Congress in 2009 as something of an isolationist, less interested in the United States’ role around the world than in the domestic issues on which he had focused in three decades as a local prosecutor, Idaho state senator, lieutenant governor and a brief stint as governor.

But when his longtime friend Mike Crapo – who was in charge of committee assignments in the Senate – laid out Risch’s options, the incoming Republican senator turned down a coveted seat on the Appropriations Committee in favor of the Foreign Relations Committee, whose members guide the country’s policies across the globe.

Fifteen years later, the 80-year-old Idaho rancher has become one of the most influential voices in U.S. foreign policy and a champion of America’s alliances around the world – at a time when his party is pulled between seemingly opposite poles: one that sees an active U.S. role in the world as a moral and existential imperative and another, ascendant since the presidency of President Trump, that shuns international partners in favor of an “America first” ethos.

As the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and its chairman from 2019 to 2021, Risch has sought to bridge that divide, heeding the concerns of his constituents in deep-red Idaho while advocating support for U.S. allies and international institutions to keep authoritarian states like Russia, China and Iran at bay.

“Before I got here, I didn’t think this way, but our national security really depends not just on us having a big drawbridge which we can pull up,” Risch said, “but having partners, having allies that we can rely on to help us when we get in a spot, or vice versa.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 – and Ukraine’s unexpectedly successful defense of its territory, backed by the United States and other allies – provided the clearest example of that principle since the end of the Cold War. Yet as a Ukrainian counteroffensive has fallen short of its goals this year, support for U.S. aid to Kyiv has waned among GOP voters and lawmakers.

“The biggest threat that my constituents feel is not from there; it’s from our southern border,” Risch said, where thousands of migrants cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally each day, according to federal data. About half of those people get deported, while the rest are allowed to stay in the country – often for years – as they await hearings in an asylum process that nearly everyone in Congress agrees is broken.

Those priorities – and the rifts they expose between and within the parties – are encapsulated in a complex legislative package Congress is now negotiating, for which Senate Democratic leaders said Thursday the chamber would delay its holiday recess, even though the GOP-led House has departed. The potential deal would pair aid to Ukraine, Israel and other allies, requested by President Joe Biden, with the most significant changes in U.S. asylum policy in more than three decades, demanded by Republicans.

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing at the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 6, 2023, while Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, left, and Ben Cardin of Maryland listen.  (Orion Donovan Smith/The Spokesman-Review)
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing at the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 6, 2023, while Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, left, and Ben Cardin of Maryland listen. (Orion Donovan Smith/The Spokesman-Review)

In interviews over the course of a month, Risch laid out a worldview that unites those policies under the banner of national security. At a gathering of diplomats, lawmakers and military officials from around the world in November in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he said the war in Ukraine and the Oct. 7 terror attacks in Israel by Hamas have caused democracies and authoritarian states – “the good guys” and “the bad guys,” respectively – to “come together tighter.”

“And that is going to perpetuate, I think, into the future,” Risch said. “So what does that mean for mankind? I view this as a challenge for the rest of the 21st century: How we figure out how to occupy the planet without killing each other.”

His current and former colleagues in Congress, the state legislature and the governor’s office described a man whose intelligence and blunt, sometimes brash style have earned him respect among members of both parties in Congress and his counterparts from around the world.

Crapo, Idaho’s senior senator, said his fellow Republican hasn’t fundamentally changed since they met in 1984, when Crapo was elected to the Idaho state Senate. At the time, Risch was the Senate president pro tempore – who presides over the chamber – a position Crapo took on after Risch lost his seat to a Democrat in 1988.

As the pro tem, Risch gained an undeserved reputation as “an iron-fisted leader,” Crapo said, when in reality he was an “incredibly results-oriented” pragmatist who worked hard to build support for his priorities.

“He’s a very strong leader,” Crapo said. “But he also understands that leading involves getting the support and developing the right ideas and principles that your colleagues will support them. And he was very flexible in doing that, and I don’t mean he gave up on his principles at all.”

Crapo said that same work ethic has made Risch a tireless student of international affairs who uses the expertise of his staff to educate and influence other lawmakers.

“Jim Risch has gotten one of the plum positions in the United States Congress,” Crapo said. “It’s already one of the most powerful positions in the Senate. He’s turned it into one in which he personally has become, I think, probably the leading foreign relations expert in the Congress.”

Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, a member of the committee whose path from being the 2012 Republican nominee for president to GOP outcast illustrates how far the party has shifted since Trump’s rise, said Risch has the respect and attention of even the Senate Republicans who don’t agree with him.

“He has a lot of credibility, particularly with the Republican caucus, and he’s able to bring in historical perspective to the Ukraine aid issue,” Romney said. “He has spoken numerous times to our caucus as a group and described at some length the implications of not supporting Ukraine, given the commitments we made when they relinquished their nuclear weapons.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, listens during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing at the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 6, 2023.  (Orion Donovan Smith/The Spokesman-Review)
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, listens during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing at the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 6, 2023. (Orion Donovan Smith/The Spokesman-Review)

Risch said that is his go-to argument when explaining his support for Ukraine, whether to a constituent in Idaho or a skeptical colleague in Congress. He asks them if they have heard of the Budapest Memorandum, a 1994 agreement that saw Ukraine give up the nuclear weapons it had inherited from the collapsed Soviet Union in exchange for the promise that the United States and its allies would protect them in the event of an attack.

“When you give your word, you’ve got to keep your word,” Risch said. “If the world sees us throw Ukraine under the bus, what would you do if you were Japan or South Korea? You’d be saying, ‘We’ve got to have nuclear weapons, because the U.S. isn’t going to take care of us.’ ”

Sen. Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican, said that matter-of-fact way of communicating is one of Risch’s virtues.

“He says it like it is,” Rounds said in Halifax. “If he likes something, he’ll tell you he likes it. If you have a good question, he’ll tell you it’s a good question. And if he thinks it’s dumb, he’ll tell you it’s dumb. I mean, it’s a pretty refreshing way to do business.”

Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, said that candor sets Risch apart from many of his counterparts in a world where cautious, diplomatic language is the norm. Barrasso recalled a meeting at a previous year’s Halifax International Security Form, when he said Risch told a German ambassador during a meeting over a pipeline that would have carried gas from Russia to Germany, “It’s really hard to see you holding hands under the table with the Russian bear.”

“People know where they stand when he talks to them, because he’s talking like a guy from Idaho,” Barrasso said. “I mean, this guy is Idaho through and through.”

Historically, though, not every guy from Idaho has taken the same approach to foreign policy. Three senators from the Gem State have chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a number unmatched by any other state since Idaho was admitted to the Union in 1890.

Sen. William Borah, a progressive Republican who chaired the committee from 1924 to 1933, was an outspoken isolationist who, as leader of the so-called “Irreconcilables,” blocked the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, preventing the United States from joining the League of Nations after World War I.

“Back in those days, it was a lot easier to be that,” Risch said. “We had two oceans that separated us. We didn’t have the communications or the travel or anything else. This world now is so small.”

Sen. Frank Church, a Democrat who chaired the panel from 1979 to 1981, made a name for himself by reining in the government’s involvement overseas, authoring the legislation that effectively ended the Vietnam War and then leading an investigation of abuses by U.S. intelligence agencies. Standing in his office and brandishing a recently published book about Church, “The Last Honest Man,” Barrasso took issue with the title.

“Jim Risch is the honest man,” the Wyomingite said of his friend. “Church went Washington. Jim Risch stayed Idaho.”

In contrast to Church, who embraced life in the nation’s capital, Risch flies home nearly every weekend, a long commute made slightly easier by the fact that his ranch is near the airport in Boise. Risch likes to point out that of the three Idahoans who have led the panel, he’s the only one who hasn’t run for president.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who has worked with Risch on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence panels, said the Idahoan keeps a lower profile than many previous Foreign Relations leaders – including Biden – who used the position as a springboard for higher political aspirations.

“For most Americans, he’ll probably be the best senator and the most impactful senator you may not have heard of,” Rubio said. “I think he likes his job and he enjoys the work he does here, but I don’t think he’s one of these people that’s, like, obsessed with politics or defines his life by what happens to his career in the U.S. Senate.”

Even so, Risch appears destined to play a prominent role in foreign policy before his third term ends at the close of 2026. When he took the gavel as committee chairman in 2019, in the second half of Trump’s presidency, he kept a lower profile than his Republican predecessor, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who openly criticized Trump’s foreign policy decisions.

When Democrats took control of the Senate in 2022, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey took over as chairman, but Menendez was indicted on federal corruption and bribery charges in September and October, leading many of his fellow Democrats to call for his resignation. Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, who had already announced his retirement at the end of 2023, took over as interim chairman.

Sens. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., listen during a news conference at the Halifax International Security Forum on Nov. 17 in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  (Orion Donovan Smith/The Spokesman-Review)
Sens. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., listen during a news conference at the Halifax International Security Forum on Nov. 17 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (Orion Donovan Smith/The Spokesman-Review)

Risch has avoided directly criticizing Menendez while speaking highly of both Cardin and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who co-led the U.S. delegation to Halifax in November and will be the top Democrat on the committee if Menendez steps down or is defeated in a re-election bid. Depending on the outcome of the 2024 election, either she or Risch will be in line to lead the panel.

Shaheen, whose mother is from Yakima, said she has a “very positive” working relationship with Risch, in part because they were both governors before coming to Congress. Although neither she nor Risch are leading negotiations on the national security bill, Shaheen said she was hopeful the two parties could reach a compromise.

“My experience is that negotiations usually fail when one side or the other overreaches,” Shaheen said Tuesday. Her question for Republicans, she added, is that if the deal falls apart, “Are you willing to let Ukraine fail?”

In an interview later that day, Risch rejected that question, insisting that border policy reforms can and must be part of the national security package. He emphasized that fewer than 10 of the Senate’s 100 members oppose additional aid for Ukraine, while conceding that even a similar share of resistance in the House – where Republicans hold a slim majority – could keep a compromise bill from becoming law.

A Gallup survey released in November found growing opposition to Ukraine aid among U.S. voters, with 62% of Republicans saying the United States is doing “too much” to help Kyiv. Florian Justwan, an associate professor of political science at the University of Idaho who studies attitudes towards international conflict, said there is no reliable polling on Idahoans’ support for Ukraine.

Rep. Russ Fulcher, a Republican who represents North Idaho and areas west of Boise, said his constituents overwhelmingly oppose sending more of their tax dollars to Ukraine’s war effort. But the House lawmaker said he would sit down with Risch to “compare notes” before taking a vote on a potential aid package.

“We both speak Idahoan, and what that means to me is I can trust what he’s got to say, because I know his base thought process, which is very similar to mine,” Fulcher said. “We probably are different on (Ukraine aid), but I very much respect where he’s coming from, and I intend on seeking his counsel before making the next major decision here.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat who praised Risch’s foreign policy work while acknowledging their differences on many other issues, said she didn’t expect the Idaho senator to play an active role in convincing GOP holdouts to back Ukraine.

“I don’t think that’s his style,” Cantwell said. “His style is to put out the right value message.”

Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio, a vocal GOP skeptic of further aid to Kyiv who has argued that Ukraine should cede territory to Russia to end the war, said he respects Risch’s right to listen to Idahoans and still come to a different conclusion.

“The only way for the republican form of government to actually work is if people take input from their constituents, they listen to them, but they have to ultimately make their own decision,” Vance said.

“In the many conversations we’ve had about Ukraine, I’ve never said, ‘You should agree with me because my view is now popular. In the same way, I would have been insulted if he would have told me 18 months ago, ‘You have to agree with me because my view is popular.’ So I think that he’s doing this the right way, even though I think he’s wrong on the substance.”

Sen. Chris Coons – a Delaware Democrat who made the trip to Halifax and called Risch “hardworking, well-informed, tireless and responsive” – said Risch had recently told him about the opposition to funding humanitarian aid that the Idaho senator was hearing from constituents.

“It was delivered under the rubric of ‘Don’t shoot the messenger, but you need to realize that if folks in my state are saying this, they’re saying this in half the country,’ ” Coons said.

During a visit to D.C. where he met with all 100 senators on Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered the defiant message that “Ukraine can win.”

Three days earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin, holding a glass of champagne at an awards ceremony at the Kremlin, said Ukraine had “no future” because it relies on waning support from the United States and other allies. On Dec. 15, the government of Hungary’s Russia-friendly Prime Minister Viktor Orban blocked $52 billion in aid to Ukraine from the European Union.

Jim Jones, a former chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court, said the state GOP is heading in an extremist direction, driven by recent arrivals who have fled blue states in search of “the white nationalist nirvana” in Idaho.

Jones said he credits Risch – with whom he sometimes clashed when Risch was Senate pro tem and Jones was Idaho’s attorney general in the 1980s – with supporting Ukraine despite opposition in the state.

“The really radical right-wingers, strangely enough, those people used to be the anti-communists that wanted to take Russia on,” Jones said. “Now, they’ve kind of softened. I think they like the authoritarian attitudes, the anti-gay, pro-state-church attitude that Orban and Putin and those knuckleheads espouse, and they don’t see Russia as the same threat that traditional Republicans do. So there’s a split in the party.”

Cardin linked anti-Ukraine and pro-Russia sentiments to U.S. opposition to getting involved in the beginning of World War II, when Nazi German propaganda efforts stoked isolationist attitudes among Americans with the aim of keeping the United States neutral.

“This is an issue that may not be popular,” he said. “I wasn’t living in the 1930s and so I can’t tell you how the feeling was in this country, but I know that when a war is far away from you, you don’t think about the impact it has on us. But Ukraine is the front line of democracy.”

That idea was echoed by Oleksandra Matviichuk, a Ukrainian human rights lawyer whose organization shared the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize.

“We can see Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are building an authoritarian coalition, so people fighting for freedom definitely should support each other,” she wrote in an email. “As long as Ukraine remains vulnerable, the entire Euro-Atlantic security system remains vulnerable.”

At this pivotal moment for the global order – not just in Ukraine, but in the Middle East, the Indo-Pacific and beyond – Risch finds himself in a position he never imagined before he got to Congress in 2009, at an age when many Americans retire.

John Sandy, who met Risch when both were students at the University of Idaho and went on to serve as his chief of staff in the governor’s office and the Senate until 2019, said the senator’s seemingly boundless energy helped him overcome the late start. Recalling the conversation they had when Risch got elected, Sandy said, “You have to be very, very thoughtful and don’t dive off in the deep end until you’re doggone sure you can swim.”

“He said, ‘I want you to be my chief of staff,’ and I literally looked at him and said, ‘I don’t think that’s a very good idea,’ ” Sandy recalled. “And he said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know anything about that.’ And he looked at me and he said, ‘John, I don’t know anything about being a U.S. senator either. It won’t take us long. We’ll figure this thing out.’ ”

Reflecting on his career path in Halifax, Risch acknowledged it was “not a natural tendency for people from Idaho.”

“But look, here I am,” he said. “And Idahoans have as much equity in the national security of the United States of America as do people from California, New York, Texas and Florida.”

Later, in his D.C. office, he showed no signs of slowing down.

“The national security of the United States,” he said, “is like the laundry. This is never done.”