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A Look at Idaho

The Big Easy Concert House in downtown Boise, Idaho, is not a place normally associated with Republicans.

This week, you can catch such big-time musical acts as Eek A Mouse and The Wallflowers at the hip, New Orleans-style concert venue.

But there the Idaho Republicans were anyway Saturday, dancing the night away at a celebration of their most recent electoral victories. Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R) — officially, it was his inaugural ball — and the other statewide GOP officials were the featured attractions.

And why not dance? Idaho is perhaps the most Republican state in the country now. The GOP holds all but one statewide office, both Senate seats, both House seats, and gargantuan majorities in the state Legislature. The last Democratic presidential candidate to win the state was Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

“There are no Democrat rising stars in Idaho,” crows Jason Bohrer, political director of the Idaho Republican Party.

And yet, for all the Republican swagger, Democrats too had cause to celebrate after Election Day. Their well-funded candidate for the Senate, Alan Blinken, an investment banker and former ambassador to Belgium, may have lost by a 2-1 margin to incumbent Sen. Larry Craig (R) after he was accused of being a carpetbagger. And their House candidates — including highly regarded former U.S. Attorney Betty Richardson — were also wiped out.

But Jerry Brady, the Democratic candidate for governor, held Kempthorne, a popular and seasoned office-holder, to just 56 percent. And Democrats doubled their representation in the state Legislature — from a pathetic three seats to seven in the 35-seat state Senate, and from nine seats to 16 in the 70-member House.

As The Idaho Statesman, the state’s leading newspaper, recently pointed out, there are now two Democrats instead of one on each Senate committee — meaning that there will at least be someone to second a Democratic Senator’s motion.

“I think the state Democratic Party is getting a lot more attention,” said William Roden, dean of the statehouse lobbyists in Idaho. “I think they’re going to continue to make some inroads.”

On the legislative level, Democratic gains are credited largely to old-fashioned shoe leather and grassroots politicking.

Equally important, political observers said, the state party appears to be running away from the national party as quickly as it can — especially the environmentalists and other liberal interest groups that hold sway with national Democrats.

“We focused heavily on sticking to core Idaho issues, staying local, local,” conceded Jade Riley, executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party.

But Bohrer attributed the Democratic legislative victories to redistricting. He said that the raw votes for Democratic legislative candidates were no greater than they were two years earlier, and he predicted that the GOP would regain half the seats it lost when President Bush and freshman Sen. Mike Crapo (R) are on the ballot in 2004.

“There’s absolutely no significance to it,” he said.

If there is any Democratic momentum out of November’s election, it is not yet evident in the state’s ’04 Congressional recruiting. Riley said it was premature to speculate on possible challengers to Crapo and Republican Reps. Butch Otter and Mike Simpson.

Still, political insiders consider a few Democrats viable for higher office. Brady, the erstwhile gubernatorial nominee, may try again in 2006, when Kempthorne has indicated he will retire.

Brady is the publisher of the Idaho Falls Post Register and the grandson of a former governor. But he will be 70 in 2006.

Richardson, who served as U.S. attorney under then-President Bill Clinton and got 39 percent of the vote against Otter in the 1st district, could also run for office again — perhaps attorney general. She is a veteran Idaho Democratic operative who was elected as a delegate to the 1972 Democratic National Convention at the age of 19.

State Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, a 46-year-old TV station executive from Ketchum, is also highly regarded.

The Democrats’ lone statewide officeholder is Marilyn Howard, who is entering her second term as state superintendent of public instruction. She is a lifelong educator who is in her 60s and is considered a lackluster campaigner, so she is unlikely to seek higher office.

The Republican bench, obviously, is much deeper. But whether there will be any openings for politicians to aspire to remains to be seen. No one other than Kempthorne has made noises about leaving office any time soon.

“Right now we’ve got a delegation [in Washington] that looks like they want to stay there forever,” Roden observed.

But the gubernatorial opening could entice several people. Simpson, who is entering his fourth term in the House and is a former Speaker of the Idaho House, has spoken openly of his interest in being governor. Otter, who spent 14 years as lieutenant governor and is now in his third House term, could also want the job.

Some Idaho Republicans have speculated that Simpson would defer to Otter simply because Otter, at 60, is eight years older.

“He’s going to want to be hunting and fishing pretty soon,” Bohrer said of the elder Congressman.

Meanwhile, new Lt. Gov. James Risch (R), a long-time Senate Republican leader, is also considered a likely candidate for governor in 2006.

Former Lt. Gov. Jack Riggs (R), who was handpicked by Kempthorne to replace Otter after Otter was elected to Congress but lost a divisive primary this year to Risch, is touted as a possible candidate for Otter’s seat should Otter move on. Some GOP leaders are mad at him, however, and accuse him of not helping the ticket after losing his primary.

Republicans are also high on two political newcomers.

One is 43-year-old businessman Tom Luna, who narrowly lost the race for state superintendent of public instruction last year. Luna, a father of six who served on the Nampa School Board, has an inspiring personal story. He is a college dropout who started his own successful weights and measures business and returned to college to finish his degree so he could serve in the state education post, which requires a bachelor’s degree.

Bohrer said many voters were skeptical of Luna’s qualifications but came away impressed after hearing him speak.

“He made the most positive impression of anyone I’ve ever seen in politics,” Bohrer said.

The GOP is also touting newly elected state Controller Keith Johnson. A 40-year-old Idaho native, Johnson has served as Oklahoma state controller — an appointed position — and also worked in the Orange County, Calif., controller’s office after that huge suburban jurisdiction teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.

Some political insiders are also wondering whether Kempthorne’s long-time right-hand man, Gary Smith, is interested in running for office. Smith has worked for Kempthorne for 15 years, dating back to his days as mayor of Boise, and was with him on Capitol Hill when he served in the Senate.

Smith currently runs the governor’s Washington, D.C., office and has the title of deputy chief of staff.

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