Political Hay

Democrats Are Idaho Dreamin’

Larry Craig's troubles have inflated Democrats' hopes of capturing another Senate seat.

By 8.31.07

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The American public was greeted this week with the latest in Republican scandal, when news emerged that Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho recently pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct charges related to his apparent solicitation of gay sex in the Minneapolis airport.

Craig has tried to pass off the guilty plea as an inconsequential mistake. But the public smells a rat, and just as Craig surely squirms, Sen. Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee surely laughs with glee. After all, Craig is up for re-election next year.

Admittedly, it is unlikely that Craig will run again -- his Senate colleagues are calling for him to step down, and a SurveyUSA poll conducted on Wednesday showed that 55 percent of Idaho voters think he should resign, while his approval rating hovers at a miserable 34 percent. But still, some Democrats are already banking on the prospect of his indiscretions having an effect on the 2008 Idaho Senate race, even without his name appearing on the ballot.

This is despite the fact that Idaho is considered one of the reddest states in the nation. Currently, the state has a Republican governor, a Republican legislature, two Republican senators and two Republican congressmen. Moreover, Idaho has not gone to the Democrat in any presidential election since 1964 (and went to President Bush in 2004 by nearly a 70 percent to 30 percent margin). Boding badly for the Democrats in this particular context, the state has not elected a Democratic Senator in 33 years.

That leads to the question: Are the Democrats crazy to think they have a shot? The answer is probably yes -- but maybe, just maybe, no.

Democrat and former Rep. Larry LaRocco had already declared his Senate candidacy before the scandal involving Craig broke. The scandal is likely to give him a boost with voters, a must-have since he has a less than winning record, overall. LaRocco was ejected from Congress in the 1994 Republican sweep after two terms, and remained essentially in the political wilderness until 2006. Then, upon returning to the political scene, he lost his race last year to become Idaho's Lieutenant Governor.

The scandal is probably already yielding returns where fundraising is concerned, though. Earlier this week, Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network commented that "a couple of million dollars" would flow into LaRocco's campaign war chest early, as a result of the scandal breaking, and that the Idaho Senate race would "move to the front of the pack in Democratic Senate fundraising."

Of course, money isn't everything in politics and it's hard to see an inflow of cash, even a massive one, to LaRocco's campaign yielding any real returns -- at least on its own. Were a messy primary like that seen last year in the race for the Republican nomination in Idaho's first district to emerge, though, it might be a different story.

Democrats are hopeful. On Tuesday, the Politico noted that "[t]here would be no shortage of potential Republican candidates looking to succeed Mr. Craig if he retires or resigns," though the two leading candidates would be Lieutenant Governor Jim Risch (the man who beat LaRocco last year) and Rep. Mike Simpson, who currently represents the state's second district.

However, the prospect of Simpson running has already attracted strong words, with Club for Growth president Pat Toomey calling him "one of the most economically liberal Republicans in Washington," and stating that he would have a hard time winning a Republican primary in such a conservative state. Liberal bloggers are taking this as a sign that freshman Rep. Bill Sali, backed by the Club last year through a highly contentious primary, could enter the fray, as well -- though that is pure (and probably wild) speculation.

That being said, were a messy primary to ensue on the GOP side, and were a firebrand conservative like Sali to enter the race, LaRocco could see a boost. Despite Idaho's conservatism, Sali only won his race last year with 50 percent of the vote -- hardly a resounding victory by Idaho standards.

With that firmly in mind, Democrats will be itching for a Sali candidacy. Even if they don't get it -- or a Republican primary fight in any form -- they will be hoping that the Craig saga will be enough to force Republicans to divert even a handful of resources away from Senate races in which Democrats will be more competitive, in order to ensure a victory in Idaho. Those might include the Colorado Senate matchup between Democratic Rep. Mark Udall and former Rep. Bob Schaffer, or the New Hampshire Senate race between Republican Sen. John Sununu and an as-yet-to-be-determined Democrat (possibly former Governor Jeanne Shaheen).

In any event, while Democrats would cherish the prospect of a Republican primary fight in Idaho, they would be smart not to bank on Republicans offering up such a gift.

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