Democratic Idaho State Senate legislator Nicole LeFavour has declined to seek a fifth term representing the 19th District in the Idaho State Senate. She’s abandoning that safe seat to run against incumbent Rep. Mike Simpson for his 2nd Congressional District seat, as the popular Republican seeks a seventh term in the U.S. House of Representatives. The question is: Why? “I’m running for Congress because I love Idaho and we can do better,” LeFavour said in a recent Twitter post.
State Senate District 19 takes in the north and east sections of Boise (locally known as the North End and East End); the central downtown; and “the foothills,” a populous suburban area north of the city. The capital and its suburbs being home to bureaucrats, and academics associated with Boise St. University, makes the 19th one of the most reliably Democratic districts in Idaho. In 2008, the same year Obama carried it with 69% of the vote, LeFavour beat Republican Chuck Meissner with a nearly identical 70% (McCain-Palin carried Idaho as a whole 62% to 36%). This after previously serving the same district in the Idaho House, and scoring a two to one margin in her first race in 2004. She ran unopposed in her second House race in 2006.
LeFavour, 48, a lesbian with roots in rural Custer County, was the first openly gay member of the Idaho Legislature, and despite being involved in a number of legislative issues such as education (she’s an ex-teacher), is mostly known as a gay rights advocate. A soft-spoken, yet determined crusader for such, she has conducted a quixotic quest for reforms in employment, housing, and healthcare. LeFavour supported the recent “Add the Words” bill, which GOP Senate members declined to introduce on procedural grounds due to their 28-7 majority. It would have added the phrases “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the mission statement of the Idaho Commission on Human Rights, which administers state and federal anti-discrimination laws in Idaho. A recent provocative act was to send as Christmas gifts 60 copies of the movie Brokeback Mountain to fellow legislators. Needless to say, LeFavour supports gay marriage.
Simpson, 61, married, has represented Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives for thirteen years. The Burley, Idaho native and former dentist has a voting record typical of a western conservative when it comes to federal management of public lands. Though his views on such issues are in no way kneejerk. Simpson — after much legislative sausage-making — has supported such wilderness designation projects as the Central Idaho Development and Recreational Act (CIEDRA), which would set aside 312,000 acres in the Boulder-White Clouds area for a variety of uses. The bill is still pending. On cultural issues, Simpson is a Mormon — enough said. This in itself will be a plus for Simpson in a year where Mitt Romney will likely top the ballot in the heavily LDS-populated 2nd.
Simpson has enjoyed a 32-year career in Idaho politics going back to service on the Blackfoot City Council in 1980. He went on to seven terms in the Idaho House of Representatives, serving as House Speaker from 1993 to 1999. Simpson was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1999, and boasts a long list of committee and caucus accomplishments. As a former dentist, a favorite battle is taking a tough line against methamphetamine abuse, which degrades teeth and causes what dentists call “Methmouth.” In election years Simpson routinely garners large majorities — maybe the better word is “landslides.” Recent tallies include 71 percent of the vote against Democrat Debbie Holmes in 2008. He beat Democrat Mike Crawford with 69 percent in 2010. Also in 2010, Simpson faced an initial primary challenger, Marvin “Chick” Heileson, who ran under the Tea Party banner and tallied 22 percent of the vote. This year Heileson is repeating this superfluous exercise in Idaho’s May primary.
LeFavour has little to go on except support on her home turf around Boise; Blaine County, home to Sun Valley-Ketchum and its liberal Hollywood glitterati (who are also a good source of campaign funding), though not a populous area; and the same small numbers problem applies to Teton County, an across-the-state-line from Jackson, Wyoming progressive suburban enclave. Simpson runs the rest of the board in an east-northeast crescent of small cities from Mountain Home to Twin Falls, Pocatello, Blackfoot, Idaho Falls, Rexburg, and Lemhi County (Salmon). A noted Idaho political guru, Political Science Professor John Freemuth of Boise St. University recently told Sean Cockerham of McClatchy Newspapers, and reprinted in the Idaho Statesman, that “….most people who run a race think they have a chance to win…. [This race] just strikes me as awfully improbable.”
Has LeFavour done a political calculation that tells her that she can win? Starry-eyed liberal idealism is certainly not enough to beat a popular incumbent, especially one whose supporters would find LeFavour’s cultural social engineering agenda to be anathema to their conservative values. Someone or other of the Mormon faith has served the constituents of Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District since 1951 — sixty-one years.
So how does a liberal lightning rod with that record beat a conservative Mormon in a majority conservative district with a large Mormon population in a year where the GOP presidential nominee will likely be a Mormon and the face of the Democratic Party is Barack Obama?
She doesn’t. But maybe from her point of view tilting at political windmills raises her political profile in the future.