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Still trying to find his footing as a political candidate, Jimmy Farris walked into the lobby of Lewiston’s KRLC-AM to tape an interview and was greeted by program director John Thomas.
“Nice to see you,” Thomas said. “I see you got the Western shirt, but where’s your cowboy boots? It’s weird to see an Idaho politician without cowboy boots.”
Indeed, very little about Farris fit the description of an Idaho politician. Even if he was a couple of pounds above his playing weight, Farris couldn’t disguise his boyish face. In a meeting at the Coeur d’Alene Indian reservation, Chief Allan, the tribe’s chairman, asked Farris why he was still single. The candidate tried to explain he’d be married to his job.
Farris told Thomas he was staying true to who he is, and the two disappeared into a small studio. “Going back a little bit,” Thomas said into a microphone, “why did you decide for your first bid for elected office to shoot for a seat in Congress?”
“Everybody’s got their own path,” Farris told him. “And everybody, when they’re deciding to do something, such as run for office, you decide where you think you can make the biggest impact.”
After the interview, Farris bumped into an old high school friend in the lobby.
“What are you doing now?” she asked.
“Up here campaigning,” he said.
“Oh, really? For what?”
Farris’s optimism rarely wavers, but he walked out of the station dejected. “It’s just so eye-opening to me how many people don’t realize I’m running for Congress,” he lamented. “People I’ve known my whole life just haven’t heard about it yet. We haven’t done a good job getting word out.”
Idaho’s 1st Congressional District is one of the nation’s largest, spanning 500 miles from Nevada to Canada. In a traditionally red area, Farris knew he had to make the campaign personal. “Otherwise, they’ll just vote for whichever candidate has an R next to his name,” he said. The incumbent is Rep. Raul Labrador, a Puerto Rican-born Mormon lawyer who rode a wave of tea party support to unseat Democrat Walt Minnick in 2010.
But a lot has changed in two years. Barely one in 10 Americans approves of the job Congress is doing, according to polls. Though Obama has little chance of winning Idaho in November — in 2008, he won only three of Idaho’s 44 counties, faring worse in only three states. Farris is convinced his home state has suffered under a Republican-controlled Congress, and he spent much of his early days on the campaign trail vaguely talking about job growth and getting Idahoans back to work.
As in any political race, one key is money. The average victorious House candidate in 2010 paid $1.4 million to fund that winning campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and Farris quickly learned that fundraising dollars are not easy to come by in Idaho.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee told him that if he raised $250,000 by the end of 2011, he would be included in the committee’s Red to Blue program, which would effectively put his race on the radar for PACs and donors. Competing against the holidays and poor name recognition, Farris raised barely $12,000.