“It’s like I’m standing in front of a big hole knowing that’s where your dream house is supposed to go,” Farris said. “But I don’t have an electrician, plumber, framer, sheetrock guy, roofer. I got nothing.”
When Larry LaRocco, a Democrat who held the 1st District seat from 1991 to 1995, called Farris the next morning, he offered a stern lecture and a pep talk. Farris started feeling better and before hanging up told LaRocco: “You know what. This is just the first half. We’ll make some halftime adjustments. I’ve always been better in the second half.”
One warm weekday, shortly after 1 p.m., Jimmy Farris burst into his campaign office — a modern-looking, sparsely decorated space in an office park that costs the campaign only $300 a month. He took immediate notice of that morning’s Idaho Statesman lying on a desk.
“That looks great,” he told Dave Scheppler, his latest campaign manager, tapping his index finger on the six-column headline stripped across the top of the newspaper’s front page: “Farris: Labrador missing too many votes.” The prominent display was a huge victory for Farris and his new staff.
In three months, Farris’s entire operation had been overhauled. A volunteer revamped the campaign’s Web site and took over social media responsibilities. Someone else put together a weekly e-mail newsletter. Farris spent $1,500 to record a 60-second commercial that he published on his site and hoped to unveil on TV. On the same day a union of electrical workers cut the campaign a $5,000 check, Farris agreed to contract with Washington-based Bulldog Finance Group to handle national fundraising at a cost of $5,000.
Perhaps most important, Farris persuaded Scheppler, 36, to take a pay cut from his sales job at T-Mobile, and added a recent college graduate to handle media relations. Together, they wrote three or four news releases each week. The latest focused on Labrador’s attendance record in the past year: The congressman had missed 4.7 percent of House votes, nearly double the median.
The Statesman ran with it, and the Farris campaign benefited from the kind of advertising that money can’t buy. It was the first time Farris had earned his way onto the front page.
“You ready to make some phone calls?” Scheppler asked. “Try to make some money?”
“Just let people know, ‘Hey, did you see the front page of the Statesman today?’ Stress that we’re showing Labrador has weaknesses, he’s vulnerable. It’s like, you can smell the blood in the water. This is a big deal. Now’s a good time to jump and get behind the campaign,” the campaign manager continued. “I would spin this, like, ‘The race officially started today.
“ ‘Now it’s time for the sprint to Election Day, and I need your help.’ ”
For Farris, the summer months were an endless stream of county fairs, rodeos and town parades. Every weekend was booked. The odometer on his BMW showed that he’d traveled 25,000 miles since declaring his candidacy the previous October.
“The issues have not changed,” he said. “My understanding of the finer points of those issues is better. My ability to see what’s important and how to articulate that is much better.”
Though still very much the underdog, Farris and the state party leaders had studied the math enough to plot an exact path to victory. There are 19 counties in his district. Based on historical voting, Farris was counting on 65,000 votes from 16 of them. He figured he’d need 90,000 from the other three — Ada, Canyon, Kootenai — similar to Minnick’s performance in 2008 when he became the first Democrat since 1995 to win the district.
The campaign hoped to buy TV and radio time. There were more lawn signs to purchase. Farris was going to work with a university professor for debate prep. He was scheduled to square off twice with Labrador the week before the election, the first time he’d have a chance to challenge the incumbent. For the final push, Farris needed more money.
The candidate skimmed through a binder and dialed phone numbers.
“Hi, this is Jimmy Farris, candidate for Congress in District 1. How are you doing? ... Okay, well, I don’t know if you saw the Statesman article today, but we got Labrador on the defensive about a number of things. I think it’s important we keep the pressure on. ... I was hoping I could count on you for your support. ... Okay. ... Okay. ... Yeah, whatever you can do is wonderful. ... Well, I really appreciate your support.”
Farris hung up and explained to Scheppler that the woman was heading to the site right away. “It won’t be much,” Farris said, “but she wanted to help.”
“I’m telling you, you got to capitalize on the press that you get,” the campaign manager said. “It really gives you something to talk about to those people who thought you didn’t have a chance. We need every penny we can get.”
Even as the election crept closer, Jimmy Farris’s past life was still present in his home. Ten old football jerseys hung in his laundry room. Photos from his playing days were displayed throughout the front room, and old footballs rested on the shelves.
But more and more, there were signs of his new life, too. His DVD collection included “W.” and “The Kennedys,” and his bookshelf featured “Game Change,” “Grace and Power” and “The Kennedy Legacy.” He’d also added “Do Not Ask What Good We Do,” the book about the current congressional class.
On a shelf next to a Redskins game ball he received for a 2006 performance against the Eagles was a framed Certificate of Nomination signed by the Idaho secretary of state. It certified his primary win, formalizing his place on the November ballot.
Farris knew the odds were still long, but in many ways, he felt like he’d already won something. “I enjoyed the process,” he said. “I knew I wanted to represent and help Idaho, and I feel like I’ve achieved something to me that’s bigger than playing in the NFL.”
He sat on a leather sofa, sipping coffee. His faith in the electoral process, he said, had not been shaken.
“I’ve learned more in the past year about people but also about myself,” he said. “You always hear in sports about digging down deep, showing heart, showing character. I think in this endeavor, more than anything I’ve ever done, I’ve really shown what I’m made of.”
Farris finished his coffee and cleaned up. He had another function that night, more people to meet.
“I hope now is that time for me,” he said. “But if I don’t win, I’ll take the time off, get a job, live in the real world for a while. And then I’ll gear back up and do it all again in 2014.”
Rick Maese is a Washington Post staff writer. Send e-mail about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.