Solidly Republican, Suddenly in Doubt

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho -- It is, perhaps, the political equivalent of hell freezing over in the interior West.

This red state where conservative Republicans routinely wipe the floor with hapless Democrats has a Republican running for Congress who just might lose.

The suddenly competitive race is a delicious development for Larry Grant, a Democratic candidate for the House who finds himself transformed from sacrificial lamb to reason for worry among national Republican strategists.

His Republican opponent is Bill Sali, an eight-term state representative with a corrosive reputation for irking his fellow Republicans. The Republican speaker of the Idaho House, Bruce Newcomb, said this spring of Sali: "That idiot is just an absolute idiot."

With an impish smile, Grant, who was a high-tech executive in Boise, took a moment from knocking on residents' doors here last week and said: "Can you imagine Republicans sitting around in Washington and saying to each other, 'Jeez, now we have to spend more money to win -- in Idaho?' "

But spending and worrying the Republicans are, here and in a handful of other usually safe House districts in the West, where unrelentingly grim news from the war in Iraq has combined with smoldering anger over federal deficits and Washington scandals to vivify Democratic candidates who not long ago were reconciled to their fate as biannual Republican roadkill.

President Bush cruised in Idaho in 2004 with 69 percent of the vote. Republicans outnumber Democrats about 2 to 1 in the district where Grant is running, and two years ago the district elected a Republican with 70 percent of the vote.

Previous occupants of the now-open seat include the late Helen Chenoweth-Hage, an archconservative who held hearings in the 1990s on a supposed "black helicopter" federal conspiracy to take away the freedoms of rural Westerners.

Now, to shore up support in Idaho's vast 1st Congressional District -- 500 miles long, from Canada to Nevada, crossing two time zones and three media markets -- the Republican National Congressional Committee spent $135,000 last week for ads against Grant. His campaign says that for the final two weeks of the campaign the Republican committee has committed about $375,000 to buy television and radio time, a figure that approaches Grant's fundraising total for his entire campaign.

"It is a tough year," said Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, who declined to say how much it would spend in the 1st District. "We spend a lot of time going over every race in the country, and we want to make sure we fix problems before they become problems."

The problems, though, are not just in Idaho. Just west of the state, there is another growing spot of bother.

In Washington's 5th Congressional District, where former speaker Thomas S. Foley (D) famously lost in 1994 when Republicans seized control of the House, confirmation of an unexpectedly strong Democratic challenge emerged in recent days from a well-placed source: the Republican incumbent, Rep. Cathy McMorris.

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