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.
"It's a closer race than I first imagined," she told Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), according to the Spokesman-Review, a newspaper in Spokane. Changing voter attitudes in her conservative, mostly rural district, she said, have been "pretty dramatic."
McMorris and Craig apparently thought they were speaking privately before the start of a campaign teleconference with veterans. But an operator had connected Spokesman-Review reporter Jim Camden, who was on mute and could not announce his presence.
Craig, who is not up for reelection, told McMorris that she was not alone in feeling Democratic heat. "The new numbers are just devastating," he reportedly said.
McMorris's Democratic opponent is Peter Goldmark, a rancher whose surprising strength has attracted the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which last week began spending $323,000 on television ads opposing McMorris.
In suburban Seattle's 8th Congressional District, the Republican incumbent, Rep. David G. Reichert, a well-known former sheriff from King County, is also facing a robust challenge -- from a political neophyte, Darcy Burner, 35, a former Microsoft executive.
The race, in a swing district where Democrats consistently win the presidential vote but Republicans hold the House, is widely viewed as a tossup. While behind in total fundraising, Burner has raised more money in recent months than Reichert has. To shore up the former sheriff, who made his name by catching the notorious Green River killer, the Republican National Congressional Committee has recently stepped up spending on television ads.
Here in Idaho, political analysts say that a competitive House race would never have been possible, except for the unlikely convergence of two destabilizing forces -- a noxious national climate for Republicans and a Republican candidate with a knack for being obnoxious. The Republican incumbent in Idaho's only other House seat, Rep. Mike Simpson, once threatened to throw Sali out a window.
Sali, 52, who won a bitter Republican primary against five opponents with 26 percent of the vote, has made strident opposition to abortion the signature issue of his 16-year political career.
Most notably, as Sali said in an interview in northern Idaho on Friday evening, he sees a causal link between abortion and breast cancer. "If you have an abortion, you are at increased risk," he said.
Recent studies of large numbers of women consistently show no such link, according to the National Cancer Institute, one of the federal National Institutes of Health.
Sali's pugnacious rhetoric on abortion and breast cancer during a debate this year in the Idaho House led to a walkout by Democrats and to a public tongue-lashing by House Speaker Newcomb.
"He doesn't have one ounce of empathy in his whole fricking body, and you can put that in the paper," Newcomb told reporters.
At a Republican campaign forum in northern Idaho on Friday night, a middle-aged woman from Bonner County who described herself as a party activist said that she and other Republican women in Idaho are offended by Sali's views on breast cancer.
"Women are angry about that," she said, insisting that she not be identified because of party loyalty. "They see it as an affront to their health issues."
In polls conducted for Grant, the issue showed up as one of the strongest negatives for Sali, according to Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster based in Washington, D.C.
Political analysts in Idaho say the issue is one of Sali's many problems in securing broad Republican support.
"He has simply aggravated a lot of people over time," said Randy Stapilus, a blogger and former political editor for the Idaho Statesman. "There are a lot of Republican leaders who don't much care for Sali."
Still, this is Idaho.
"There are probably a lot of voters who have never voted for a Democrat, so you have to figure Sali is the more probable winner," Stapilus said. "But this is a different dynamic than we have seen for quite a long time."