Idaho CD-1: A Bellwether For America's Future?

As the midterm elections approach, most of the talk is about whether or not the Republicans will be able to take back the House of Representatives (or even the Senate). More than that, this election seems like it will be a referendum on whether or not Constitutionalism (represented mostly by the Tea Party and Libertarians) has the strength to re-emerge as a dominant force in American politics for the first time since basically the end of the Polk Administration. I submit that the Congressional election this year in Idaho's 1st Congressional District between Democratic incumbent Rep. Walt Minnick and Republican challenger Rep. Raul Labrador is a key battle between those who seek to return American political philosophy to the Jacksonian era and those who prefer a more modern interpretation of the Constitution. Basically, if the Paulites and their ilk can't win here, it's unlikely they'll be able to ever emerge as more than an occasionally humorous sideshow to the main ebb and flow of the American body politic.

Idaho is a very conservative state (Sen. McCain got 61.3% of the vote in 2008, even higher in the 1st District); the only reasons that Walt Minnick was able to win in 2008 is that 1) he's a fiscally conservative social moderate who would be a Republican in most other states, and 2) his opponent in 2008, then-Rep. Bill Sali, was a complete buffoon. This year, however, adds the dynamics that most of the 1st District electorate has been fairly unhappy with President Obama's policies, and the Republican nominee is a perfectly normal person. However, in coming from behind to win the Republican primary against an establishment candidate with one of the worst-run campaigns in modern history, Rep. Labrador had to position himself pretty far to the right -- well into the territory being staked out by the Tea Party.

Rep. Labrador, knowing that he really can't attack Rep. Minnick on his record (Minnick was the only Democrat to receive the endorsement of the Tea Party Express, although Minnick later rejected the endorsement), seems to be running the campaign as a referendum on Speaker Pelosi. I'm not really sure that's going to resonate among the vast majority of voters here in Western Idaho, but it's probably his best shot. Unlike other districts where there might be 35% of the electorate who will always cast their ballots for one party or the other with the opponents fighting for the middle 30%, this district seems to have about a 45-25 split favoring the Republicans (the 49% Sali got in 2006 and 2008 seems to be a floor). Most of the "Pelosi Bad, Boehner Good" voters are included in the already-locked-in 45%, so Labrador needs to focus on winning 5% of the "floating" 30% of the electorate to win. Currently, Minnick is up in the polls, and has about a 16:1 advantage in cash on hand.

This money will enable Rep. Minnick to use Rep. Labrador's own stated positions against him, with little opportunity for Labrador to respond. Examples of Rep. Labrador's positions beloved by the Tea Party but unlikely to find favor with the broader electorate include:

1) Repeal the 17th Amendment (also known as the "Sell Idaho's Senate Seat to whichever company can give the highest paid 'consulting' jobs to the wives of 53 Idaho lawmakers" plank);

2) Return to the Gold Standard (aka the "Give all our gold to China when they cash in their Treasury Bonds" philosophy);

3) Withdraw the U.S. from the United Nations (or the "Look how well our decision not to join the League of Nations worked out" plank);

4) "Publish all campaign donations on your website, including date, name of parent organization as well as the donating entity, and the amount of the donation". (Actually, Idaho voters will probably like that pledge; the problem is, Labrador isn't fulfilling it; his webpage contains no such information. I'm sure he'll say that his "pledge" only takes effect if he wins.)
Here's the deal. The May primary election showed that only about 7-10% of the electorate really supports the extreme Paulite/Tea Party positions (based on the clearly "Constitutionalist" candidates for Governor and the 2nd District Congressional races getting only about 25% of the vote with 30% turnout, in an election where the Constitutionalists would seemingly be much more motivated to vote than the general public). They think there are more of themselves because they're loud, and they mostly hang out with themselves, creating a self-perpetuating fantasy that most people agree with them (or would, if only their voices weren't censored by the mainstream media).

Basically, it comes down to this -- if the Constitutionalists have any hope of becoming a real political force in this country, they need to win this election. This would be the one to win, since they have a personable candidate (one whom I happen to think doesn't actually believe in all these extreme positions he's officially supporting, based on no real data except for one meeting) and a district that reflexively tends to vote for anyone with an "R" after their name. Unfortunately for them, since their actual political views aren't supported by the vast majority of the "floating middle" (or the political elite who give actual money to candidates), they aren't that likely to do so. The Minnick campaign, I'm sure, wants a race where voters get a chance to compare Minnick's experience as a businessman, a veteran and a bipartisan problem-solver to Labrador's record as an attorney and politician; if they can define the campaign that way, they'll probably win. It'll be an interesting 3+ months until November 2nd.