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« Gerlach Of Opposition | Blog Home Page | Oh, The Symbolism »

ID's Sali Season

Republicans have lost seats in heavily GOP territory in Louisiana and Mississippi already this year, but could they possibly be in jeopardy of losing a seat in which President Bush received more than twice the number of votes of both his Democratic rivals? Developments in Idaho's First Congressional District suggest that freshman Rep. Bill Sali could, in fact, face a tough fight for his job this November.

Sali, a conservative who won a highly divided and very crowded 2006 primary with just 26% of the vote, has not had the easiest time in his first term. The former state legislator had to apologize to freshman Democrat Keith Ellison for suggesting that the founding fathers did not intend for Muslims to be elected to Congress (Ellison is the only Muslim ever to serve in the chamber), and has been criticized for his assertion that the country was founded on Christian scripture.

He's irritated members of his own party, as well. Last weekend, when Idaho Republicans elected a new, more conservative chairman of the state party, Sali supported the insurgent candidate, Norm Semanko, over the incumbent, who had backing from Governor Butch Otter. One state legislator told the Idaho Statesman's Dan Popkey that the move was "a slap in the face" to Otter. Otter was noncommittal about whether he would help Sali this November.

Having won just over a quarter of the votes in his 2006 primary, Sali was almost guaranteed to face a tough challenge in this year's primary. He got a weaker than expected challenge, from businessman and Iraq war veteran Matt Salisbury, who raised just $46,000 through the May 7 pre-primary reporting period. Sali still won with just under 60% of the vote, two years after winning the general election in such a heavily Republican district by just five points.

The incumbent faces more pressing problems for the current campaign. Sali's consultant, an Idaho-based firm called Spartac LLC, is the candidate's long-time friend, but he says he won't do any more work for the incumbent unless he's paid first, the Spokane Spokesman-Review reported last month. Sali still owes Spartac $76,000, and has total debts of $135,000, according to FEC reports.

Too, he has never been a prodigious fundraiser. Sali had raised just $495,000 by May 7, and had $157,000 in the bank. That might not ordinarily be a problem in Idaho, where advertising rates are relatively inexpensive, but Sali will face a well-financed Democrat this Fall. Businessman Walt Minnick has already raised $710,000 and retained $321,000.

Every cycle, both parties find a candidate of theirs who fascinates them, even if that candidate's chances of winning seem remote. For some at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Minnick is that candidate, one who, running in another district, might have an excellent shot at beating a Republican. Instead, insiders insist Minnick has a chance to capitalize on Sali's mistakes and the downtrodden Republican brand.

The party and Minnick will make specific example of Sali's vote to cut federal funding for rural counties that have lost money because of a slumping logging industry. Counties in Sali's district, which includes timber territory in the Panhandle (The First runs from the Canadian border to that with Utah, along Idaho's western border with Washington and Oregon and including some Boise suburbs), will be impacted by the lost funds, and local officials, though Republican, could make the incumbent pay for his vote come November.

Is Sali truly in trouble, or is the district simply too Republican to vote in a Democrat? Minnick, a Red to Blue program participant, is being highly touted by national Democrats, but he has serious work to do to win over a seat that hasn't sent a Democrat to Washington since 1992. And even if Minnick doesn't win this year, some suggest Sali may not be safe in the future, even if only from a Republican challenger in the primary.