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Idaho Primary Sets Up Top House Race

Idaho's 1st congressional district typifies the kind of Republican seats Democrats were able to pick up in the last two election cycles, as the party expanded its reach into conservative territory. But in 2010, it's also exactly the kind of district the GOP is expected to regain if the party is to win back the House.

Today, Republicans Vaughn Ward and Raul Labrador lead a group of five in the primary race to take on freshman Democrat Walt Minnick. Before Minnick's election, the seat was held by a Republican for all but four years since 1966.

"This is a very conservative district, probably in the top 5- or 10-percent of the most conservative districts in the country," said Gary Moncrief, a political scientist at Boise State University. "Whomever the Republican nominee turns out to be, he will run as much against Nancy Pelosi as against Walt Minnick."

Jonathan Parker, executive director of the Idaho Republican Party, confirms that will be the strategy for the GOP nominee's general election campaign.

"The vast majority of voters are very unhappy with the direction our country is headed with President Obama and Nancy Pelosi at the helm," he said. "A vote for Walt Minnick is a vote for Nancy Pelosi."

This is a tactic Democrats can expect all over the country, as Congress faces historically low approval ratings.

However, the strategy proved unsuccessful last week in the special election to replace John Murtha in Pennsylvania's 12th district -- a much friendlier district for Democrats but one Republicans could have won. Democrat Mark Critz won by a surprisingly high 8-point margin after his opponent worked to tie him to unpopular Washington.

In Minnick's case, though, at 70.8 percent, he's voted with his party less than any other member of Congress -- Democrat or Republican -- according to the Washington Post's Votes Database. He voted against health care reform, cap-and-trade and the massive economic stimulus bill.

"He runs as a Democrat, but party labels don't really matter to him -- he just does what's right," said Minnick campaign manager John Foster. "He is really a fiscal conservative and he has the voting record to prove it."

In a toxic political environment for incumbents everywhere, getting that message across to voters will be a challenge. Parker noted that even if he votes against Pelosi's agenda, Republicans will argue his election would help keep her in the speaker's chair -- something that could be unpalatable enough for voters.

"If the Republicans have a shot at retaking the House, a campaign against Pelosi will resonate in this district," said Moncrief. "At that point, it comes down to whether the Republican nominee can keep from making too many gaffes."

That's one point Democrats believe they have on their side, as Ward -- whom the National Republican Congressional Committee highlights in the top tier of its Young Guns campaign program -- has already seen his fair share of stumbles.

A few examples: He was forced to pull an ad from the Drudge Report last month that featured him wearing his military uniform because the Marine Corps raised concerns that it implied an endorsement; he was accused of pilfering policy stances from another candidate's Web site; and, most recently, a video surfaced on the internet Monday that showed a portion of his campaign announcement speech from January matching almost exactly to Barack Obama's heralded speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Still, Republicans cite a heightened enthusiasm among the base and tea party groups, especially in Idaho. And, despite the fact that Minnick has the distinction of being the only Democrat endorsed by a national tea party organization, the Minnick campaign knows it will have a race on its hands regardless of today's Republican primary outcome.

"Either candidate is going to be tough, no matter who wins -- just because the Washington political establishment has already decided how this race is going to go," said Foster. "But Walt has been tireless in his preparations for the campaign and will have the resources to win in November."

With Minnick unchallenged in the primary, the Republican nominee will likely face a significant financial disadvantage as he begins the general election campaign. But the NRCC has its eyes on this district and is likely to commit resources, if necessary, to win it back.

Foster says Minnick fits the district as "a businessman who's doing public service" and someone who flies home nearly every weekend to work hard on constituent services -- and that Idahoans will vote for him no matter the "D" that follows his name on the ballot.

Moncrief generally agrees, but notes that in this district and this political climate, that might not be enough.

"As a Blue Dog Democrat, he generally reflects the fiscal conservatism of the 1st congressional district," he said. "In a 'typical' year, I think he would be the strong favorite to win re-election, even in such a Republican-oriented district. But, obviously, this is not a typical year."