TWIN FALLS • Mike Simpson was first elected to Congress in 1998.
This year, the former dentist from Blackfoot is again facing the man he beat back then, Richard Stallings.
Stallings, a Pocatello Democrat, was elected to represent Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District in 1984. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 1992 and lost, and left Congress after that. He ran again in 1998, when Mike Crapo moved up to the Senate, but lost to Simpson, who has been there ever since.
Compared to the Republican primary, which saw Simpson beat tea partier Bryan Smith in one of the nastiest Idaho elections in recent memory, this Simpson-Stallings race has been low-key — no TV ads, no big outside groups spending money.
Stallings has combined aggressive rhetoric seeking to tie Simpson with the unpopularity and dysfunction of Congress with outreach on issues appealing to marginalized groups — Latinos who care about immigration reform; young people making minimum wage and drowning in college debt; women who aren’t earning as much as their male co-workers.
“If you like what’s going on in Washington ... stay with Simpson,” Stallings told the Times-News editorial board on Monday. “He will give you two more years of this crap.”
Simpson is far ahead of Stallings in fundraising — although, Stallings will point out, he raises more from individual donors in Idaho, while Simpson’s campaign relies more heavily on money from big political action committees.
There hasn’t been much publicly released polling in the race. A statewide poll in late July showed Republicans to be well ahead, although the numbers weren’t broken down between Idaho’s two congressional districts.
Stallings said his own internal polls show Simpson ahead. But he points to the high number of undecided Republicans, many of them likely conservatives unhappy with the establishment sweep of the primaries who, even if they won’t vote for a Democrat, might stay home and not vote.
“I think that’s going to distort some of the polls,” Stallings said.
Simpson has made western outdoors issues, such as wildfire funding, a focus. One of his causes is his Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, which would create three wilderness areas in the Boulder-White Clouds in Blaine and Custer counties.
The bill has been stalled for years. U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, is against it. Environmentalists are pushing President Barack Obama to protect the area by declaring it a national monument, which Simpson fears could lead to a ban on hunting and to a management plan with no Idaho input.
However, Simpson sees hope, and he recently asked Obama to hold off on any monument designation to give him more time to get the bill through. Utah Rep. Rob Bishop is expected to replace Washington Rep. Doc Hastings as chair of the House Natural Resources Committee come January. Simpson said he considers Bishop a friend and expects to be able to work with him.
“I’m optimistic we can at least move it in the Resources committee,” Simpson said.
This doesn’t solve the Senate problem, though, where Simpson admits Risch’s opposition will be an obstacle.
Stallings also wants some form of protection but opposes the monument proposal, and he said Custer County’s concerns need to be addressed. Stallings said Custer needs funding for infrastructure, rescue crews and such, to make sure Blaine doesn’t get all the business from increased tourism while Custer gets stuck with the bill.
Stallings points to the Boulder-White Clouds as an example of an area where he could make progress where Simpson hasn’t.
“It shows again his inability to get things done,” Stallings said.
On immigration, Simpson said he supports a guest worker program. He wants to normalize the status of people who are already here, and allow them to apply for citizenship through the normal process if they want it. He said treating people humanely needs to be a focus.
“You shouldn’t destroy our economy trying to be tough,” he said.
Simpson said he opposes deporting the so-called DREAMers — i.e., undocumented people who were brought here as young children. However, he voted in August for a bill to roll back Obama’s executive order halting their deportation. The bill passed on a mostly partisan vote in a late-night session. Simpson said he knew the bill was dead on arrival in the Senate, which had already skipped town for the August recess.
“I didn’t necessarily agree with what we were doing, but we had to get out of town,” he said.
Stallings has made outreach to Idaho’s growing Latino community a big part of his campaign, and for him, the DREAMer issue is personal. One of his staffers is an undocumented young man who was brought to this country as an infant. He graduated with good grades from Burley High School, and the College of Southern Idaho allowed him to attend at the in-state tuition; however, Idaho State University won’t, so he has to pay the higher out-of-state rates and can’t get scholarships.
“Where do you send him back to?” Stallings said. “He’s from Burley, for heaven’s sake. That’s not a foreign country.”
Stallings supports a pathway to citizenship for people who are here now, after perhaps paying a fine or doing some community service. He said at a debate earlier this month that normalizing their status without citizenship would create a group of second-class citizens without political power.
“Don’t keep people in the shadows,” he told the Times-News. “Don’t let people exploit them.”
Simpson said immigration is a high priority for House Speaker John Boehner. He and Boehner are close personally, and he says Bohener, a Catholic, sees immigration reform as a moral imperative. Simpson blamed the crisis this summer, when tens of thousands of undocumented children from Central America flooded the southern border, for delaying immigration reform yet again.
“You could feel the oxygen getting sucked out of Washington D.C. over that,” Simpson said. “Even though it’s a different issue, it all got thrown together.”
Stallings says Simpson can’t get it done.
“Simpson will not deliver,” Stallings said. “He can’t deliver. That caucus is too divided, and he’s too much of a weakling to (drive) that caucus.”
Both men share concerns over the United States’ military actions against the Islamic State (ISIS), and they want Congress to vote on the issue.
“I don’t think the president has the authority to do what he’s doing,” Simpson said.
The way Simpson sees it, the White House doesn’t have a real strategy, and airstrikes are not going to accomplish what we want. He fears what could happen if Bashar al-Assad’s regime falls in Syria, and ISIS fighters move into Jordan and toward the Israeli border.
“Israel will light up the Middle East before that’ll happen,” Simpson said.
Stallings says Congress is shirking its duty. He contrasted the House’s suing Obama over his use of executive orders with their refusal to act on the Islamic State threat.
“They blast the president for making executive orders, and then when it comes to a tough issue, they break and run,” he said.
Simpson recently bucked Boehner to vote against training and arming rebel forces in Syria. Stallings said he likely would’ve voted the same.
“I don’t know how you tell a good Syrian from a bad Syrian,” he said.
Stallings supports raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. As well as being the right thing to do, he said this would save the government money, by helping people get off food stamps. He has accused Congress of not caring about the poor, referring to the current state of affairs as the “Boehner-Simpson economy.”
“I can’t see why you’d be mean to these people,” Stallings said. “There’s no downside at all. And yet, because Obama wants it, Congress doesn’t want to do it.”
Simpson voted to raise the minimum wage in 2006. He said before he cast this vote, he called around and found out most Idaho businesses were already paying more than the then-$5.15 minimum wage. He fears raising it now, though, would lead to higher youth unemployment at a time when it’s already high.
“I don’t think you raise the minimum wage when the economy’s in the shape it’s in,” he said.