Mike Simpson, the Republican now representing Idaho’s second district for his eighth term, has become one of the state’s most successful politicians. No one has held a U.S. House seat as long since Democrat Compton White more than half a century ago, and no one longer since the early statehood days of Addison Smith and Burton French.
So is the primary challenge unveiled in week’s district-wide tour by Idaho Falls attorney Bryan Smith actually a threat?
The first snap answer, and maybe the considered answer based on the recent record, is that it’s a long shot.
General elections have posed no challenge to Simpson since his first win for the House in 1998, the race that was his closest, against former Democratic Representative Richard Stallings; he’s won in landslides every time since. More or less a centrist within his party, he drew no primary opposition in his first four races for re-election, and in 2008 two challengers could draw only 14.8 percent between them. But Simpson’s lofty 85.2 percent dropped to 58.3 percent in 2010, the year of the Tea Party, when three candidates ganged up on him. That looked like an indication of some in-party weakness. The heaviest vote getter among them, Chick Heileson, pulled 24.1 percent; but when he ran again in 2012, he drew just 30.4 percent against Simpson. That may indicate Simpson lost some in-party strength, then regained much of it.
What does all that suggest for 2014? Well, like 2010, it will be an off-presidential year, where party activists — in this case, conservative activists — will be disproportionately represented in the primary. And unlike 2010, the Republican primary this time will be voted by registered party members. The results in the 2012 primaries didn’t indicate that necessarily meant a conservative sweep, but the full import has to be tested in an off-presidential year. One of Smith’s most visible supporters was the lead architect of Republican primary registration, former legislator Rod Beck.
There’s also this: Smith is getting an early start, much earlier than Simpson’s primary opponents in the past. We don’t yet know what kind of candidate he will be, but the long stretch between here and the primary election, most of a year, can be a powerful thing if a candidate has the personal goods to make the sale. He surely goes in as an underdog, but the potential is there to change that. His activist-style message is much the same as the one Raul Labrador has ridden to success in the other Idaho House district, and if he organizes well enough it could catch hold in the second district too. Many of Simpson’s real assets — close ties to House leadership, deep experience, genuine legislative skill, and ability to work with a range of people — could be trouble for him in a closed Republican primary.
There are indicators Simpson has been taking the possibility of a challenge seriously, to judge from his tone and tenor, especially when the subject of the Obama Administration comes up (or is pulled in).
You might factor this in, too: Remember those long-serving congressmen from decades back, White, Smith and French? None of them retired from the House; all were beaten in the end, in runs for re-election when the tides eventually turned against them.
Randy Stapilus is a former Idaho newspaper reporter and editor, author of The Idaho Political Field Guide, edits the Idaho Weekly Briefing, and blogs at www.ridenbaugh.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.