By all appearances, the Idaho Republican Party is as healthy as it ever has been, or perhaps ever will be.
Republicans hold all four congressional seats, all of the state’s constitutional offices and an overwhelming majority in both houses of the Legislature. But I’m not sure how healthy the party really is, with the aging politicians holding the highest offices and showing few signs of leaving their offices. Gov. Butch Otter, who can’t seem to put the Idaho Education Network mess behind him, says his third term will be his last. But I’ll believe it when I see it. Four years ago, I couldn’t imagine him even running for a third term into his 70s.
On the congressional side, Sen. Mike Crapo, who is in his mid-60s, is setting records for length of service and appears to be a shoo-in for re-election. Sen. Jim Risch, who is in his 70s, shows no signs of slowing down. Since the first of the year, he has been getting a lot of national attention with regular appearances on CNN. Rep. Mike Simpson, who is in his 60s, appears safe in the 2nd District for as long as he wants it. The only movable object in the delegation is Rep. Raul Labrador, the youngest member of the delegation. I’m not sure where he will go, but I can’t see him with a lifetime contract in Washington.
Elections for the top offices in Idaho have all the suspense of old-time Russian ballots, where a lot of people vote, but only one candidate has a realistic chance of winning. Foreclosure on the higher offices might be good for the Republican Party on paper, but it doesn’t promote a lot of depth. Lt. Gov. Brad Little will be in his mid-60s if Otter decides not to run for a fourth term. Lawrence Wasden, once a bright young star of the GOP, will be well into his 60s by the time a vacancy for another office comes up. House Speaker Scott Bedke could easily step into a national office, but Simpson would have to step down.
It wasn’t this way when I started covering Idaho politics in the mid-1980s. David Leroy, who almost won the governorship in 1986, was the best and brightest at the time. Otter, as lieutenant governor, and Risch, the Senate’s top leader, were making their marks in the mid-1980s. Crapo and Simpson were young up-and-comers in the Legislature.
Today, Otter, Crapo and Risch remain as prime-time players in Idaho politics, but they are hardly in the prime of their lives. And as election results show, they haven’t worn out their welcome. Wayne Hoffman, director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation and former longtime political reporter, sees a downside to lengthy stays in office.
“As much as I like certain members of the Legislature and Congress, I don’t think they should hang around for so many years,” Hoffman says. “Why does the governor have to stay in office for most of the last four decades? I don’t see the value of that.”
Randy Stapilus, a longtime Idaho political historian, thinks there’s more depth in the Republican Party than what meets the eye. It will surface when, or if, seats start to open up.
“When there is more genuine competition, it draws out a level of political skill and a certain type of person that Idaho hasn’t seen in recent years,” Stapilus said.
Hoffman agrees that competition brings out new talent, as seen in the recent line of succession in the 1sst Congressional District. “Ten years ago, you barely knew who Raul Labrador was,” Hoffman said.
Other “no-names” of today could rise in the ranks, Hoffman said. “A year ago, you never heard of (Rep.) Heather Scott.”
So who are some of the future stars? Rep. Luke Malek of Coeur d’Alene is a promising figure, although his biggest challenge is winning primaries in a conservative district. Rep. Christy Perry has the intelligence and personality that could help her in campaigns; the same with Sen. Shawn Keough of Sandpoint. Freshman Sen. Mary Souza of Coeur d’Alene shows intelligence and thoughtfulness, and her communication skills are strong. Sen. Cliff Bayer of Boise is another possibility, and I suspect we haven’t heard the last of former Sen. Russ Fulcher, who made a strong showing against Otter during last year’s primary.
The reality is these folks aren’t going anywhere as long as the old guard refuses to get out of the way.