BOISE, Idaho—Democrats in this most Republican state in the nation have a chance to grab a congressional seat after a dozen years of GOP control.
Although recent history suggests late-deciding Idaho voters will break their way, Republican and conservative groups are being forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to prevent a Democratic upset in one of the reddest congressional districts in the country—money they won't be able to spend on other races across the nation.
A poll released this week shows retired corporate attorney Larry Grant has a chance to beat Republican Bill Sali, who won just 25 percent of the vote in a six-way, low-turnout primary in May.
For more than a decade, though, Democrats here have failed to persuade undecided voters to swing to their side. Unless Democrats reverse the trend, the vote in the 1st Congressional District, one of two in Idaho, will end up like most thought tradition would dictate—with Republicans on top for the seventh straight time.
Sali, a state legislator and outspoken social and fiscal conservative, is in a statistical dead heat with Grant. But 21 percent of likely voters say they haven't made up their minds, according to a poll commissioned by The Idaho Statesman and the ABC affiliate in Boise.
Idaho's senior senator, Republican Larry Craig, said the momentum already is growing among party loyalists to "move these polls significantly." In the past several years of GOP dominance here, those undecided voters have had a tendency to "break right," campaign workers say. Time and again, polls showing close races have failed to predict the Republican victories that followed.
"My general take is that you'd always rather have a comfortable lead than be neck and neck, especially if you're a Democrat in a historically Republican area," said Boise attorney Dan Williams, a Democrat who ran twice in the 1990s against Helen Chenoweth.
Chenoweth knocked off an incumbent Democrat in the Republican revolution of 1994, and two years after that, national Democrats ranked her first re-election campaign as one of the country's top 10 races. Williams led in the polls in the final weeks.
"We thought it was clear," he said. "I think at the end that even Helen thought I was ahead, just from body language."
Chenoweth won by 6,445 of 264,778 votes cast. Williams thinks party organization made the difference.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean's "50-state strategy," though, has provided manpower and technology to state party offices across the country—even to Idaho, a state as far off the Democratic radar screen as you can get. Though Democratic cash hasn't come to the Grant campaign, Dean's two-year effort has helped boost the Democratic staff in Boise and offered the support Williams and others think could even the Idaho playing field in the final days.
"I have more faith in our ability to at least match what the Republicans are doing," Williams said.
The party's state director, Maria Weeg, won't discuss strategy, but she acknowledged that the party is "a bit more organized than we have been."
That's a big deal, because the domination has lasted so long.
Idaho has changed since 24-year Senate Democrat Frank Church was knocked off by Republican Steve Symms in 1980, the year Ronald Reagan won the White House. The population has increased by almost 50 percent to 1.4 million people. While some parts of urban Boise have become Democratic, the rapid growth in the 1st District, which runs from Canada to Nevada through western Idaho, has been driven by conservative Californians and other out-of-staters.
Democrats celebrated, though, when Sali won the Republican primary. His strict conservatism has clashed with his own party's leaders, and as the leading voice against abortion in the legislature, he's made enemies. The recent poll shows a full third of likely voters have an unfavorable opinion of Sali, the highest of any statewide candidate.
Grant, though, is largely unknown. About the same number of likely voters didn't recognize his name at all. He grew up in rural Idaho and returned with an Ivy League education to become a vice president of Micron Technology, the biggest private employer in the state.
In the Statesman's poll, 49 percent of likely voters identified themselves as Republicans, and that's whom Sali's supporters are going after—with the help of big Republican money and big Republican names.
Vice President Dick Cheney is scheduled to make his second appearance for Sali on Thursday, and the Republican National Congressional Committee spent $347,893 on ads and phone banks in October alone. The Club for Growth, which promotes low taxes and small government, bankrolled Sali's primary win and has spent more than $180,000 on anti-Grant ads.
Meanwhile, not a dime of independent expenditures has been spent to help Grant.
Grant acknowledges why he's been left on his own.
"If you're in Washington, D.C., and you look at a map, Idaho doesn't float to the surface as a Democratic state," he said.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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