11 August 2013
The tensions dividing Republicans in Congress are now spilling onto the campaign trail.
Ground zero for the proxy fight is Idaho, where the insurgent and establishment factions of the GOP are warring over a congressional seat in the eastern part of the state.
On one side of the divide is GOP Rep. Mike Simpson, a longtime figure of the Washington order who is a powerful Appropriations Committee cardinal and one of House Speaker John Boehner’s best friends. On the other side is Bryan Smith, an attorney who was recruited to run against Simpson by the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group that has sought to push the GOP’s congressional wing further to the right.
Smith is branding the eight-term Simpson as a dusty creature of Washington who has turned wobbly on the spending issues that are near and dear to the conservative cause. Simpson, meanwhile, is stressing that he is, in fact, a conservative while making the case that his experience and seniority are, in fact, plusses.
“Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District is turning into a proxy war for the middle-right of the Republican Party and the right-right of the Republican Party,” said Phil Hardy, an Idaho Republican operative and a political analyst in the state. “It’s already happening.”
The 2014 midterm elections will likely feature a long list of primaries in which House and Senate incumbents will encounter significant threats from insurgent challengers. If history is any guide, the vast majority of the sitting members — who typically benefit from a fundraising advantage and have nearly universal name ID within their districts — will prevail.
But there are indications that Smith’s campaign is a more serious one. He’s notched early endorsements from the Club and RedState founder Erick Erickson, which will help him expand his fundraising base beyond Idaho — where raising cash is hard. And Smith’s backers call the district — where Mitt Romney captured an overwhelming 64 percent of the vote in 2012 — a perfect laboratory for waging a battle over which candidate hews more strictly to conservative ideology.
To survive, Simpson will be counting on the support of Washington’s heavy hitters — and his friend Boehner in particular.
The speaker has already donated $5,000 to Simpson, and Boehner aides say more fundraising help is on the way. Boehner will head to Boise later this month to headline a fundraising event for the congressman.
There are rampant questions, meanwhile, about whether the state’s rambunctious junior congressman, Rep. Raul Labrador, is privately supporting Smith. Labrador, a Club for Growth favorite who in January launched an unsuccessful coup against Boehner in his second term as speaker, has repeatedly refused to endorse Simpson. The decision is a glaring one, given that incumbents typically endorse each other.
“I’m not going to comment on the primary,” Labrador said in an interview. “I have friends on both sides, so I’m going to stay out of something like that.”
And has he talked to Smith about the race?
“People have asked me my opinion about a lot of things,” Labrador said. “I’m not confirming or denying anything.”
Carrie Brown, Smith’s campaign manager, wrote in an email: “Bryan has a great deal of respect for Rep. Labrador and his conservative leadership in the House. Bryan would welcome his endorsement and will respect whatever decision he makes with respect to this race.”
Boehner has a long history of going to the mat for his friends when they’re in political trouble. In 2012, he was a frequent visitor to southwest Iowa, where one of his closest allies, Rep. Tom Latham, was facing a tough general election campaign.
And Boehner’s support for Simpson means the incumbent will benefit in other ways. This week, the American Chemistry Council, a Washington, D.C.-based group headed up by former California Democratic Rep. Cal Dooley, another longtime Boehner friend, began running a TV advertisement heaping praise on the Idaho congressman.
“Fortunately, Idaho has Mike Simpson working for us,” says the ad, which is slated to run for three weeks.
The American Chemistry Council isn’t regarded as a frequent player in congressional elections, but Dooley, who came with Boehner to the House in 1990 and who served with him on the House Agriculture Committee, likes to help out the speaker’s friends when they’re on the hot seat. Last year, his group ran ads lauding Latham, who ultimately prevailed in his race.
And that’s not all. Former Ohio Rep. Steve LaTourette, a Boehner confidant who runs the centrist Republican group Main Street Advocacy, has said he plans to match the Club for Growth’s spending in the race “dollar for dollar.”
Smith’s camp says it’s just fine with Boehner’s involvement in the race. That he’s playing a role, they argue, proves their point that Simpson is an ultimate insider.
“I hope he comes every week,” said Rod Beck, a former state Senate majority leader who is supporting Smith. “The Washington establishment isn’t held in high regard in Idaho.”
Even some of Simpson’s backers say they’re worried about the optics.
“For all the support John Boehner will give to Mike Simpson … it at the same time plays into the narrative that, ‘This is wrong,”’ said Hardy, who’s behind the incumbent. “There are a lot of people who just don’t care about politics as usual and just don’t care that he has that kind of seniority.”
Smith, meanwhile, is counting on the backing of unapologetic conservatives who are dissatisfied with the party’s current leadership — in other words, people in line with the Club for Growth, which has blasted Simpson as a “crazy liberal.”
While Labrador is staying mum, many of his most outspoken supporters aren’t — they’re behind Smith. Among them are Rod Beck, the former state Senate majority leader, and his brother, Doyle Beck, a prominent Idaho Falls businessman.
Labrador’s rift with Boehner dates back to 2010, when the tea party-inspired lawmaker was first running for Congress. At the time, the House Republican leadership was aggressively supporting Labrador’s primary opponent, Iraq war veteran Vaughn Ward, and Labrador’s allies were furious.
In March of that year, Labrador was recorded telling a group of conservative activists that, “The problem is that John Boehner and the establishment in Washington D.C. failed us a few years back. That’s why we have Obama and a Democratic Congress right now.”
Ever since Labrador launched his coup attempt against Simpson’s friend Boehner, his relationship with his home-state colleague has been strained. After Labrador’s push failed, Simpson was quoted in a local newspaper saying that Labrador had lost his credibility.
“And once you lose that credibility,” Simpson added for good measure, “it’s gone and it’s gone forever.”
Labrador punched back, blasting Simpson as a “bully” and “an old-school legislator that went to Washington, D.C., to compromise.”
It’s not surprising, Labrador’s friends say, that he’s not backing Simpson in the race.
“What, you think they’ve kissed and made up?” asked Beck.