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Idaho’s Democrat of a different breed

Walt Minnick, the new Democratic congressman from Idaho, doesn’t think much of President Obama’s economic recovery plan.

“I think it’s a horrible idea to try to appropriate large sums of taxpayer dollars to programs that have never been debated or authorized,” Minnick wrote recently.

Obama staked his presidency on the sprawling legislative package, and the administration fought hard for its passage. But if anyone at the White House was unhappy with Minnick for his opposition, they never let on. “I’ve had no pressure,” he said.

Minnick is the first Democrat in 16 years to win a congressional seat in Idaho, which may be the most Republican state in the country. His narrow victory was a small but striking example of Democrats’ growing political strength in the Rocky Mountain region; six of the 21 House seats the party gained in November were won out West.

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But success brings its own set of challenges. If Democrats hope to remain a majority party nationally, they will have to embrace a fresh breed of Western candidate like Minnick, 66, a former corporate executive who campaigned as a pro-gun, anti-tax, small-government conservative and shows every intention of behaving like one.

Party leaders seem mindful of that reality. Days after the stimulus bill passed the House and the rookie lawmaker published his criticism in newspapers across Idaho, Minnick was invited to fly home as Vice President Joe Biden’s guest aboard Air Force Two. He reluctantly skipped the trip to Boise and the Special Olympics rather than miss a day of votes.

“What the Democrats don’t want to do is make the same mistake the Republicans made, and this is to listen too much to the extreme of the party,” said Boise State University political scientist Gary Moncrief. “If the party is going to be a ‘big tent,’ that has to include the middle, and even the more conservative.”

Or as his colleague, emeritus professor James Weatherby, put it, “They need to understand that Walter Minnick is an endangered species: a Democrat in one of the most Republican congressional districts in the country.”

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Idaho’s 1st District runs in a fairly straight line from Nevada to the Canadian border, covering an area larger than many states. It takes in a slice of Democratic-leaning Boise and reaches from the suburbs north through once-thriving timber and mining towns still seething with resentment at restrictive Clinton-era wilderness policies.

Idaho grew rapidly throughout the 1990s. Other Western states attracted moderate-to-liberal migrants, turning the states more Democratic and boosting party centrists such as Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a former Colorado senator. But Idaho swelled with an influx of social and political conservatives; a stretch of the north is dubbed “blue heaven,” for the many retired Los Angeles police officers living there.

The pace of change is evident here in Meridian, a onetime Boise suburb that is the state’s fastest-growing city. Fields of potatoes, wheat and alfalfa have yielded to a generic landscape of chain stores, fast-food restaurants and cookie-cutter subdivisions. But the skyline is still dominated by a water tower, and a big white granary, converted to a business complex, squats in the middle of Main Street.

Behind the granary is Meridian’s spanking new City Hall, where Minnick keeps his congressional office. The location is politically significant: The Republican he beat in November, Bill Sali, broke congressional rules by operating his office outside the district in downtown Boise. (Sali said it was more convenient for constituents, but critics said Sali wanted to stay close to the action at the state Capitol.)

The one-term Republican lawmaker was, by many accounts, a poor candidate. Combative and unswervingly conservative, he was a favorite of the far right but openly feuded with many fellow Republicans.

When Sali was a member of the Idaho House, where he served 16 years before going to Congress, the speaker once threatened to push him from a third-floor window. The speaker, Republican Mike Simpson, is now Idaho’s other congressman. In just a few weeks, he has already collaborated more with Minnick, co-sponsoring environmental legislation and issuing joint news releases, than he did in Sali’s entire time in office.

Minnick, who served as a mid-level aide in the Nixon White House, was a lifelong Republican until he quit over Watergate. He was also put off, he said, by the increasing influence of the GOP’s social conservatives and, more recently, the “trampling of civil liberties and fiscal irresponsibility” under President Bush.

Minnick, the former chief executive of a forest products company, spent $2.6 million on his campaign, swamping his opponent and setting an Idaho record. More importantly, Minnick distanced himself from national Democrats.

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He ran TV ads that showed him hunting (Minnick boasts of owning seven guns) and pledged to end congressional earmarks, echoing GOP presidential nominee John McCain. Even his campaign slogan, “Right for Idaho,” seemed intended to blur party lines.

Despite all that, and the endorsement of several prominent Republicans, Minnick barely won, edging Sali by fewer than 4,500 votes out of nearly 350,000 cast.

Already, GOP strategists are eyeing the seat as a prime target in 2010.

“Walt Minnick can try to disguise his party affiliation as much as he wants, but at the end of the day he is a Democrat in solid Republican territory,” said Paul Lindsay, a party spokesman.

Democrats in Washington seem ready to give Minnick the political leeway he needs to survive. House leaders, with the luxury of a 40-seat advantage, made no effort to win his support for the stimulus bill.

“We fully recognize and understand that with 256, 257 members spread out across the country . . . we’ll have a situation where people don’t always agree,” said Doug Thornell, a spokesman for Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Maryland Democrat who heads the party’s campaign committee.

Minnick said he appreciated the tolerance but sounded distinctly alienated when he spoke of his more left-wing colleagues.

“There’s a whole lot of people now who want to remake America in their own image who I would not characterize as being in favor of limited government, or some of the values I hold,” he said.

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That may not win him much affection on Capitol Hill. But Idaho Democrats say Minnick’s conservatism -- relatively speaking -- can only help the party at home.

John Rusche, leader of Democrats in the state House, said when candidates knocked on doors, voters tended to associate the party with such national figures as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy or Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“It’s hard for us to get through that and say, ‘We share your values; we live in Idaho too,’ ” he said. “We think we can start having a conversation now . . . and define being an Idaho Democrat in a way that’s meaningful to Idaho voters.”

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mark.barabak@latimes.com


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