There is a fundamental rule in politics – the first and most important rule, perhaps – that is ignored by any politician at considerable risk. Ask Dede Scozzafava.
Scozzafava was the Republican congressional candidate in a recent special election in upstate New York who could not hold on to a seat that has been in GOP hands since U.S. Grant was in the White House.
Scozzafava ultimately withdrew from the special election and endorsed the Democrat who eventually won. Her demise was sealed thanks to a badly fractured Republican base that thought she had strayed way too far from party orthodoxy. Her political situation was exacerbated – and fate ultimately sealed – by a third party candidate who appealed to the most conservative voters in the heavily Republican-leaning district. In short, the special election in the 23rd District of New York was a real mess, but the wreckage illustrates that fundamental rule.
Secure your base.
Republicans are still beaming over two gubernatorial victories last week in New Jersey and Virginia. In both cases, capable Republican challengers won against damaged Democrats who where unable to excite the party base that carried Barack Obama to victory in both states just a year ago. Most post-election analysis has confirmed that Democrats in both states were not terribly motivated, while the GOP core was very excited. Independents in both states helped closed the deal for the Republicans.
In short, Republicans secured and motivated their base. Democrats did not.
Idaho’s lone congressional Democrat, Walt Minnick, now confronts a similar problem as he walks the very fine line demanded of a western Democrat in a deep red state. Minnick must know that his base is restless.
Minnick’s dilemma – the line he walks – might be reduced to this: in a state like Idaho, he must be an independent with a conservative lean, but at the same time he cannot risk turning his Democratic base – small as it is – against him.
Minnick represents Idaho’s sprawling First District that runs from the west Boise suburbs, south to the Nevada border and north all the way to British Columbia. The district includes the largest wilderness area in the lower 48 named for Frank Church, the last Democrat to represent Idaho in the U.S. Senate, as well as the deepest canyon in North America. The University of Idaho, a fine research school, is in the district, as is the plot of ground where the white supremacist Aryan Nation once held forth.
Since the 1950’s, at least, the district has grown increasingly more conservative. Three GOP congressmen who once represented the First District – Jim McClure, Steve Symms and Larry Craig – went to the Senate from this reliably Republican outpost. For a Democrat, the margin of error in the First District is, well, there is no margin for error for a Democrat.
Minnick won the challenging job of representing this huge district a year ago by narrowly defeating a deeply polarizing incumbent, Bill Sali, who ran hard to the right. Before last fall, the district had not sent a Democrat to Washington since 1992.
Minnick won the way Democrats have often won in Idaho, by defeating a weak Republican – Bill Sali – who had his own problems keeping the GOP base together. Church got his start this way and so did Cecil Andrus and each found a way to keep winning with a consistent appeal to the base and a winning message to the middle.
A year ago, Minnick was able to knit together a coalition that included an energized Democratic base that came to like Obama, salted with just enough moderate R’s who couldn’t fancy more Bill Sali, and complemented by independents who typically vote for Republicans unless they find them, as they did Sali, just too far out of the mainstream. This is the very political definition of fragile territory.
To his strategic credit, Minnick also played to the middle, stressing his farm upbringing while touting his business acumen. His campaign also succeeding in showing Idahoans that he not only supports guns, but uses them. It all added up to just enough to eek out a win in a presidential election year when John McCain polled more than 61% of the Idaho vote.
Late last Saturday night, Minnick cast a vote that may go a long way toward securing his political fate. Idaho’s lone Democrat on the national stage joined 38 other conservative Democrats – the so called Blue Dogs – in opposition to the party’s health care legislation that passed the House by the narrowest of margins. For good measure, Minnick also voted against the rule that allowed the Democratic bill to come to a final vote. In other words, he went the distance in opposition to a idea – health care reform – that is as fundamental to many Democrats as FDR’s old campaign song “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
[Long-time Idaho political observer, Randy Stapilus, also suggests that Minnick may have complicated his already delicate dance on the health care legislation by opposing the contentious amendment, backed by many Blue Dogs, to restrict funding for abortion.]
While health care legislation might be the vote that most of his constituents remember the longest, Minnick has also been at odds with party theology over the last few months on the stimulus package, climate change legislation and some aspects of financial services reform. He may well have succeeded in becoming the most independent Democrat in the House, but that label hasn’t kept him from making every list of most vulnerable incumbents in 2010. He and two potential Republican challengers are amassing war chests and this figures to be a dog fight – blue or otherwise – in the months ahead.
For his part, former Congressman Sali continues to flirt with a potential re-run, a situation that could end up being the best case for the current incumbent.
A year out from his re-elect, here are the questions worth pondering: Will Minnick pay a price among hardcore Democratic supporters for his independence on issues like health care? Or, as he must believe, will he be able to thread the electoral needle once again; re-assemble the Democratic base, again add enough moderates from the GOP and pull a sizable majority of independents?
To be sure there are a world of votes ahead, including presumably the ultimate vote in Congress to reconcile the House and Senate versions of a health care reform bill, and Republicans in Idaho’s First District are still months away from selecting Minnick’s challenger. Lots of things can – and probably will – happen.
Still, as New York, Virginia and New Jersey show most recently, and as successful politicians know instinctively, the party base needs to feel the love. Your friends hate to be taken for granted.
In Minnick’s district, I’m going to peg the dependable Democratic base – it has consistently dwindled since 1990 – at something north of 30%, perhaps even 35%, of the voters. These are the folks that show up at fundraisers, put up yard signs, man phone banks and walk parade routes handing out a candidate’s literature. They also talk to their friends about politics and politicians. You want the base working and voting, not restless and wondering.
There are never numbers enough among the base to elect a Democrat in Idaho, but if these folks decide – even in modest numbers – to sit one out, there are numbers enough to defeat a Democrat.
This is Walt Minnick’s dilemma and it requires walking a very fine line indeed.