Chamber, ‘tea party’ find a Democrat to endorse

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On paper, Walt Minnick should be toast.

The Idaho Democrat barely squeaked into the House two years ago, winning 51 percent of the vote in a conservative district that preferred John McCain over Barack Obama in the presidential election by 26 percentage points. His district is the most lopsidedly Republican district in the country being represented by a Democrat.

But Mr. Minnick, a top target of the GOP this fall, has two unlikely champions in his corner: A leading “tea party” group and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have backed him over his Republican challenger, state Rep. Raul Labrador.

“Those endorsements are not just about Walt,” said campaign spokesman John Foster. “They’re reflective of Idaho, which has a reputation of being ultraconservative, but with a long, long history of being independent.”

The unusual endorsements do not guarantee an easy race for the Blue Dog Democrat. The most recent poll - taken by the state’s only polling firm, weeks before last week’s Chamber of Commerce endorsement - showed Mr. Labrador leading by 12 percentage points, but with 30 percent of respondents undecided. In a year in which the GOP is banking on major gains in both houses of Congress, the website RealClearPolitics lists the race as a tossup.

When the Tea Party Express pulled into Washington, D.C., after a nationwide tour April 15, organizers released a list of “tea party targets” - all congressional Democrats - and “tea party heroes” - all congressional Republicans save for Mr. Minnick.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce spokesman J.P. Fielder said Friday that Mr. Minnick won the group’s endorsement because of his pro-business record. He also said the chamber, which represents roughly 3 million U.S. businesses, backs candidates from both parties and this year has endorsed at least one other Blue Dog Democrat - Rep. Dan Boren of Oklahoma.

Mr. Labrador’s campaign immediately denounced the chamber’s endorsement as “more evidence of dysfunction coming from Washington, D.C.,” according to campaign coordinator China Veldhouse Gum. She said the national business group was trying to appear bipartisan by endorsing the occasional Democrat.

“At a crucial time in our nation’s history, with our economic future in grave jeopardy, this organization decides to look out for its own political interests rather than provide the bold leadership demanded by the times,” Mrs. Gum said.

Mr. Minnick, a 67-year-old former businessman, has opposed much of the agenda of his party’s leaders, President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, during his year and a half in office.

The chamber endorsement cited Mr. Minnick’s vote against Mr. Obama’s health care bill. Mr. Minnick also has opposed the Democrats’ cap-and-trade energy legislation and the economic stimulus package, the heart of Mr. Obama’s economic recovery plan.

Mr. Minnick also boasts one of the highest ratings among Democrats from the conservative Club for Growth, but the influential anti-spending group is stopping well short of an endorsement, said Club for Growth spokesman Mike Connolly.

“We’re not supporting [Mr. Minnick],” he said. “His 53 percent score on our scorecard is decent for a Democrat in Nancy Pelosi’s House, but it’s a terrible score for taxpayers, consumers and entrepreneurs.”

Mr. Labrador still has a good chance of winning, given the heavily Republican tilt of the 1st Congressional District, which comprises the western half of the state, running from the border with Nevada to the Canadian border. However, the one-time immigration lawyer was not the GOP establishment’s preferred candidate in the May primary.

Mr. Labrador upset Iraq war veteran Vaughn Ward, who was endorsed by 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and was a member of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s vaunted Young Guns program of prize recruits. Despite the support, Mr. Ward was widely criticized for a poorly focused campaign and repeated missteps.

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