- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 7, 2010

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.

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“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.

Mr. Labrador also has won endorsements from such groups as Tea Party Boise and the National Right to Life Political Action Committee, but has created campaign problems by criticizing Republican Party leaders such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio.

Mr. Minnick’s campaign has worked hard to promote the candidate as a different kind of Democrat, whose heart and politics remain firmly rooted in Idaho’s backcountry.

“On most weekends, you’ll find Walt fly-fishing or riding the rapids,” said Mr. Foster. “Leaving Idaho is a real struggle for him.”

The son of a small-town lawyer and a mother who was active in local Republican politics, Mr. Minnick left the family wheat farm to earn a master’s degree in business administration and a law degree from Harvard. After a stint in the Army, two years in the Nixon White House and a successful business career in Idaho, he entered politics.

He failed in his 1996 bid to take a U.S. Senate seat from Republican Larry E. Craig. He intended to run as an independent, but was persuaded by former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus to run as a Democrat.

Mr. Minnick won his first congressional race in 2008, narrowly defeating Republican incumbent Bill Sali.

Mr. Foster said Mr. Minnick learned some valuable lessons along the way, particularly from watching Mr. Craig work with constituents.

“Mr. Craig did well with that and left a void to be filled,” he said. “This is not real sexy stuff, but Walt treats congressional offices as though they were customer-service departments.”

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