BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Making the word “liberal” stick to eight-term Congressman Mike Simpson in deeply conservative Idaho is no easy task.
So when challenger Bryan Smith applies a term that is as radioactive in Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District as anything produced at a federal nuclear facility in the region, he’s careful to qualify it by saying Simpson is “too liberal for Idaho.”
“I believe that Congressman Mike Simpson is out of touch,” said Smith in a variation on the theme in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “I am a true conservative who believes in smaller government and smaller spending and lower taxes.”
The GOP primary on Tuesday is in one of the most conservative areas of the nation. The eastern half of Idaho contains the district that is home to farms and ranches, the Idaho National Laboratory nuclear facility, and the churches and temples representing a strong presence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which the two candidates are members.
“I understand the game he’s playing,” said Simpson, 63, who has endorsements from the National Rifle Association and Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, one of the U.S. Senate’s most conservative members. “If you say something long enough and often enough, some people will believe it. But anyone who knows my record and knows me knows I’m anything but liberal.”
Simpson cites as evidence of his conservatism, as well as the value of his seniority in the U.S. House, the budget rider he inserted in April 2011 that stripped wolves of federal protections. The measure marked the first time since the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 that Congress forcibly removed protections from a plant or animal.
But Smith, 52, frequently cites two votes in particular he says make Simpson too liberal for the state.
One of them is Simpson’s October 2013 decision to end the 16-day partial government shutdown Republicans attempted to use to force an end to the federal Affordable Care Act. Smith notes that the three other members of Idaho’s delegation, U.S. Sens. Risch and Mike Crapo, as well as Rep. Raul Labrador, all Republicans, voted against a plan to restart government that kept in place President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.
“Those three fought against Barack Obama, and Mike Simpson raised the white flag of surrender,” said Smith, who is backed by the conservative groups and tea party favorites the Club for Growth, the American Conservative Union and FreedomWorks. “I would have likewise voted with the rest of the Idaho delegation.”
Labrador, from the 1st Congressional District, doesn’t have to worry about losing the votes of some 5,000 workers at the Idaho National Laboratory who were about to be laid off because of the shutdown.
“That would have devastated the economy in southeast Idaho,” said Simpson, adding he could have voted with the rest of the Idaho delegation without changing the outcome. “But that wouldn’t have been honest with the people of Idaho about what had to happen.”
He also said the shutdown started jeopardizing the party’s chances of taking control this November of the U.S. Senate, currently held by senators in Obama’s party.
“Shutting down the government is never good policy, and it’s never good politics,” said Simpson, who often notes he has voted to defund the Affordable Care Act some 50 times.
The other vote Smith often frequently cites is Simpson’s 2008 vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program put forward under the Bush administration.
“Everybody in the district knows that he voted for the $700 billion bailout,” said Smith. The vote is also used in an ad against Simpson.
Simpson defends the vote, saying it helped prevent a 1930s-type depression.
“That was a vote that nobody wanted to make, but everybody felt we had to do something,” he said. “In the end, this will all be paid back and we will have avoided the financial collapse everybody predicted.”
The U.S. Treasury Department has said it eventually allocated $474.8 billion to the Troubled Asset Relief Program to bail out banks, insurers, auto companies and others during the financial crisis. In April, the agency said it had so far recovered $438.4 billion.
Ads for Simpson target Smith for his work collecting debts from people who have unpaid medical bills. Smith, a fierce attorney by most accounts, is unapologetic, noting the ads don’t address the issues.
“Instead he throws mud on me and does it with false attack ads,” Smith said. “This is what happens when someone who is liberal attacks someone who is conservative.”
Simpson fires back.
“He criticizes a lot of my votes and takes them out of context, and some of them are just flat lies,” Simpson said. “I have questions about anyone who would do that. He wouldn’t be the kind of representative I am who seeks solutions, conservative solutions.”
The Congressional seat that represents the heavily Republican district is considered safe in November for the candidate who wins the GOP primary.
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