- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 18, 2014

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce looks to keep its perfect primary record intact on Tuesday when Idaho voters head to the polls to decide between GOP establishment favorite Rep. Michael K. Simpson or tea party-backed political novice Bryan Smith.

It’s yet another Republican race where outside interest groups have spent heavily — and in this case, they have ponied up for Mr. Simpson, looking to defend him against insurgent organizations that notched several high-profile Republican incumbents’ scalps in 2010 and 2012.

Overall, outside groups have put up more than $2.5 million in support of Mr. Simpson, with $725,000 of that coming from the U.S. Chamber. It’s part of the business group’s vow to do a better job of defending establishment Republicans in this year’s primaries, and it’s helped Mr. Simpson overcome $523,000 spent on attack ads against him.

For his part, Mr. Smith has seen outside groups spend $72,000 in support of him, but he’s faced $208,000 in opposition attacks.

“I’m beginning to think that the most important asset for a primary challenger — beyond an obviously damaged incumbent fighting off controversy — is the element of surprise, and there was no element of surprise in this race,” said Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Mr. Simpson, 63, has served eight terms in Congress, sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, and is good friends with House Speaker John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican who has come under fire from grass-roots conservatives accusing him of surrendering ground on spending and taxes.

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Mr. Smith, 52, is a lawyer and political novice who is casting himself as the “true conservative” in the race, vowing, among other things, to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency and stop the National Security Agency’s snooping programs.

More than anything, Mr. Smith has tried to make the race a referendum on Mr. Simpson’s record, saying he is a creature of Washington who is too liberal for Idaho.

“Sadly career politicians in Washington, like Congressman Simpson, have become part of the problem after many years in government,” Mr. Smith has said.

Mr. Simpson, meanwhile, has brushed off the attacks, saying he is proud of his conservative record and that Mr. Smith is knowingly twisting the truth or telling outright lies.

“I have been a conservative voice in Washington, D.C., and sought conservative solutions for the problems that we face,” Mr. Simpson said.

Some of the chamber money paid for a television commercial featuring 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who performed well in the state, which has a large Mormon community.

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John Freemuth, Boise State University political science professor, said Mr. Smith faces an uphill battle.

“I think Simpson will win,” Mr. Freemuth said. “His opponent doesn’t seem to have gotten a lot of traction, and Simpson hasn’t made any big stumbles.”

Indeed, there are some signs that Mr. Smith’s campaign has lost steam in the final weeks of the race.

The Club for Growth, for instance, has not put money into the race for weeks, leading to speculation that they realized it was a lost cause and were turning their attention to more winnable races.

“We’re in a constant state of assessing and re-assessing our races, moving resources in and out — depends on the day or week,” said Barney Keller, Club for Growth spokesman. “We did move considerable resources into the Nebraska Senate race in the last few weeks.”

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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