Cover Story

'Holes in our national trust'

"'Holes in our national trust'" Continued...

Issue: "At the wire," Nov. 6, 2010

Fuller has picked a great city for a hotel: Lewiston, located beside the 1,000-mile long Snake River, is a hunter and fisher's paradise. Outdoor Life magazine last year ranked Lewiston as the nation's top town for anglers.

The city of more than 31,000 residents is, like the rest of the state, a conservative stronghold that prefers a hands-off government. Across town from Fuller's inn, School Superintendent Joy Rapp is worried about another form of government intervention. As head of the city's Independent School District No. 1, Rapp oversees 4,900 students in 11 schools. She knows that the new Congress will have to reexamine the No Child Left Behind education act.

"I think it has been intrusive," Rapp told me. "They have us doing things that make no sense and consume a large amount of resources."

Rapp said the law has very little flexibility for rural states like Idaho. Instead it tries to impose a one-size-fits-all model that tends to favor big city districts. "What creates passion in your job is not doing what other people tell you to do," Rapp said.

With these kinds of government views in Lewiston, one would expect that the area's congressional district is safely in Republican hands. After all, John McCain won the state handily over Barack Obama in 2008. The state's 1st Congressional District would seem to be a shoo-in to become one of the 39 seats Republicans need to win control of the House.

But not only is the district's incumbent a Democrat, he has enjoyed a comfortable lead for much of this campaign season. Rep. Walt Minnick's likely survival serves as a warning against the current election narrative that the GOP takeover of Congress is a foregone conclusion.

By less than 5,000 votes, Minnick in 2008 became the first Democrat to win an Idaho congressional election in 16 years. During a difficult season for both incumbents and his party, Minnick, 68, has maintained a steady double-digit poll lead.

How? By acting like a Republican.

Minnick, who once worked for Republican President Richard Nixon's administration, has voted against his party more than any other Democrat.

The fiscal conservative opposed the $787 billion stimulus package and the climate-change bill. He voted against the healthcare over­haul-twice. He introduced legislation to ban all earmarks and is a key backer of a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.

Minnick even became the first and only Democrat to receive a Tea Party Express endorsement last spring.

This voting record leaves Republican challenger Raul Labrador with few soft spots to hammer. His task becomes even more difficult when considering that Minnick has enjoyed a 16 to 1 fundraising advantage.

But Labrador, whose ads call him a "real Republican," is used to the underdog status: He came from behind to win the GOP nomination over a candidate who had the backing of both the state Republican party and Sarah Palin. This time he is trying for an upset by targeting someone other than Minnick: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

"Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi have done so much damage to our country the last two years," Labrador said at an Oct. 9 rally, standing in front of a bus that had "Fire Pelosi" painted on its side. "The ugly truth, and he doesn't want you to know this, is that they have done it with the help of Walt Minnick."

Minnick has refused to say whether he would vote to retain Pelosi as House speaker. "When a party loses seats, that leads to leadership changes," he wavered to CNN in late September. But Minnick seems poised to defy the odds and become just the third Democrat to win a second term here since 1964.

If that is the case, House Republicans already are looking at Plan B: They hope to entice Minnick into a party switch if he returns to Washington.

Having spent 37 years as a judge, including nine as chief justice of the state Supreme Court, Gerry Alexander enjoys a lofty vantage point when it comes to Washington state's political landscape.

At 74, Alexander is nearing mandatory retirement. Maybe that is why he loosened up to me regarding the current political climate.

"People think it could be the ruination of the country if we don't get [federal spending] under control," Alexander said in his office at the Temple of Justice building, not far from the Olympia neighborhood where he grew up.

It is the last day of my cross-country trip, after 15 states, and I didn't really need a judge to return this verdict: Anxious Americans are angry at Congress. But Alexander confirmed that this is true even in a left-leaning state such as Washington where six of its nine House members are Democrats.

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