The Departed

Frank Church

The last Democrat to win a Senate race in Idaho, back in 1974. hide caption

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Larry Craig

Now a household name for all the wrong reasons, Craig is unlikely to seek a fourth term next year. hide caption

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Deborah Pryce

Part of the summer of departures. hide caption

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Hubert Humphrey/Ed Muskie

Thirty-nine years ago today, Hubert Humphrey selects Ed Muskie as his running mate at the '68 Chicago Democratic convention. hide caption

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We're in the dog days of summer, Michael Vick notwithstanding, and like many Americans, and the Iraqi parliament, this column took most of August off.

We in Washington always like to say that not much happens in August, even though that's not often true. And it certainly wasn't true this month, with an unusually steady stream of presidential candidate debates, straw polls, primaries and special elections. And there were also quite a few departures — hence this week's column header — from both the executive and legislative branches of government, as well as one running for president.

On the Bush administration front, Karl Rove is gone, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is to follow. On Capitol Hill, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert announced he will not seek re-election next year. His decision was followed with similar announcements by Reps. Deborah Pryce (R-OH) and Rick Renzi (R-AZ), two Republicans each with a precarious hold on their seats. Then there was the departure of Republican presidential candidate Tommy Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor whose bid for the White House never took hold. His sixth-place finish in the GOP Iowa straw poll sealed his fate.

In retrospect, none of this was especially surprising. Rove and Gonzales were lightning rods involved in bitter partisan tugs-of-war, not to mention scandal. Once the GOP lost the House last year, it was only a matter of time when Hastert would retire; no one had remained in Congress after losing the speakership since Joe Martin of Massachusetts in the 1950s. Pryce barely survived her 2006 re-election contest and her defeated opponent is running again. She also gave up her leadership post as House Republican Conference chair. And Renzi has been under federal investigation for his role in a kickback scandal.

And as for Tommy Thompson, well, let's just say that it was no surprise that his presidential bid never got off the ground.

But Larry Craig?

Craig, the three-term Idaho Republican senator, was not supposed to be on this list. A solid conservative, he has never had any problem at the ballot box, winning last time out with more than 65 percent of the vote. A fourth term would presumably have been a similar cakewalk, though for some reason Craig had not announced his plans. Now, presumably, we know why.

On Monday, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported that Craig was arrested in June at a Minneapolis airport restroom by an undercover police officer for alleged lewd behavior. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct charges, paid a fine, and received one year's probation. The article quoted freely from the police report, which detailed Craig's behavior and likened it to signals "used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct." On Tuesday, The Idaho Statesman ran a comprehensive front-page story detailing decades of rumors about Craig's sexuality. The newspaper said it began an investigation into Craig's behavior in October, "after a gay activist blogger ... published a claim that Craig had sex with men." Three hundred people were interviewed, with allegations dating back to 1982. Each time, Craig responded by calling them ridiculous and unfounded.

And he did so again late Tuesday afternoon, holding a news conference in Boise (though taking no questions). He said he is not and never has been gay. He said he did nothing improper at the Minneapolis airport, that he regretted pleading guilty, and that he mistakenly did so in order to put the matter behind him. Indeed, he seemed to indicate that he has a political future. "Over the years, I have accomplished a lot for Idaho, and I hope Idahoans will allow me to continue to do that. There are still goals I would like to accomplish. And I believe I can still be an effective leader for our state."

It's too soon to tell if Idaho voters are buying this, but clearly his GOP Senate colleagues in Washington are not. Even before Craig's Tuesday presser, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, joined by four others in the party leadership, announced they would ask the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate. Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, whose Web site featured a video endorsement from Craig, touting Romney's "strong family values," immediately removed the video. Romney himself lashed out at Craig, comparing him to disgraced ex-Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) and former President Bill Clinton.

Craig's alleged indiscretions, though disputed by the senator, come at an awful time for the Republican Party, which is still reeling over last year's loss of both the House and Senate, due in part to ethics scandals, both sexual (see the aforementioned Foley) and financial (see Jack Abramoff). With both the war in Iraq and the commander-in-chief who runs it deeply unpopular, with less than wild enthusiasm greeting the party's presidential hopefuls, and with Democrats vastly outraising Republicans heading into 2008, Larry Craig is the last thing the party wanted to talk about it. But turn on the television or pick up a newspaper, and it's the first thing you see.

Craig has said for months that he would announce his re-election plans in September. It's hard to envision him running for a fourth term. Democrats would welcome it, of course; ex-Rep. Larry LaRocco (D) is already in the race, though he hasn't raised much money. No Democrat has triumphed in an Idaho Senate contest since 1974, when Frank Church won his fourth term. They would have a shot if Craig were the Republican nominee. That's why he won't be.

Jim Risch (R), the state's lieutenant governor, has long said he would consider running for the Senate if Craig didn't. When Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R) left Boise to join the Bush Cabinet, Risch became acting governor but never sought the governorship himself, allowing Congressman Butch Otter to fulfill his dream of becoming governor. Risch got high marks within the party for his selfless decision, and that good will could translate into a Senate seat.

Your questions, and my semi-answers, return with next week's column.

SINCE YOU WENT AWAY: Well, actually, it's us who went away. But here are a few things you missed had you not read anything since our last column:

  • The GOP Iowa Straw Poll: Mitt Romney winning wasn't nearly as interesting as Mike Huckabee coming in second. Ultimately, it's a non-story, a pseudo event that has no lasting effects (other than the withdrawal of Tommy Thompson). This year, 14,302 votes were cast in the straw poll; in 1999, the last time the Republican nomination was contested, 23,600 votes were cast. Here's the final tally:

Mitt Romney: 4,516 votes (31.6 percent)

Mike Huckabee: 2,587 votes (18.1 percent)

Sam Brownback: 2,192 votes (15.3 percent)

Tom Tancredo: 1,961 votes (13.7 percent)

Ron Paul: 1,305 votes (9.1 percent)

Tommy Thompson: 1,039 votes (7.3 percent)

Fred Thompson*: 203 votes (1.4 percent)

Rudy Giuliani*: 183 votes (1.3 percent)

Duncan Hunter: 174 votes (1.2 percent)

John McCain*: 101 votes (0.7 percent)

John Cox: 41 votes (0.3 percent)

*did not participate

  • Democrats and the Presidential Calendar: The Democratic National Committee is threatening to strip Florida of its national convention delegates if it insists on going through its plan to hold its presidential primary on Jan. 29. The DNC bars most states from holding primaries or caucuses prior to Feb. 5 — the exceptions, of course, being Iowa (currently slated for Jan. 14), N.H. (Jan. 22), Nevada (Jan. 26), and S.C. (Jan. 29). Michigan is also in jeopardy of some DNC sanction, as it is planning to hold its contest on Jan. 15. National Republicans are soon expected to go after their rebel states as well, not only Florida but South Carolina, whose Republicans have moved up their primary to Jan. 19.
  • California's 37th District: State Assemblywoman Laura Richardson (D) won the vacant congressional district formerly held by the late Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, who died on April 22. Richardson, like Millender-McDonald, is African American. The district, which is overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, is centered in Long Beach.
  • Fred Thompson: hasn't announced his candidacy yet. Yawn.

ON THE CALENDAR:

Sept. 4: Special primary in Massachusetts' 5th District, left vacant when Rep. Marty Meehan (D) resigned to become chancellor of the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. The favorite, both in the Democratic primary and the October general election, is Niki Tsongas, widow of former Sen. Paul Tsongas, who previously held this seat.

Sept. 5: Republican presidential debate, New Hampshire, sponsored by Fox News.

Sept. 7-9: California GOP state convention.

Sept. 11: Baltimore mayoral primary.

WE'RE ON THE AIR EVERY WEDNESDAY: OK, so there's been no column this month. But the "Political Junkie" segment on Talk of the Nation, NPR's live call-in program, has gone on without interruption. This week: a super-sized segment, beginning at 2 p.m. Eastern time. Topics: Larry Craig, Alberto Gonzales, Tim Johnson, Florida and the DNC. If your local NPR station doesn't carry TOTN, you can still hear it on the Web.

IT'S ALL POLITICS: That's the name of our weekly political podcast. And it, too, has been casting pods all summer. It's a combination of brilliant analysis and sophisticated humor, hosted each week by NPR's Ron Elving and myself, and it goes up on the Web site every Thursday.

Our audience, according to the latest stats, is now approaching double figures! We have a new fan in Siobhan McLaughlin of Hollywood, Fla., who writes, "I now wake up to the podcast because I work nights, and I love it. I wish it were longer and more frequent, however." A regular fan, Glenn Schmid of Phoenix, loved hearing Robin Williams scream "Good Morning Vietnam!" in last week's episode, which followed President Bush comparing Vietnam to the situation in Iraq. "I laughed out loud at that one. Sharp timing!" And Brett Sonnenschein of Brooklyn, N.Y., adds, "Next to bagel day at my office, 'It's All Politics' is the highlight of my Friday!"

By the way, we were notified of a blog entry by "Brett" at seriousfuselage.blogspot.com, in which he describes our podcast as "a hilarious and informative twelve minutes from NPR's Ken Rudin and Ron Elving. The one place people still talk about Ed Muskie. Highly recommended and worthy of a much longer post." And speaking of Ed Muskie ...

This day in campaign history: Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee for president, names Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine to be his running mate (Aug. 29, 1968).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org. Don't forget to include your city and state.

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