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Idaho GOP May Be Victim of Own Success

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Idaho GOP May Be Victim of Own Success

Idaho GOP May Be Victim of Own Success

Idaho GOP May Be Victim of Own Success

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States don't come much redder that Idaho. And that's true about the state's 1st Congressional District. But with the popular Republican incumbent leaving to run for governor, the GOP has put up Bill Sali, a very conservative candidate who has spent much of his career feuding with fellow Republicans. Analysts say that gives Democratic candidate Larry Grant a shot at winning there for the first time in 14 years.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

One place where Republicans haven't had much trouble in a long time is Idaho. It's one of the reddest states in the nation. But even so, this year the GOP is spending a lot of money to try to shore up its candidate in the state's 1st Congressional District.

From Boise, here's NPR's Luke Burbank.

LUKE BURBANK: There are red states and then there's Idaho. Both U.S. senators, Republicans. Both congressmen, also Republicans. The same goes for the governor, lieutenant governor and state treasurer. In fact, the highest elected Democrat in Idaho is the superintendent of public instruction and there's a pretty good chance that position will be going Republican come next month's election.

So it's against that backdrop that Larry Grant is running for Congress as a Democrat.

LARRY GRANT: You know there's this whole movement - what I call the Western Democrat movement.

BURBANK: Standing on a street corner in downtown Boise just before a campaign event, Grant told me there's a potential niche here in the West for fiscally conservative, socially moderate Democrats like himself.

GRANT: I think the Western Democrat is going to replace the old Southern Democrat in the Democratic Party and kind of put the brakes on some of the liberal side of the party.

BURBANK: Grant did his undergraduate work at Columbia University before becoming a lawyer and a vice president at Boise-based Micron Technology. He's quick to point out, though, that he grew up in the small town of Fruitland, Idaho, and during the campaign he's been doing his best to cultivate a just folks image with voters.

When I hung out with him yesterday, Grant was sporting a Western-style bolo tie as he met with a group of local hunters and fishermen.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE TALKING)

Unidentified Man: Great to see you.

SMITH: Good to see you, Bill.

BLOCK: I can tell you're running a good campaign.

SMITH: Well, we're working hard. Making a lot of noise. They know they're in a fight.

BURBANK: Republicans do seem to sense they're in a fight. The GOP leadership has been pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race, buying TV ads for Grant's opponent.

Democrats? Well, so far the National Committee has yet to send Grant a single dime. He seems to be taking it in stride, though.

GRANT: And that's because, you know, I'm not naïve. I mean, I'm from Idaho and I understand that, you know, when you're in Washington, D.C., and you look at a map of the United States and you look for Democratic races, Idaho doesn't float to the top. That's political reality.

BURBANK: The political reality is that most of the 1st District's voters are Republicans. The district runs in a narrow column up the western border of the state, missing Boise, where most of Idaho's Democrats tend to reside.

Somehow, though, Grant is making a race out of it, even pulling in some lifelong Republicans like Jim Nelson. He's formed Republicans for Larry Grant.

JIM NELSON: We've got to stand up and say hey, Republicans, you made a mistake. You got the wrong guy in there, and you don't deserve to win this race.

BURBANK: That guy he's talking about is Republican Bill Sali. Sali's pro-life, anti-gay marriage and pro-gun, but it's not his conservative leanings necessarily that some people have a problem with, it's how he argues for them. As a member of the state legislature, Sali once argued so forcefully about what he says is a link between abortion and breast cancer that a Democratic legislator, a woman who'd been battling the disease, left the floor in tears. This prompted the Republican speaker of the House to call Sali an idiot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURBANK: However, yesterday afternoon a different image of Bill Sali was emerging as he visited Abundant Living, a home for the elderly in Caldwell. As the world's cutest band of senior citizens played country music in the background, Abundant Living's owner, Ronda Aubrey, talked about her friend, Bill Sali.

RONDA AUBREY: The Bill Sali that I know is pretty tender hearted when it comes to elderly people.

BURBANK: Like Sali, Aubrey is an Evangelical Christian, and she says she likes that with Sali, what you see is what you get.

AUBREY: Well, he may be extreme, but he's not afraid to take a stand.

BURBANK: For his part, Sali says the many reports of his gruffness are exaggerations by a Democratic leaning press corps.

BILL SALI: You know, the media character would make you think that I breath fire on everybody and I'm just, you know, so difficult to get along with nobody could possibly like me. Well, that's not reality.

BURBANK: Sali says he's principled, which is different than being stubborn. He says if elected, he will compromise when the situation warrants it, and he says his ideas are well in line with most Idahoans. As Sali happily points out, it's one of the reddest states around.

Luke Burbank, NPR News, Boise.

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