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Idaho Republican Faces Tough Re-Election Battle

It's been a tough time for Republicans nationwide, and that's true even in one of the country's reddest states, Idaho.

Last year, Sen. Larry Craig, a conservative, became the fodder of late-night comedians everywhere when he was charged with disorderly conduct in a men's airport restroom. He eventually decided not to run for re-election.

But there's another Idaho Republican who may be in trouble this year. Congressman Bill Sali represents a district that gave President Bush 69 percent of the vote four years ago.

By all probability, Idaho's first congressional district should be one of the safest seats for Republicans. For more than a decade now, Republicans have held it, usually quite comfortably. But this year, things look different. And Sali's campaign staff doesn't quite know what to make of it.

"Bill is an average guy," says Sali spokesman Wayne Hoffman. "He lives in an average house, drives an average car [that] has 114,000 miles on it."

"He's one of those people who, I think, if you envision what politicians should be like in Washington, D.C., Bill Sali is that."

But Sali is in trouble. It's not so much for his voting record — that's reliably conservative, as are the voters in his district. It's his personality. The congressman has a reputation of being a showboat, a grandstander. And it's that reputation that has alienated and angered party leaders during the 16 years he served in the Idaho state Legislature before being elected to Congress in 2006.

He once insisted on forcing a debate that argued there was a link between abortion and breast cancer. One former Republican House Speaker, Mike Simpson — now a colleague in Congress — once threatened to throw Sali out of a statehouse window. Simpson's successor, Bruce Newcomb, called Sali an "idiot," which he stands by to this day.

When a congressional seat opened up in 2006, Sali won — helped by the fact that five other Republicans were also running. Nearly 75 percent of the vote in the primary went to other candidates.

But now, some Republicans back home have had enough.

More than 100 Republicans have put together a TV ad supporting Sali's opponent, Democrat Walt Minnick. Minnick is a former Senate candidate and businessman, who turned a wood products company into a $700 million international corporation.

"My strategy is to present myself as someone who is not particularly partisan. And I've been a Republican, I've been a Democrat, I've been independent, so I have some experience in the mainstream. And as a businessman, you solve problems," Minnick says.

Minnick's campaign claims to have identified more than 10,000 Republicans who would consider supporting a Democrat.

The presidential election is the main draw for hundreds of people who come every day to Ada County's early polling station in Boise. Each cardboard voting booth is full on this day, and dozens are waiting to cast their early ballots.

Voter Suzanne Buhzell lives in Meridian, a suburb of Boise. She says her votes are based on issues rather than party affiliation. And she pulls no punches.

"Bill Sali is an embarrassment to our state," Buhzell says.

The majority of voters at the early polling station aren't holding true to their party affiliations. A few are, though.

"I voted for Sali primarily because of his seniority," Boise resident John Royso says. "The fact that he's willing to stand up for what he says he is."

Publicly, that is the position of state party leaders. But if enough of the Republican rank and file decide they want no part of Sali, Democrats — even in this reddest of red states — might find themselves with a new member of Congress.

Sadie Babits is a reporter for Boise State Public Radio.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sadie Babits