Here it is. Election day 2010. Not quite the election day of 2008. Not even close, really. Then, you could almost feel the pulse of a Democratic wave surging. Yes, even in Idaho. Records were set at Democratic caucuses, hope for a new president was overflowing in a raucous Taco Bell Arena and like sharks in bloody water, Democrats could sense that Bill Sali would no longer represent the 1st District. Now, especially in Idaho, that pulse is indiscernible--nearly a flat-line--as weary Democrats stumble to the polls today.
Walt Minnick is going to lose tonight and he won't have anyone but himself to blame. Despite what Minnick says today (that Obama was "a drag on the ballot"), in 2008 he needed all 175,898 voters that turned out in that Democratic wave to eke out a 1.2 percentage-points win over Bill Sali. It was just 4,211 votes more than enough. What happened? Both Minnick's internal and independent polls showed Minnick up by six percentage points within two weeks of that election. Conventional wisdom says that in the end voters "came home," that the 1st District really is that conservative and even a hugely unpopular incumbent with a 41% unfavorable rating could only be beaten in a squeaker. That's the conventional wisdom, anyway. In Idaho it's often wrong.
This is a state where blue turf is a selling point and a large portion of the population consider it a complement to be "peculiar." Conventional wisdom doesn't always apply. In the case of the 2008 1st District race, especially. Something else closed the gap between Minnick and Sali in the final two weeks of that race which the conventional wisdom ignores. In late October, fliers containing the social security numbers of Bill Sali and his wife were sent to voters in the district. The Salis were, justifiably, angry; Idaho Democrats were contrite and Minnick's camp was unapologetic. Undecideds now had a reason to vote and came out for the suddenly and unlikely now-sympathetic Bill Sali. Minnick was lucky then; his blunder nearly cost him the election. He won't be so lucky again.
In 2010, with Minnick plunging from a 30 point lead (in some polls) to a dead heat within two months, outsiders proclaim the 1st District race to be "finally conforming" to national trends. In doing so they again overlook the uniquely peculiar nature of Idaho.
Idahoans, and independents in particular, are especially hostile to negative campaigning. More than most, independents here have a cynical view of politics and political parties and it's that cynicism that accounts for their unusually large numbers in Idaho. What Idahoans admire is authenticity--more so than ideology, whether conservative, progressive or somewhere in between.
Walt Minnick had nearly convinced the electorate of his authenticity but sealed his own fate by deciding to go negative, and in particularly vicious fashion, on Raul Labrador. In mid-September the campaign launched the first of three ads targeting Labradors's work as an immigration attorney. The campaign insisted this was to highlight Labrador's hypocrisy on immigration, not to denigrate his profession. What it did was give otherwise ambivalent conservatives a reason to support Labrador. From dignitaries like former Governor Phil Batt to the rank and file like blogger Clayton Cramer, Minnick's hostile ads solidified Labrador's previously wavering support. The ads also gave otherwise ambivalent Democrats more reason to oppose Minnick. The only apparent increased support from Minnick's ads came from the unsavory ranks of white nationalists.
When pundits talk about Idaho's 1st district race, they will likely include the dramatic implosion of Republican primary candidate Vaughn Ward. They will also likely include the dramatic loss of Walt Minnick and conventional wisdom will chalk it up to a Democrat in a very conservative district caught up in a Republican wave.
The conventional wisdom will also be wrong. This was Walt Minnick's election to lose, and he will.
Today, there is no Democrat more disappointed in Walt Minnick than I.
Update 11.4.10 9:25: As predicted Walt Minnick lost to Raul Labrador, although the margin of victory at 51 to 41.3 was wider than even I expected. Notably but as expected, Walt did especially poorly in the heavily Hispanic populations of Canyon and Owyhee counties: 36.1% to 56.2% and 34.7% to 56.6% respectively.