Minnick's run a national bellwether

A centrist Democrat in a Republican Idaho, the former Walla Wallan is up for re-election to Congress

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A young Walt Minnick is shown on his family farm where he grew up on Middle Waitsburg Road.

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U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick shakes hands with a constituent during a parade in Caldwell, Idaho, on July 3.

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MINNICK

A Walla Walla native's bid to be re-elected to Congress has captured the attention of the nation's political observers for a couple of reasons.

First, it's interesting. U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick is a political oddity - a Democrat elected in Idaho, a very conservative and very Republican state.

Second, political junkies, party insiders and pundits have turned their attention to the race between Minnick and his GOP challenger, Raul Labrador, as a way to take the country's political pulse going into this fall's congressional elections.

Mostly, political observers want to know just how strong the Republican brand will be in November. Will any Republican trump a Democrat just because he or she is a Republican?

What's going on in Idaho's 1st Congressional District, which essentially covers the western half of the state, could shed some light on that question.

Minnick isn't a typical left-of-center Democrat, and he's very proud of it.

"I am a fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrat," Minnick said in a recent interview. "I am the Democrat who leas t votes with my party in Washington."

If Minnick lived in any other state than Idaho, he would probably be a Republican. But the Republican Party in Idaho is controlled by the right wing, and Minnick didn't like the direction it was taking his state.

Minnick's roots are Republican, and his politics tend to be centrist. "I am very much a middle-of-the-road type person."

Minnick sees himself as a fiscal conservative and a social moderate.

"I grew up in a Republican family on Middle Waitsburg Road (the son of Dorothy and Shine Minnick)."

Minnick has garnered the endorsements - and donations - from many people and organizations that tend to favor Republicans. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has endorsed his campaign, as has the Tea Party Express, although the recent flap over racism has caused Minnick to distance himself from that endorsement.

In addition, Minnick has support from Idaho's business leaders, many of whom generally contribute to GOP campaigns.

Perhaps this isn't surprising, since Minnick was one of Idaho's business leaders before being elected to Congress in 2008. He has spent the bulk of his adult life in Boise, where he worked in the forest products industry, eventually becoming CEO of a high-tech wood products company.

Minnick also raised capital to start a chain of retail nurseries, SummerWinds Garden Centers, which he ran until he was elected to Congress in 2008.

Minnick didn't consider himself a politician or a Democrat before he became a candidate. He saw himself as an independent. According to his Wikipedia posting, Minnick was recruited to run against incumbent Sen. Larry Craig in 1996 by then-Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska. Minnick had originally intended to enter the race as an independent, but was convinced to run as a Democrat by former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus.

Minnick lost to Craig, returning to the business world until 2008 when he once again ran as a Democrat for a seat in Congress. This time he won - albeit narrowly.

Minnick, in our conversation, said he agreed to become a Democratic candidate because of his support for education.

"Our kids need education - the key to success is intellectual firepower," Minnick said.

This position is not held exclusively by Democrats. Many Republicans feel the same way. But in Idaho's Republican Party the hard right was apparently obscuring that vision.

Minnick's Republican roots are deep, including working in a Republican White House.

The 1960 Walla Walla High School graduate went to Whitman College and then graduated from business school and law school at Harvard. After that, he worked as lawyer in private practice in Portland until he went into the U.S. Army, eventually working in the Pentagon.

He then spent more than three years in the 1970s working in the Nixon White House in drug enforcement, helping to create what is now the DEA and Border Patrol.

But Minnick resigned from the White House in protest over Watergate. "I was the second member of the Nixon White House to resign," he said with pride in his voice.

Today, Minnick sounds just as proud of being a Democrat in a red state from a district in which just 36 percent of voters cast their ballot for President Obama. Minnick ran against the grain, and he won.

Will he win this time around? Indications are it will be a close race, although Minnick, because of his business connections, already has a million-dollar advantage in fundraising.

Minnick might need every penny, because his race has been targeted by Republicans at the national level. The party wasn't happy about losing the seat two years ago, and because Idaho is so conservative, party leaders believe their candidate, Labrador, can win.

John McArdle, writing for a respected information source for political insiders, Congressional Quarterly's Roll Call, noted the GOP has been focused on taking back the congressional seat this year.

"But Minnick is proving to be an especially tough nut to crack, even in a very Republican-friendly election environment," McArdle wrote.

U-B Editorial Page Editor Rick Eskil can be reached at 509-526-8309 or rickeskil@wwub.com .

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