Bryan Smith's endorsement by the anti-tax group Club for Growth got eight-term Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson's attention Wednesday.
Two hours before the group's announcement in Washington, D.C., Simpson put out a pre-emptive news release, defending his conservative record and saying he's raised over $300,000 in three months and is prepared to wage an aggressive campaign in 2014.
Though Simpson, 62, hasn't had a close race since his first election, in 1998, Boise State political scientist Gary Moncrief said Simpson's alertness to Club for Growth's role is prudent.
"They are known to put substantial resources into a race, and often their spending is for negative campaigns," Moncrief said. "They tend to focus on primary races aimed at taking out an incumbent, and they have had more than alittle success in the past. Their preferred candidate doesn't always win, but they win enough to pose a serious challenge."
In 2010, the club helped beat 18-year Utah GOP Sen. Bob Bennett, who was replaced by Republican Sen. Mike Lee - a lawyer and political newcomer who had served as former Gov. Jon Huntsman's general counsel and as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.
In 2012, the group keyed the defeat of 36-year Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar. But the club's candidate, Republican Richard Mourdock, lost the general election to Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly.
Smith, 51, who announced his 2nd District candidacy in June, said he raised $149,000 in his first month, including $50,000 from his own pocket. Smith said he's taking a sabbatical from his Idaho Falls business law practice starting Monday and has scheduled campaign appearances in Challis, Hagerman and Carey next week.
THE REAL CONSERVATIVE?
Smith said he "didn't really pay any attention" when Club for Growth helped Bill Sali get elected to his single term as Idaho's 1st District congressman.
"I'm my own man in my own race and I'm focused on getting my message out to the voters of Idaho, because we know that once they are aware of Congressman Simpson's 16-year, Washington, D.C., big-taxing and big-spending record that we will win," Smith told the Statesman.
Smith was born in Boise and graduated from Nampa High School, BYU and the University of Pacific's McGeorge School of Law. After practicing law for five years in California, he moved to Idaho Falls in 1994. He and his wife, Sharon, have five children, ages 16 to 24.
Simpson's campaign manager, Brody Aston, said the congressman was too busy to talk Wednesday. But his news release anticipated the claim of Club for Growth that Simpson is a "Republican in Name Only," or RINO.
"I look forward to sharing my conservative accomplishments, and much more, with Idaho voters over the coming months and engaging in a robust discussion about the economy, job creation and my vision for the prosperous future of our state and nation," Simpson said in the release.
The release noted Simpson's A-plus grade from the NRA, 100 percent rating by National Right to Life and high marks from the country's oldest conservative rating group, the American Conservative Union. Simpson's lifetime ACU rating is 85 percent, the lowest of Idaho's all-GOP delegation.
Simpson also touted his authorship of spending bills cutting billions from the EPA, legislation removing wolves from the Endangered Species List, advocacy for Idaho agriculture and opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
Club for Growth President Chris Chocola, a former Indiana GOP congressman who served with Simpson from 2003-2007, said Simpson is out of whack with a district where Mitt Romney won 64 percent of the vote. Simpson's club rating is 58 percent, among the lowest for House Republicans.
"Everything's relative and, relative to that district, he is not a conservative," said Chocola. ".... He has not supported what Republicans say they are for: limited government, fiscal responsibility."
Chocola said Smith was the leading vote-getter in the club's first online endorsement process, receiving more votes than opponents lining up against nine other GOP club targets. A Club for Growth release says hundreds of votes were received and "dozens of recommendations" cast for Smith, though Chocola declined to supply a count.
"We contacted him, we vetted him and we liked what we saw," Chocola said. "We think he's the real deal and has a plausible pathway to success."
The club contributes from its political action committee directly to candidates, but most of the money comes from bundling and independent expenditures. In bundling, the club collects contributions from individuals and sends the checks to the campaign. Independent expenditures can't be coordinated with the candidate, but in 2006 Sali benefited from a flurry of negative ads blasting opponents as tax-and-spenders.
Asked if the club might reach the $1.1 million figure raised for Sali, Chocola said, "There's not a dollar figure. We've raised as much as $1.4 million in bundled contributions for a candidate in the past, so it's as much as we can."
A confidant of House Speaker John Boehner, Simpson has never gotten less than 62 percent in the general election. But in the four-way GOP primary in 2010, he fell to 58 percent, with Chick Heileson second with 24 percent. In a 2012 rematch, Simpson beat Heileson, 70 percent to 30 percent.
Simpson, chairman of a subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, had a big financial advantage over Heileson. In 2010, he raised $792,000 to Heileson's $127,000. In 2012, Simpson raised $1.2 million to Heileson's $18,000.
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics