In a week's time, the race for Idaho's 2nd Congressional District has gone from a yawner to one of 2014's leading GOP primaries.
A second Washington, D.C.-based super PAC says the contest between eight-term Congressman Mike Simpson and Idaho Falls lawyer Bryan Smith will draw largesse from its multimillion-dollar war chest.
Suddenly, Idahoans from West Boise to the Wyoming border face the prospect of a heated campaign, with dueling independent expenditures crowding airwaves, stuffing mailboxes and perhaps playing a role in whether House Speaker John Boehner retains his post.
The newest entrant is the Main Street Partnership, which includes Simpson and 54 other Republican members of Congress. The group is led by former Ohio Republican Rep. Steve LaTourette, who retired in January after 18 years, citing frustration with Washington gridlock.
LaTourette is close to both Simpson and Boehner, R-Ohio, who has struggled to govern House Republicans because of defections from its tea party wing, including Idaho's 1st District GOP Rep. Raul Labrador.
Simpson's leadership of the Go Big Coalition, which advocates both spending cuts and tax increases to ease the federal debt, has made him the first 2014 target for the fiercely anti-tax Club for Growth. Simpson's lifetime voting record with Americans for Conservative Action is 85 percent, but his Club for Growth score is only 58 percent.
"We're going to match them, dollar for dollar," said LaTourette on Tuesday, saying his aim is to raise $8 million for up to 10 GOP primaries where Club for Growth plays. LaTourette said his organization, which operates the Defending Main Street super PAC, has already raised $2.5 million.
"This has nothing to do with Mike Simpson, even though he's my friend," LaTourette said. "This is about making sure that Mike Simpson and his primary opponent have the same opportunity to put their case before the voters."
CANCER ON THE GOP?
In 2012, Club for Growth spent $16.6 million on independent campaigns. Of that, $6.25 million came from six members, including Chairman John Childs of Florida, who gave $1.25 million.
Club for Growth President Chris Chocola, a former two-term Indiana GOP congressman, told the Statesman last week that his group will "spend as much as we can" to defeat Simpson and support Smith.
"Five or six rich people shouldn't be able to determine who represents the 2nd District of Idaho," said LaTourette, who said the average donor gives Main Street $750.
Club for Growth has won in Idaho before. In 2006, the group was the key player in Idaho's 1st District, raising $1.1 million on behalf of Republican Bill Sali and using much of the money to attack Sali's opponents. Sali won, but two years later voters saw him as too extreme and elected Democrat Walt Minnick.
"The Club for Growth is a cancer on the Republican Party that prides itself on supporting rigid, divisive and obstructionist candidates," LaTourette said.
LaTourette says Club for Growth's tactics have cost the GOP control of the U.S. Senate, citing its backing of losers such as Sharon Angle in Nevada in 2010 and Richard Mourdock in Indiana in 2012, whose extreme views helped elect Democrats Harry Reid and Joe Donnelly. Also in 2012, the group damaged eventual GOP nominee and popular former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who wound up losing a close race to Democrat Tammy Baldwin.
"I call them the Club for Democratic Growth," said LaTourette.
SPEAKER SIGHTING DUE?
Chocola declined an interview request regarding Main Street. Instead, Club for Growth issued a news release characterizing the group as "liberal" and quoting spokesman Barney Keller, who categorized Simpson as a "crazy liberal" last week.
"It's a joke for Mike Simpson and his allies to cry foul on outside groups supporting his conservative challenger - 64 percent of Mike Simpson's campaign contributions have come from Washington PACs, not the people of Idaho," Keller said.
Simpson, a dentist, served 14 years in the Idaho House, including six as speaker. Elected to Congress with 53 percent of the vote in 1998, he hasn't had a competitive race since. In 2012, he beat his underfunded primary challenger with 70 percent of the vote.
Simpson declined comment Wednesday, with his spokeswoman citing the legal prohibition of cooperation between candidates and super PACs. Last week, the Club for Growth endorsement of Smith prompted Simpson to say he was determined to run an aggressive, well-funded race.
On Saturday, the Washington newspaper The Hill ranked Smith-Simpson as one of the Top 5 House races, writing that Simpson might draw establishment support from the National Republican Congressional Committee and "perhaps even Boehner himself."
"This primary could offer a test of whether ... the Club for Growth is still a commanding force in primaries," said The Hill.
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics