Dan Popkey: Smith all-in with challenge to Idaho Rep. Simpson

The newcomer has taken a sabbatical to concentrate on his campaign.

July 30, 2013 

When Bryan Smith primed the pump with $50,000 for his nascent campaign to unseat popular eight-term Congressman Mike Simpson, he didn’t want anyone misunderstanding his commitment.

Smith said he was advised to make a loan to the campaign. That way, if he won, he’d get his dough back.

Smith says he wasn’t interested in payback.

“If I have people contribute to my campaign and I win, do they get their money back? No,” Smith told the Elmore County GOP Central Committee on Thursday. “One of my first good-faith gestures before I’m even elected is I want people to know I want to be treated just like the constituents.”

On July 15, Smith took a break from his Idaho Falls law firm he says will last until the May 20, 2014, Republican primary. “When you do what I’m doing, you have to be devoted full time.”

State Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, has been hoping to oust Simpson for four years. Nielsen twice backed Chick Heileson, who got 24 percent of the vote in 2010 and 30 percent in 2012.

“This is not a feeble attempt,” Neilsen said. “He’s in it up to here. And he knows some things and places that Chick didn’t.”

Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, was also on hand to see Smith in Elmore County. A longtime Simpson supporter, Brackett has a special interest in the contest: His son-in-law, John Revier, is Simpson’s deputy chief of staff.

Brackett’s take on Smith: “He’s well-spoken, he’s a credible opponent.”

But Brackett and former Elmore County Commissioner Arlie Shaw exposed what could prove a significant hurdle for Smith. Mainstream Republicans put considerable trust in Simpson, who served 14 years in the Idaho House, including six as speaker, before his election to Congress in 1998. He’s never been seriously challenged.

Shaw asked Smith about Simpson’s support of federal payments that provide half the county budget, for rural schools and payments in lieu of taxes on federal land.

“If we lose that we’re in deep trouble,” Shaw said. “There’s only one place to get that and that’s property tax, or cutting the budget to nothing.”

Smith’s answer is a revived dream of Sagebrush Rebels who hold that the feds should “give back” to Idaho land that the United States has retained since the Enabling Act.

“I do not see begging for the crumbs from the federal government for land that they already agreed to dispose of and give to the states as a long-term solution,” Smith said. “A long-term solution would be for the states to get their lands back.”

Smith had the same answer when Brackett asked about Simpson’s bill to establish wilderness in the Boulder and White Cloud mountains — a decadelong process reached with local consensus — rather than risk President Barack Obama declaring the area a national monument.

“I believe the Enabling Act still requires the federal government to return the land to the states,” Smith said.

Brackett, a wry old cowboy, suggested Smith “check with our friends in Utah on how that worked out,” referring to President Bill Clinton’s creation of the 1.7 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Smith replied, “I’m not familiar with that,” and ended the question period to head to another meeting.

Despite that blip, Smith’s performance was solid. His words are those of a 2010 tea party insurgent, but he’s soft-spoken and polite, even bland.

Three times in his 30 minutes in Mountain Home, he said, “I am not a politician.” Other boilerplate: “Washington doesn’t have a tax problem, Washington has a spending problem”; and when you find yourself in a hole, “The first thing you have to do is stop digging.”

Smith knows beating Simpson will require the spade work he’s commenced. I suspect he’ll get more comfortable, polished and original as he gains experience.

But there are early signals of a rhetorical sloppiness that could fatally undermine his credibility.

In a news release last week, Smith mischaracterized Simpson as having sided with “liberal Democrats” in opposing an amendment to kill the National Security Agency’s collection of phone records in the U.S. In fact, Republicans voted to spare the program, 134-94. Democrats voted to end it, 111-83.

In Mountain Home, his first critique of Simpson’s record was for his being “one of only three Republicans who voted in favor of funding ACORN with your tax dollars.”

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, you’ll recall, became a sensation after a 2009 YouTube video showed employees advising clients how to hide prostitution and not pay taxes. As a result, the group went out of business, in 2010.

In September 2009, Simpson was an original co-sponsor of a bill to permanently defund ACORN and later authored his own ban in his appropriations subcommittee. In all, Simpson has voted 28 times against funding the group.

Smith, however, has cherry-picked a symbolic House vote on a June 2011 amendment brought by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, to bar spending on more than 100 groups. King said during floor debate he could not provide information on why some groups were on his list, prompting Simpson to join 165 Democrats in voting no. Simpson’s aim was not to fund the already-defunct ACORN, but to protest King’s lack of preparation. An hour later, Simpson voted for the Homeland Security spending bill on final passage, including the successful amendment.

I’ve been trying to speak with Smith since Thursday, but he’s been unavailable. On Monday, I provided Smith with Simpson’s record on ACORN votes and asked if he still argued Simpson had “voted in favor of funding ACORN.”

Again, Smith was out of pocket. His campaign manager, Carrie Brown, offered this reply: “No amount of spinning by Congressman Simpson or his allies in the liberal press can change that Simpson was one of only three Republicans to oppose defunding ACORN and similar groups.”

Idahoans know Mike Simpson too well to buy such distortion. For Smith to give Simpson a real fight, he may wish to take more time vetting his talking points before most primary voters start paying close attention.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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