A powerful duo working to protect the status quo has captured the attention of a big group of Republicans in the Idaho Legislature who want help in what many see as the most hotly contested party races in memory.
Former Sen. Skip Smyser and his lobbying partner, Jason Kreizenbeck, hosted a "Republican Incumbents Campaign School" that drew about 50 of the 85 GOP lawmakers the first week of the Legislature.
They were joined by House Speaker Scott Bedke, Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill and six of Idaho's most seasoned GOP campaign operatives.
The message: Get started. Now.
"We just want to make sure they're thinking of the timelines now," said Kreizenbeck, a former chief of staff to Gov. Butch Otter. "The filing deadline is in March, and by the time the session ends, there's a short window between that and the (May 20) primary."
Among Smyser's and Kreizenbeck's 25 clients is Blue Cross of Idaho, a key supporter of Otter's health insurance exchange. Opposition to the state-run marketplace is expected to motivate tea party challengers against many of the 45 Republicans who voted for the law. GOP Chairman Barry Peterson has predicted the busiest primary in more than 60 years.
Waving two Sunshine reports fattened by contributions from corporations and political action committees, Smyser warned against the lazy habit of relying on lobbyists for dough and said attention must be paid to the folks back home.
"This is what you've got to stop doing!" Smyser recalled telling the group over sandwiches at the Adelmann Event Center two blocks from the Capitol on Jan. 10. "You need to go to the people in your district to raise money, and you shouldn't be raising money during the legislative session from lobbyists and corporations."
COURTING 'LITTLE OLD LADY'
Jason Lehosit, a former campaign aide to Otter, is a consultant who typically works about 15 legislative campaigns in the primary and 15 in the general election. He was among the experts assembled to talk about messaging, polling and fundraising.
"My whole pitch was let's build a stronger party by raising money at the grass roots," said Lehosit, whose clients include Lt. Gov. Brad Little and Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, an outspoken supporter of the state exchange.
"I'd much rather get $50 from the little old lady on the street than $500 from a lobbyist."
Lehosit offered to print 100 business reply contribution envelopes for lawmakers who promised to send them to nonlobbyist, non-corporate contributors. He said he immediately had seven or eight takers.
The school's other panelists were Todd Cranney, a top aide on the Mitt Romney presidential campaign; Greg Strimple, who polled for John McCain's 2008 presidential run; Jeff Malmen, a former chief of staff to Otter and now vice president of public affairs at Idaho Power; Phil Reberger, former chief of staff to Gov. Dirk Kempthorne; and Mike Reynoldson, a former executive director of the Idaho GOP who is government affairs manager at Micron and chairman of the board of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry.
"These guys have been around for a long time," said Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls. "They have valuable information and made it available to a large cross-section of candidates."
Mortimer, who strongly opposed the exchange, said that despite their loyalties to the governor, Smyser and Kreizenbeck offered aid to everyone.
"Skip and the others are saying, 'Anything we can do to help you get re-elected, we're here,' " he said.
Said another exchange foe, Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, "I thought it was great."
Sen. Fred Martin, R-Boise, is a freshman lawmaker who voted for the exchange and faces a charismatic marketing executive, Diego Rodriguez, in the primary. Martin welcomed the seminar.
"We shouldn't be soliciting or accepting contributions from lobbyists during the session," Martin said. "But advice? I'll take advice any time, especially when it's about how to better serve my constituents."
WHERE WAS FULCHER?
Among those who skipped the school was Senate Minority Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, who is making an uphill run at removing Otter from high office after 28 years. Like every other GOP incumbent, Fulcher was invited.
Though the 2-1/4 hour session was squeezed in between Dec. 10's morning adjournment and early afternoon committees, Fulcher said he decided not to attend.
"I've got to be able to look in the mirror and say, 'I put the business of the people first,' " Fulcher said. "Any way you slice it - whether it's campaign training or fundraising or whatever - it was during the week while the Legislature's in session. So that's why I didn't go."
Lawmakers customarily don't take campaign contributions from lobbyists during the session. But with Otter raising money, Fulcher said he won't unilaterally disarm: If a lobbyist offers him money for the governor's race, he said, "At this stage, I'm not going to turn it down."
Fulcher might have soured at what pollster Strimple reported. Relying on his early 2013 poll of 500 likely voters - before the exchange votes - Strimple said Otter is "rock solid" among self-described Republicans, with a favorability rating of nearly 80 percent. He said he's seen subsequent results confirming his view that Otter can't be beat, and he disclosed that.
"I got some death stares," Strimple said.
Strimple does most of his work outside Idaho. His 2014 clients include Senate Minority Whip John Coryn, R-Texas, who could become the Senate's top Republican if Minority Leader Mitch McConnell loses to a tea party challenger in Kentucky.
The health care act is now a footnote, Strimple said, citing his poll that shows the most important issues to voters nationally are "the economy and creating jobs" and "reducing spending and debt." Both tied at 40 percent, he said, with health care at 17 percent.
"Republicans need to focus on spending and debt," Strimple said. "That's where we capture the imagination of voters - not only in Idaho but across America."
Fulcher, who has made "Ottercare" his top issue, said his own polling is promising.
"If my understanding of what Mr. Strimple said was true, then I wouldn't be in the race," Fulcher said. "So, I say to Mr. Strimple or whomever, 'Just assume you're right and don't worry about it.' "
FILLING A GAP
About 20 years ago, Smyser held a similar campaign school during the session and a primer on constituent service. He said he revived the idea because of popular demand.
Asked why he stepped in to do a job usually done by the Idaho Republican Party, Smyser said: "I don't know what the party's doing. I felt there was a need and I heard a lot of concerns about how to run a campaign. The need was demonstrated by the great deal of interest."
A lobbyist since he lost a narrow 1990 race for 1st District Congress, Smyser is the Statehouse's Music Man.
He was president of the lobbyist group for seven years, treats legislative attaches to a Valentine's Day lunch, hosts a movie night at the Egyptian Theatre, and supplies tickets to an Idaho Stampede game. Smyser is a part-owner of the team. His wife, Melinda, is a former senator from Canyon County who now works for GOP U.S. Sen. Jim Risch.
Kreizenbeck, Smyser and other respected lobbyists work hard to build trust, said Hill.
"They do that by throwing parties, taking us out to dinner, making campaign donations. And the ones you can trust are going to tell you where to go to get the other side of the story," he said.
The lobbying corps has an investment to protect, said Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, who said he enjoyed the school.
"I'm glad they get it. They don't want to spend all that time schooling people up again," he said.
House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said that he has no quibble with the campaign school and that Democratic allies hold similar events, though typically not during the session.
"That's what lobbyists do, they give us advice," Rusche said.
But Rusche speculated the anti-incumbent mood on the GOP right motivated Smyser's school and its emphasis on Otter's strength.
"That's the story," Rusche said. "One side of the Republican Party feels they need to try and take out the other side at the knees. And one of the ways you convince people that it isn't worth running is to show them how hopeless it is."
Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, has fought off a string of challenges from the right to win seven terms. He said he was relieved the lobbyists stepped up.
"There's a recognition that we've got dissent in the party," Eskridge said. "The people who put on the school are concerned that rift is going to hurt our ability to maintain the Republican majority we've enjoyed for decades."
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics