Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum.
So it’s not surprising that it took just a day for the news that U.S. Rep. Raúl Labrador would give up his seat in Congress to run for governor in 2018 to attract would-be successors. One of those announcements is expected to drop Thursday.
David Leroy, the former Republican lieutenant governor and attorney general, plans to file his candidate paperwork Thursday morning. And although he won’t officially say what office he’s seeking until the papers are filed, he’s been laying the groundwork to run for Labrador’s 1st Congressional District seat.
Late Wednesday, former state Schools Superintendent Tom Luna released a statement “in response to media inquiries” saying he was “strongly considering” a run. He likened the move to what Labrador did, promising an official announcement in the coming weeks. Unlike Labrador, he has not yet filed paperwork.
There’s already a Democrat officially in the race. Michael Smith of Post Falls, who filed paperwork in March, has a Facebook page and GoFundMe account, but he is not among the five potential candidates who have contacted the state Democratic party.
As of Tuesday, “One of those candidates was looking at how quickly he could get his paperwork in,” said Dean Ferguson, the state Democratic party’s interim executive director. Ferguson said those candidates range from Boise north to Sandpoint, but without official commitments, he couldn’t name names.
The district strongly favors a Republican — the more conservative, the more heavily favored. Labrador fit that mold. He easily won his fourth term in November, by 36 points and 68 percent of the vote.
The Cook Political Report rates the 1st District as 21 points more Republican than the national average in its Partisan Voter Index. That puts Idaho about 31st in Republican strength among the 435 districts in Congress.
A Democrat might perform better in the district, however, if there isn’t a conservative firebrand to galvanize the far right.
“With Labrador out of the picture that star power is gone from that race, and that really does open it up to not have his base of really loyal right-wing voters turn out to vote,” Ferguson said.
POTENTIAL REPUBLICAN HOPEFULS
Besides Leroy and Luna, Republican names circulating include three state lawmakers, Sen. Bob Nonini and Rep. Luke Malek, both of Coeur d’Alene, and Rep. Mike Moyle, the House majority leader from Star. Among that group, Moyle and Nonini lean more conservative. That might give them the edge in a Republican primary. None can discuss a run until they are in the race officially.
“I think the 1st CD is really, really strongly conservative,” said Bruce Newcomb, the former Republican Idaho House speaker and government relations director for Boise State University. “Leroy to me has been kind of center right, but not far right. I don’t think he has the conservative credentials that Labrador established.”
What Leroy does have that the others don’t is experience running statewide. Idaho’s two congressional districts split the state roughly in half, east and west; the 1st District covers the entire western half of the state from Canada to Nevada. Leroy ran statewide when he won the race for attorney general in 1978 and the lieutenant governor’s race in 1982. He lost the 1986 governor’s race and the 1994 Republican primary for the same congressional seat, although the district boundaries were different then.
“It’s an advantage for Dave at the outset because he’s been there and done it successfully,” said Phil Reberger, a longtime friend and supporter. Reberger, partner in the Boise strategy and lobbying firm Sullivan & Reberger, was chief of staff to Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, Sen. Steve Symms and others. “A legislative district race doesn’t hold a candle to a districtwide race for Congress. It’s a whole new ball game.”
If it seems early days for all this activity, it’s not. The Republican primary is just over a year off, and given the lopsided advantage Republicans enjoy in Idaho, that’s likely where this race will be decided.