It’s nearly the end of a long journey — and the beginning of another.
Since October, Sen. Mike Crapo has spent much of the time when he isn’t in Washington touring the Gem State’s farthest-flung nooks and crannies, where he has met with small crowds in small rooms to discuss big issues.
And, with a re-election bid coming next year, he’s casting himself as a fighter ready to do what it takes to roll back policies that have infuriated conservatives throughout the years of the Obama administration.
The idea for the tour popped into Crapo’s head last year in a staff meeting: a town hall meeting in every incorporated city in the state. That 200-long list includes some very small places, such as the city of Clayton, population 7. Crapo was there Thursday. His Treasure Valley visits included Middleton in August, Nampa on Wednesday and multiple stops in Boise over the last four weeks.
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“It’s been great,” Crapo said after his 143rd town hall meeting, which took place Aug. 31 in Ririe. “The kind of meeting you have in a local community is different than having one in a big population center in an auditorium with 200 or 300 people. You get to have a much more in-depth conversation in these town meetings.”
Longtime Idaho political analyst Jim Weatherby said it’s an original strategy.
“It’s a clever idea,” Weatherby said. “As far as I know that’s never been done to that extent before by a major politician.”
Crapo emphasizes two bread-and-butter conservative issues on his tour: the growing federal debt and what he calls an “explosion” of government regulations.
He comes to each meeting armed with charts tracking the projected growth of debt, deficits and interest payments, as well as how many pages of new federal regulations are being contemplated.
“I think it’s perhaps the biggest threat our nation faces today,” Crapo said of the debt, which is projected to reach some $19 trillion by the time President Barack Obama leaves office.
The national debt expanded, relative to the size of the economy, from about 2001 to 2013, according to Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis data. It began to rise rapidly after the collapse of the housing bubble as the economy shrunk, unemployment soared, tax receipts fell and the jobless filed for unemployment benefits, food stamps and other programs.
As the economy recovered, the level of debt has been relatively stable. Relative to the size of the economy, it is currently at around the same level it was in the first quarter of 2013, but the Congressional Budget Office projects it will rise in the future, driven by the rising cost of health care, among other factors.
A nagging question
Crapo met with friendly crowds of around a dozen Monday in Ririe, Irwin and Swan Valley, none of which has more than 700 residents. But there is one question which he said he gets “every meeting” in one form or another: Why hasn’t the GOP-led Senate accomplished more?
William Swope, a retiree from Swan Valley, said he wished more would get done “for us hardcore conservatives.”
“It is so tough to take. ‘Give us the House, and we’ll do this. Give us the Senate,’” he said, imitating a GOP candidate. “We get Trent Lotts, Bob Doles and Mitch McConnells. It’s so frustrating I can’t believe it.”
Ririe City Councilman Eric Bennion put the same question to Crapo.
“Where is the (pushback)?” he said. “That’s my frustration.”
Crapo answers these questions by acknowledging that Congress has been terminally “gridlocked” for years, and he’s frustrated too. At the Swan Valley Outpost in Irwin, Crapo noted that Congress’s approval rating has hovered near single digits for years now.
“Well, who are the 9 or 10 percent who think that Congress is doing a good job? Because I’m not one of them,” he said.
‘We are fighting’
But Crapo lays the blame squarely at the feet of Obama and Senate Democrats.
“We’re not pushing a lot of stuff past the president yet, I’ll just acknowledge that … but it’s not because we’re not pushing the issues forward,” he said. “I think we are fighting.”
Senate Republicans tried to move to defund Planned Parenthood, but didn’t have the 67 votes to overcome a filibuster, Crapo said. The new GOP majority tried to attach a rider defunding the Affordable Care Act to a transportation funding bill, but they didn’t have the three-fifths majority required, according to Politico.
But Crapo said a new opportunity to push the conservative position on those and other issues will be at hand in the coming weeks.
“You’re going to see a huge fight in September and October,” he said. “I mean, we’ll probably come up to another government shutdown over this. I don’t know how it will turn out. Somebody is going to blink.
“I didn’t blink last time,” he added, referencing his vote against a debt ceiling deal that re-opened the federal government following the 2013 shutdown.
Crapo’s tough talk and long tour come as he approaches a 2016 re-election bid, one that could be more complicated than his last three campaigns. The town hall tour isn’t part of his campaign — it’s official Senate business and therefore is paid for with taxpayer, not campaign, dollars — but it does put him in front of plenty of voters.
David Adler, president of the Sun Valley Institute, said Crapo’s rhetoric is common for sitting politicians who are nearing campaign season.
“(This) reflects what incumbents often do for their re-election campaigns,” Adler said. “He wants to be as thorough as he can be, making sure to touch the base, to activate the base and, fundamentally, to ward off any primary challenges. That would be the last thing he would want.”
No serious primary or general election challenger has stepped forward to challenge Crapo, and Rep. Raúl Labrador has said he won’t run for the seat. But Crapo has reason to worry about a primary challenge, where a 2013 conviction for driving under the influence in Alexandria, Va., could hurt his clean-cut image.
Fellow Idaho Falls Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson was targeted for a challenge from the right in the 2014 primary. But Simpson was able to easily defeat Idaho Falls lawyer Bryan Smith, who gained the backing of ultraconservative political action committees such as the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, which funded ads attacking Simpson as too liberal.
A rhetorical jog to the right
Adler thinks Crapo’s seat is safe, but a knock-down-drag-out primary is unpleasant.
“Even though Simpson won very handily, I don’t think Crapo wants to endure a nasty primary fight from someone accusing him of being insufficiently conservative,” Adler said. “I think that’s why he’s jogged to the right here in the last 18 months or so.”
Earlier this year, for example, Crapo went on a show hosted by Bob Neugebauer — an ultraconservative who goes by the handle “Tea Party Bob” — to praise state legislators who had blocked a must-pass child support bill. Blocking that bill forced Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter to call a rare special session and drew intense criticism from many establishment and moderate Republicans.
Crapo later clarified that he supports child support enforcement, according to the Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell.
“Crapo’s demeanor is moderate,” Weatherby said. “He’s viewed in some circles as a moderate. But if you look at his voting record, and the analyses that the National Journal has done over the years, and he’s one of the most conservative members of the Senate.”
And Crapo has a long history of winning elections by wide margins. Since he first ran for Senate in 1998, he has never gotten less than 69 percent of the vote in either a primary or general election.
Crapo’s campaign coffers also are well stocked for challenges in either the primary or general elections. He has $4.2 million in his campaign war chest, and his position on the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee means he has the ear of many in the deep-pocketed financial services industry.
Whether it’s motivated by fears of a primary challenge or not, Crapo wants to be seen as a fighter. When Darrin Nord of Rigby suggested that Idaho seize federal lands within its borders, Crapo nodded.
“Why not take the resources and give them the finger? … I mean, that’s a fight. A fight’s a fight,” Nord said.
“I agree,” Crapo said.
And if the GOP wins the presidency next year, removing the biggest hurdle to pushing conservative policy, Crapo said Obamacare will go along with Dodd-Frank and lots of new Environmental Protection Agency rules.
“We’ve got the agenda worked out, and we will push it,” he said.