Larry Craig

Otter likely to appoint Risch to replace Larry Craig in Senate

If Jim Risch becomes the U.S. Senate's newest member, expect him to hit the ground running.

"I don't see him sitting around and saying, ‘I better learn the ropes here and take it easy and see how things are going,'" said Albertson College of Idaho political science professor Jasper LiCalzi.

"It will be interesting to watch him in a different legislative body," Boise State University professor emeritus Jim Weatherby said. "He's been so effective in the state Legislature, but he goes in as senator No. 100, as an appointed senator.

"But knowing Jim Risch, he is going to make the most of it."

Sources told reporters Friday that Gov. Butch Otter had chosen Risch, a fellow Republican, to succeed Sen. Larry Craig, who is expected to resign this morning. An Otter spokesman said that wasn't true, but Risch makes a lot of sense to Statehouse watchers like LiCalzi and Weatherby.

‘Top dog'

Risch has his own power base, his own support network in the Republican Party and a lot of influence over the state Senate, where he served since the early 1970s.

"I don't think Otter has a problem with getting Risch out of town," LiCalzi said.

It's an old tradition for Idaho governors, LiCalzi said: Ship your Boise rivals to Washington, D.C.

Risch's lightning-paced seven-month term as governor last year still resonates around the state, and though Otter has extensive Statehouse experience as the state's longest-serving lieutenant governor, Risch was a state Senate leader through almost all of Otter's tenure.

"This goes back to William Borah; get ‘em out of here," LiCalzi said. In 1906, Borah had been bankrolling a newspaper that kept attacking Gov. Frank Gooding, who agreed to let the Legislature send Borah to Washington, where he stayed — with just occasional visits to Boise — for more than three decades.

By getting rid of Risch, Otter gets full control of the Statehouse.

"Otter can get somebody who's presiding over the Senate who's going to help him get his bills and his ideas through," LiCalzi said. "Then, it will be obvious who is the top dog."

One year, three jobs

Risch has grown accustomed to change. If he gets Otter's nod for this job, it will be his third in less than a year.

Just one other person has been lieutenant governor, governor and U.S. Senator in Idaho: Charles Gossett. It took him almost a decade, and he had to name himself to Congress. (Voters had other ideas — he was replaced in the next election in 1946.)

But neither Risch nor Idahoans should expect his first months in Washington, D.C., to bring as much accomplishment as his governorship. Risch reformed property taxes, tackled the state's unfocused anti-drug efforts and reorganized the massive and unwieldy Department of Health and Welfare.

"The timing was just perfect then," Weatherby said. "That will be very different in a very divided Senate, and the closer they get to the election, it's just going to get worse."

Not a done deal yet

Risch isn't the only name that has been bandied about should Craig resign today.

Rep. Mike Simpson has been mentioned, but Otter may have to weigh Simpson's growing seniority in the House with the benefits of moving him to the Senate and having two rookie representatives— especially with Craig's power gone.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne spent six years in the Senate before coming home to be governor. He's just 55 years old, and his job expires when George W. Bush's term ends in January 2009.

And don't forget former House Speaker Bruce Newcomb and his powerful-in-her-own-right wife, Agriculture Director Celia Gould. Newcomb would likely be a pick to hold the seat and let the voters choose a replacement in 2008. Gould would likely fight to keep it.

Gould, Newcomb and Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Brad Little would all be top candidates to take Risch's place as lieutenant governor. But all 35 senators would be in the mix.

Democrats, meanwhile, are pushing for a caretaker — someone who won't use the power of incumbency to take advantage at the polls next November, when the Republican nominee will likely face former congressman Larry LaRocco, the most prominent Democrat to announce so far.

"(Otter) shouldn't make this decision a political one," said Democratic spokesman Chuck Oxley. "He should find an unimpeachable experienced statesman who can fill out the term and let the people of Idaho choose who the next senator is."

But Republicans will pressure Otter to do just the opposite — give the GOP the edge incumbency offers in the 2008 election.

Plus, if Risch accepts the crown, Otter's kingmaking influence will be vast.

"We're about to see Butch Otter in an incredible position," Weatherby said. "He'll have appointed two members of the Supreme Court, a new U.S. senator and, under this scenario, a new lieutenant governor. And then a new legislator, maybe — I don't know how far this game of musical chairs can go."

Gregory Hahn: 377-6425