Sabatos Crystal Ball

Idaho Races

Senate Outlook for 2008

Can Democrats Take Advantage of the Turf?

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Idaho (Open Seat)

Outlook: Solid Republican


May 28, 2008 Update:

The candidates are set; let the horse race begin! Republican Lieutenant Governor Jim Risch won yesterday’s Republican primary, while former Congressman Larry LaRocco won the Democratic primary. Neither result was exactly a surprise, as polling and fundraising figures had shown the two rising to the top of their respective fields. The two can now turn their focus toward each other, and all indications are this could be closer than many statewide races have been in recent memory. Risch holds a polling lead, but hasn’t broken the magical 50 percent mark. As we’ve said before, those same polls show an electorate with a large “undecided” segment, giving LaRocco a chance to close the gap in the next five months. LaRocco will need to step up his fundraising to do so, however: he is currently trailing Risch nearly 2-to-1 in funds raised this cycle. LaRocco has a chance, but it will be an uphill climb. This seat is likely to remain Republican.

March 5, 2008 Update:

Who would’ve thought that Idaho would bring us as much political intrigue as it has in the last six months? Republican Senator Larry Craig gets arrested in Minneapolis, pleads guilty then withdraws his plea, says he’ll resign, and then says he’s serving out his term. More than half a dozen Republicans step up to fight for the nomination, only to have Lieutenant Governor Jim Risch rise to the top, setting up a showdown with former Congressman Larry LaRocco, who faced off against Risch for the Senate in 2006. If this keeps up until November, Idaho newspapers will run out of ink!

Despite the whirlwind, this seat still looks like the Republicans should do OK. Risch has good name recognition, having served as interim governor for a brief while before winning reelection as Lieutenant Governor. Early polling shows him with comfortable ten to fifteen point leads over LaRocco. Risch also has the endorsement of the governor, Republican Butch Otter, as well as other state Republicans.

But this race is far from over. LaRocco isn’t exactly an unknown in Idaho political circles, and is willing to fight Risch tooth and nail. One of LaRocco’s biggest strengths could be his staff: among his top-level advisors are Jessica Vanden Berg and Steve Jarding, both of whom were integral in Virginia Senator Jim Webb’s upset defeat of Republican incumbent George Allen in 2006. Just like Webb, LaRocco is hoping to harness the power of the internet, relying on YouTube videos and mass emails to supporters. The same polling that shows Risch with a lead also says that voters give a slight edge to a generic Democrat over a generic Republican, and nearly a quarter of the electorate is still undecided between Risch and LaRocco. Based on what we see now, we still think this seat is likely to be a Republican hold.


Background

What a difference a month makes. When the Crystal Ball was finalizing its first round of Senate predictions back in mid-August, the only reason Idaho Senator Larry Craig was in the news was amidst speculation he might retire. Now, one can hardly turn on a TV or pick up a newspaper without finding reference to Craig’s alleged tomfoolery in a Minneapolis-St. Paul airport restroom. (We always thought the toe-tapping was because people had on their iPods!)

The official word from Craig’s camp is that his resignation is not too far distant. However, Idaho Republicans shouldn’t have trouble holding on to this seat. With Republican Butch Otter in the governor’s mansion, Craig’s replacement for the remainder of his term is bound to be another Republican. Otter has announced he will choose from one of five candidates: state Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, Lieutenant Governor Jim Risch, former state senator Dane Watkins, or one of two current state senators, John McGee and Mike Jorgenson.

Flying under the radar during this ordeal is former Congressman Larry LaRocco, who has expressed interest in pursuing the seat for the Democrats. LaRocco ran for the Senate in 2006, but struggled to raise money. Whichever of the five Republicans Governor Otter chooses will have the benefit of incumbency come November 2008, as well as a strong state party machine behind them. Even the distraction of Larry Craig won’t enable Democrats to snatch this seat from Republican hands.

Candidates

Larry LaRocca – Democrat – former Congressman
Website

Jim Risch – Republican – current ID Lt. Governor
Website