Idaho Sen. Larry Craig shocked the Senate this week with his announcement that he would serve out his term rather than resign, as he had previously hinted he might, in the face of his embarrassing arrest in a Minnesota airport bathroom. Republican leaders in Washington were beside themselves, worried that the fallout from Craig's decision could further hurt a party already reeling from an unpopular president, an unpopular war and a string of ethics investigations into its elected representatives that play right into the Democrats' hands.
Perhaps Craig's most prominent supporter in Idaho, Gov. C. L. (Butch) Otter, was also caught off guard by the senator's announcement. Otter, who had spoken in defense of Craig even after Craig announced his intent to resign this summer, had prepared a list of possible replacements. NEWSWEEK's Shea Andersen caught up with the governor Friday as Otter presided over a graduation ceremony for the Idaho State Police in Meridian, a city just east of Boise. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: You said you were ready to announce a replacement if Senator Craig resigned. When did you make your decision?
C. L. (Butch) Otter: I actually made my decision last Friday. I was kind of anticipating he might pull the plug last Sunday. I was ready to go.
Did you speak with the person you'd chosen to replace Craig?
No. I can't promise something I can't give.
But at that point, don't you want to tell your top choice to be ready to make the move if and when they need to?
Actually, I had indicated to four people that it was a very strong potential for them.
I imagine they're trying to settle their affairs in case something happens. What do you tell them?
I'm just saying, "I don't know when or if Larry's going to say anything, or what he's going to say." But I don't want there to be very much time [in between his announcement and mine]; certainly a day would have been adequate. If Larry had made a statement yesterday, then I would have made that appointment this morning.
With Craig staying in the Senate until he resigns, will Idaho have a significant Republican primary on its hands?
I don't think so. With just a few exceptions my question was always, "If you don't get the appointment, would you run?" For the most part they said, "No, I would not run." So that was a qualifier. If they said no, that immediately disqualified them. I wanted that 15 months of seniority. The more I see what's going on in Congress, the more important that is. We've now got five Republicans [retiring or resigning], and I guess there's a few more that may make a statement, from what [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell's told me. So there's more changes to be made there. Plus the fact that there are twice as many Republicans that are up for re-election as there are Democrats. So there's going to be some significant change. Somebody with 15 months of seniority prior to January 1, 2009, that could be huge.
With Senate leaders saying they'll proceed with ethics investigations, I imagine it could get very lonely for Senator Craig in the Senate. You've been in Washington; how do you think that will affect his work?
No question about it, it will be arduous and at times embarrassing. It's bound to be.
What would you say to Mitch McConnell today if you had his ear?
I would have said, "Mitch, if you had agreed with me five or six weeks ago, to give me Appropriations and these others, it probably would be a lot easier for Larry to say OK." But all we got was as good a guarantee as anybody could make on keeping the Resources Committee post. We were hoping for the Veterans or the Appropriations committees, but they told me, "No way are you going to keep Appropriations. No way." I said, "Just for 15 months?"
Those committee positions seem to have factored into Rep. Mike Simpson's decision to stay in the House instead of switching over to the Senate, as you and he had discussed.
Absolutely. Mike didn't make a snap decision on that. When we first talked about it, he said, "Let me have a couple of days, talk to some folks, to my family, to some folks on the Appropriations Committee." None of these decisions were made in a snap.
You've been supportive of Senator Craig's decision so far. How do you feel now, given what he's opted to do and how that might affect the state?
Obviously, the easiest and the least painful thing for everybody would have been for Larry to resign. No question about it. And I told Larry that. I said, "The easiest thing, and the best thing, would be for you to resign. But I'm not asking you to resign. I want you to understand that. You have to make that decision and you have to make it alone. But I'm telling you that in my opinion the easiest thing and the best thing for you, for your family and for Idaho, is to resign. But Larry, you have to make that decision."
How did he respond?
He said, "I appreciate that, Butch."