Last night, almost no one in Idaho was happier than the supporters of a state representative named Raul Labrador. That's because Labrador managed to come from behind to defeat Vaughn Ward 48 percent to 39 percent in the First District's Republican House primary, even though Ward, a former Nevada state director for John McCain '08, had outraised Labrador nine-to-one ($1.5 million to $173,000) as a top-tier member of the GOP's "Young Guns" program—and had received Sarah Palin's coveted endorsement as a result.
I said "almost no one," though, for a reason. While Labrador's folks were undoubtedly excited, Democrats were positively ecstatic.
Until recently, Rep. Walt Minnick—the freshman Dem currently serving in ID-01—appeared to be a prime pickoff candidate for the GOP. In 2008, the district went for McCain with 62 percent of the vote. Couple those strong Republican tendencies with the current anti-Democrat, anti-incumbent climate—then stir in a candidate with Ward's fundraising prowess and background (Iraq vet)—and you've got a pretty foolproof recipe for a Republican pickup.
The only problem? Despite Palin's imprimatur, Ward turned out to be a disastrous campaigner. He swiped the issues section of his Web site from other Republican candidates. He copied his campaign kickoff address in January from an old Obama speech. He signed on to repeal the 17th amendment (that's the one that gives voters the right to directly elect their senators). He even called Puerto Rico a "country"—then insisted he didn't "care what it is" when corrected. These gaffes explain why Labrador, who trailed Ward by a two-to-one margin as recently as three weeks ago, was able to come from behind and capture the nomination.
Observers might be tempted at this point to say that the GOP dodged a deadly bullet by choosing Labrador over the near-unelectable Ward—and they'd be partially right. But the real beneficiary of the ID-01 primary is Minnick. Labrador flew under the radar for much of the primary contest, meaning he's almost completely unvetted. He trails Minnick badly in the fundraising department. And the national GOP, which knows almost nothing about him, may decide not to come to the rescue.
While Minnick is considered beatable, he's hardly a pushover. For starters, he earned the backing of the national Tea Party Express last year, and has also won plaudits from the Chamber of Commerce for having the most favorable 2009 voting record of any member of the Idaho delegation, Republican or Democrat. Plus, he opposed both health-care reform and the stimulus, two of the right's juiciest targets.
Some local Tea Party groups support Labrador—but that may the most enthusiastic support he gets. There's a very real chance that Republicans will decide in the wake of Ward's loss that they've invested enough in ID-01, and that their money is now better spent elsewhere. In which case Labrador should enjoy the feeling of victory while it lasts. He may have an even steeper climb ahead of him.