The Has-been

Famous Patoots

In Idaho’s 1st District, they don’t make right-wing nuts like they used to.

After a glorious, nearly uninterrupted three-decade run, Idaho’s 1st Congressional District has lost its claim as the nuttiest House seat in the country. The state just elected a new congressman so normal, the nation won’t have Idaho to kick around anymore.

This election was already certain to boost the state’s reputation simply because Larry Craig was no longer on the ballot. Idaho also got a short-lived boost from voters in Alaska, where convicted incumbent Ted Stevens came close to taking Craig’s place as chairman of the Senate appeals caucus. After all, Idaho hasn’t nearly re-elected a convicted felon since prison-bound Rep. George Hansen fell 200 votes short in 1984.

But for a state wholly unaccustomed to good election-year news, Idaho’s real breakthrough was the defeat of first-term congressman Bill Sali, who through sheer force of unpleasant personality persuaded a staunchly conservative district to swear off extremism. With a disastrous campaign, Sali finally lived up to his billing as the Republican whom Idaho Republicans most love to hate.

As a state legislator, Sali once irked then-Speaker Mike Simpson (who now represents Idaho’s other district in Congress) so much that Simpson threatened to throw him out a third-floor window in the state capitol. Two years ago, to the horror of the Idaho Republican establishment, Sali won a bruising six-way primary for an open House seat.

In Washington, however, Sali never quite fulfilled his hothead potential. His Republican colleagues elected him chairman of the freshman class. He was reliably right-wing, with perfect marks from the National Rifle Association and the American Conservative Union. But compared with predecessors like the late Helen Chenoweth (who spent her congressional career warning Idahoans about an invasion by federal black helicopters), his behavior in office was disappointingly unexceptional.

Fortunately, on the campaign trail, the old Sali returned. In mid-October, Sali made headlines when he tried to distract his opponent’s campaign director during a Boise television interview by standing behind the camera making faces and holding up bunny ears. Under fire, a Sali campaign spokesman insisted that his boss’s gesture had been horns, not bunny ears. The spokesman tried to dismiss the incident with what might as well have been Idaho’s mantra in the Craig-Sali era: “If we can’t laugh at ourselves, then what have we become?

Sali was also hurt when a Republican family disclosed that he had written $15,000 in bad checks for farmland and equipment he leased before going into politics. The woman who revealed the bad debts said she was tired of hearing Sali boast about helping farm families when he had stiffed hers. “I wanted to put a sign on our property, but I don’t think there are any signs out there that have Sali with a circle and a cross through it,” she said.

Sali’s opponent, by contrast, was a mild-mannered, grandfatherly businessman named Walt Minnick. Minnick grew up in a Republican household, served in the Army, worked at the Office of Management and Budget in the Nixon White House, and spent 16 years as CEO of a major forestry corporation in Idaho. He seems genetically incapable of having an extremist thought. Nobody’s going to throw a guy out the window for saying people “are just darned fed up.”

With a demeanor like that, Minnick proved to be a lot more Idaho than Sali. The Associated Press noted that the Democrat even owned more guns. Buoyed by independents and moderate Republicans in the district’s largest counties, Minnick got 50.6 percent of the vote and became just the second Democrat to win the seat in the last 40 years.

What’s most remarkable about Sali’s defeat is that, unlike their bloodied brethren around the country this year, Idaho Republicans didn’t lose anything else. Republicans actually gained a seat in the state Legislature, which they already controlled by more than 3-1. Lt. Gov. Jim Risch won comfortably, keeping Craig’s Senate seat in Republican hands. Obama did well to hold McCain and Idaho native Sarah Palin to 62 percent, down from Bush’s 68 percent in 2004. But GOP state party chairman Norm Semanko brushed off Sali’s defeat and crowed that, in Idaho, 2008 was a banner Republican year.

In short, while the rest of the country voted to throw the bums out, Idahoans concentrated on tossing just one bum: Bill Sali. Dan Popkey, the Idaho Statesman political reporter who helped break the Craig scandal, wrote that some Idaho Republicans were celebrating not just over the races they won, but especially over the Sali race they lost. “I don’t think Republicans wanted to see Bill Sali in Congress for life,” an anonymous GOP source told Popkey. “Now was the time to take him out.” Sali promptly went on talk radio to call Popkey “a horse’s patoot.”

Etymologists say the word patoot derives from potato. Over the years, Idaho has produced plenty of both. But without Larry Craig and Bill Sali to kick around, Famous Patoots will no longer be the state motto.