Mike Simpson, former Speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives and six term Congressman of the state’s 2nd District has seen his share of primary and general election opponents come and go. Most recently, in 2010 and 2012 he faced primary opponent Chick Heilson. In 2010 and 2012 he cruised to a comfortable victory in the general elections.
But in his newest opponent, Bryan Smith, Simpson faces something new. A libertarian, Tea Party inspired candidate with the ability to self-fund. Smith came out early in the cycle against Simpson and has continuously been on the attack. Meanwhile, Simpson and his campaign have been getting help from an unexpected source, the Idaho Statesmen.
More specifically, Idaho Politics editor Dan Popkey. In the latest round of Smith charges against Simpson; voting with the Left on NSA surveillance funding, backing ACORN back in 2003 and not doing enough to rein in the federal budget. Popkey, on the other hand, points out how a majority of Democrats and a minority of Republicans voted for the measure, including Raul Labrador. Simpson, a majority of Republicans and a minority of Democrats voted against the measure, killing it. In his typical sarcastic fashion, Pokey states, “In short, Simpson voted with the majority of his Republican Party, while Labrador sided with liberal Democrats.”
The Statesmen’s dislike of Smith aside, the Simpson campaign has not been idle. In the most recent release the campaign put out, Simpson’s Appropriations subcommittee last Tuesday approved a new budget that cut EPA funding to 1978 levels and upended the President’s climate change plans.
Certainly Simpson has a strong pull in his district. Like Risch and Crapo, Simpson is well-known name in political circles. While being pro agricultural, he has also mixed in staunch opposition to the EPA. Perhaps in expectation of a primary challenge Simpson recently coauthored a bill that would have urged an amendment to the Constitution mandating a balanced budget (except in cases of national security or emergency).
All this would appear to endear Simpson to conservatives. Keep in mind that the five counties that voted most for Mitt Romney in 2012 are all in the 2nd Congressional District. However, conservatives across the nation never really embraced Romney. Furthermore, in 2010 Simpson only won 58% of the primary vote in a five candidate field and in 2012 he won only 70% against Heilson. So there appears to be a bed of unrest about Simpson in GOP circles.
Beyond being able to self-fund, Smith has the backing of the staunchly conservative Club for Growth. He has also tried to tap into unrest with Simpson on the issues that his libertarian/conservative supporters would likely back. The NSA and ACORN jabs are just the most recent examples.
Simpson, due to his tenure in office and key position as Chairman of Appropriations subcommittee on the environment has been able to court Big AG as well as other major business interests. His push-back against the EPA on climate change benefits numerous business and farming interests in his district. Also, Simpson has the backing of a national group pushing back against the Club for Growth. The group, Main Street Advocacy, is a partner of Main Street Republicans, and has publicly vowed to defend Simpson.
At first glance Simpson appears safe. Only three times since the 20th century has a GOP federal official lost in a primary. The last time, 1974. This would suggest Smith has a steep hill to climb. He does. But Smith could tap into the bed of unrest in the district. To do this he will need money and a lot of grassroots support.
He has not helped himself recently however. He recently dismissed the benefits PILT provides to counties in Idaho. PILT, “Pay In Lieu of Taxes” allow Idaho counties to collect revenue early and use as needed. Four such counties sit in the 2nd District and both are heavily rural and agricultural. It is well-known where Simpson stands on the program.
Smith can offer Simpson a tough race. But to do so he will need to do more than attack Simpson as not being conservative enough. For as the last few elections have shown, Simpson is certainly conservative enough. The real question may be whether Smith is mainstream enough to offer Simpson a race.